Fracking in the UK will be impossible at any meaningful scale and will not help with the energy price crisis, the founder of the UK’s first fracking company has warned.
Chris Cornelius, the geologist who founded Cuadrilla Resources, which drilled the UK’s first modern hydraulic fracturing wells in Lancashire, told the Guardian that he believed the government’s support for it is merely a “political gesture”.
“I don’t think there is any chance of fracking in the UK in the near term.”
He said that when Cuadrilla had operated here, it had discovered that the geology of the UK was unsuited to widespread fracking operations. “No sensible investors” would take the risk of embarking on large projects here, he said. “It’s very challenging geology, compared with North America [where fracking is a major industry].”
Unlike the gas-bearing shale deposits in the US, the shale resource in the UK is “heavily faulted and compartmentalised”, making it far harder to exploit at any scale.
Liz Truss, the prime minister, has made clear she supports fracking and will lift the moratorium that has been in place since 2019, although it remains to be seen where and how sites will be licensed. She has said she hopes to see gas from fracked sites as soon as six months from now.
But Cornelius said that “wouldn’t happen”. Truss’s decision to give the green light to fracking “is not going to have an impact” on the UK’s energy supply, he told the Guardian in an interview. “It makes good soundbites but I can’t see anything happening,” he said.
In the longer term, he said it was possible there could be a few localized operations, but they would be small and could not make a meaningful contribution to the UK’s energy needs. “They will never be at scale, because the capital costs are a huge issue,” he said.
Writing in today’s Guardian, Cornelius and his former colleague, Mark Linder, who handled public affairs for Cuadrilla in its early days, said the UK was over-regulated, having “singled out the energy sector for regulations that impede operations that are standard in agriculture and other industries”. But Cornelius said it was unlikely this would change and that frackers would not be given the “social license” to operate.
Cuadrilla, founded in 2007, was the first company to use modern hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technology in the UK on dense shale rocks, first at a site in Lancashire in 2011 and carrying on until 2018. Shale rocks, containing tiny pockets of methane, are blasted with a mixture of sand, water and chemicals to create fissures through which the gas can escape, to be siphoned off at the surface.
However, Cuadrilla quickly ran into problems, including its failure to report damage to an exploratory well, and as public awareness of fracking grew, protests started at sites and potential sites. In 2018, an earthquake of magnitude 1.5 at its site near Blackpool caused fracking to be halted. In February this year, the company said its wells – the only two wells to be horizontally drilled and hydraulically fracked in the UK – would be “plugged and abandoned”, in accordance with instructions from the regulator.
Cornelius resigned from Cuadrilla in 2014, after Lord Browne, former chief of the oil company BP, took over the chairmanship. Browne left in 2015. The company declined the opportunity to comment on Cornelius’ views.
Cuadrilla has spent “hundreds of millions of pounds”, according to its chief executive, Francis Egan, in its efforts to start up a fracking operation. However, the company never produced any gas for sale.
Egan welcomed the announcement this month that the moratorium would be lifted, but the company has not yet said whether it will unseal any wells.
Cornelius, an academic geologist, remains a staunch defender of fracking – “it has been used safely around the world, across the US, with no problems” – and of shale gas, but said the geology of the UK and the densely populated nature of the British countryside made it impossible to set up a commercially viable fracking business here.
For Truss to promote fracking was “primarily a political decision – they have to be seen to be doing something”, said Cornelius. “It does not make economic sense. I don’t think sensible people are putting money in this.”
He added: “This is a sad situation. It is a let-down. There was an opportunity 10 years ago to look at this [fracking] sensibly, but that opportunity has now gone. It was worth looking at then, but it’s not practical now.”
Writing in today’s Guardian, Cornelius and Linder call for investment in key technologies they say are more likely to produce energy than fracking, including geothermal energy and tidal power.
Cornelius, who in 2014 also attempted to start fracking under the Irish Sea with a project known as Nebula, which never became operational, is involved in a geothermal consortium called Triassic Power, which is evaluating the potential of using the hot water found underground in certain geological formations in the UK as an energy source. He has no business interest in tidal power.