Fracking is costly and taking 'longer than expected' according to auditors
The Government's plan to establish the UK shale gas industry through the controversial process of fracking is proving hugely costly and is taking longer than expected, according to the National Audit Office.
The report was published amid growing concern over the impact of fracking on the environment - causing small earthquakes - and public health in terms of potential water pollution.
In August this year, a tremor measuring 2.9 on the Richter scale was recorded at a Cuadrilla fracking site near Blackpool, the largest-ever recorded at the site. Since then, fracking has been indefinitely suspended.
Fracking (or hydraulic fracturing as it is officially known) is the process of extracting gas and oil from shale rock wells using highly pressurised water, sand and chemicals.
Cuadrilla's site on Preston New Road, at Little Plumpton, near Blackpool, has been the focus of large-scale protests, with designer and activist Dame Vivienne Westwood visiting to express her disquiet.
Protests have also been staged at Barton Moss, where IGas obtained permission from Salford Council for exploratory drilling. The company also was given the go-ahead for coal-bed methane extraction at an adjoining site at Davyhulme.
In September, climate change activists blocked the entrance to Cuadrilla's site in Little Plumpton with a yellow boat daubed with 'Planet Before Profit' on it.
Just three years ago, the Cabinet Office said it anticipated that up to 20 wells would be fracked by the middle of 2020, but only three wells have been fracked up until now and operations are all indefinitely suspended after the earthquake in summer.
Site operators have said the system to protect against the risk of earthquakes is stricter than that used internationally and claim that this has hindered their ability to develop the industry, the report said.
The NAO also found that operations have proved costly for local authorities and police forces, which were forced to manage anti-fracking protests, traffic disruption and general public safety at the sites.
The report estimated that at least £32.7 million had been spent by public bodies since 2011, although the full costs of policing are not known.
Lancashire Constabulary reported between 25 and 100 officers were "directly involved" in daily policing of fracking sites between January 2017 and June 2019, costing £11.8 million. North Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire Police also incurred costs.
Public concern about fracking operations centres on greenhouse gas emissions, groundwater pollution and earthquakes caused by fracking.
Francis Egan, the chief executive of Cuadrilla, the only company to have fracked a well in the UK, said it was right that the Government invests in a "major national resource". But he recognised that the industry needs to work on building public support.
The report states that landowners may ultimately be liable for the decommissioning costs of fracking sites, should an operator be unable to cover them, but arrangements are "unclear and untested".
Following its publication, the Shadow Business and Energy Secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, criticised the fracking operations."The Tory-Lib Dem coalition and now the Tory government have wasted millions pushing an industry that is unpopular across the UK and fiercely opposed locally," she said.
"Fracking threatens air and water quality, and it contributes to the climate crisis. And as this report reveals, the Government's plan for making fracking sites safe after they've been used is unclear and untested.
"Well let me be crystal clear, Labour will ban fracking immediately."
The report added that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) felt that climate change objectives could be met while developing shale gas, but that the necessary technology had not yet been developed.
Greenpeace UK chief scientist Doug Parr said the Government has "wasted well over £1 per UK household propping up a pointless and divisive pursuit of a fossil fuel that our commitments to decarbonisation mean we can hardly use".
A spokesman for BEIS said: "The Government has always said shale gas exploration can only proceed as long as it is safe and environmentally responsible.
"The Oil and Gas Authority will soon publish a finalised scientific assessment of recent industry data and we will set out our future approach as soon as we have considered the findings."
Cuadrilla has previously argued that The Bowland Shale as a whole could be a "very important resource for Lancashire and the UK" and while hydraulic fracturing is currently suspended, they hope to continue with its work to prove this.
The company said to reach net zero by 2050, the Committee on Climate Change is clear the UK will need about 70 per cent of the natural gas we are using today, in conjunction with carbon capture and storage for electricity and as a feedstock for the manufacture of hydrogen.