The UK is steaming full-speed ahead towards a fracking future. We are going to bribe local communities to accept fracking – allowing councils to keep all the business rates generated, sweetening each new drilling site with a £100,000 hand-out and then promising to share 1% of the profits with local people. And that’s on top of massive 50% tax breaks for fracking companies.
According to David Cameron, this will bring economic prosperity and energy security to Britain. It seems that shale gas is now considered to be a green fuel, essential for tackling climate change. Gas prices are expected to plummet, as they have in the USA. And of course there is no risk of environmental damage, thanks to the UK’s robust regulations. So what’s the problem?
With conventional gas in permeable rocks like sandstone, you just drill into the rock and the gas comes spurting out under pressure. One well can drain a large sandstone reservoir. With shale gas, the rock is not very permeable so you can only extract gas from the area you can reach by horizontal drilling and fracturing. In the US, well pads are spaced as close as 500m. Striking aerial photos reveal landscapes defaced by sprawling networks of well pads, access roads, storage tanks and waste water ponds. Over 82,000 wells have been drilled in the US since 2005, damaging 360,000 acres of land and fragmenting wildlife habitats.
It’s not yet clear what the drilling density would be in the UK. The industry claims that the above-ground footprint will be smaller than in the US. AMEC’s report for the UK government envisages between 30 and 120 well pads of 2-3 hectares, spaced 5km apart, each with between 6 and 24 wells, giving up to 2,880 wells in total. The report does not explain how these estimates were derived, though it emphasises that they are illustrative only, and are not predictions of what will actually happen.
2. Water use
A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the fractures in order to keep them open and allow the gas to flow out. Huge quantities of water are required – 10,000 to 25,000m3 per well, and this has caused drought-stressed towns in Texas to run dry. The UK water industry acknowledges that water shortages may restrict the scope for fracking in certain areas.
3. Water pollution
Ever seen tap water being set on fire? That can happen when fracking causes methane to leak into groundwater above the shale, though industry representatives claim that this can be avoided through best practice. The problem with fracturing rock is that it’s hard to make sure that the fractures do not extend into overlying rock formations, or intersect existing faults in the rock, allowing methane or fracking water to escape upwards into the overlying rock formations.
On top of this, there’s the problem of waste water. About two thirds of the fracking water returns to the surface, laced with toxic drilling chemicals plus minerals, some of which are radioactive, that have dissolved out of the rock. In the US, this polluted water can be left to evaporate in storage ponds, pumped back into old wells or trucked to a treatment plant before being discharged back into rivers. However, there have been numerous cases of pollution caused by spills or leaks of drilling fluids, leaks from storage ponds, or illegal dumping of waste water in rivers. Also water treatment may not be effective, especially when bromides in the fracking fluid react with chloride used at treatment plants to form carcinogenic trihalomethanes.
A recent study showed that many of the chemicals used in fracking fluids are endocrine disruptors, and that groundwater and rivers in fracking areas have higher levels of these chemicals.
A constant stream of heavy vehicles are needed to bring in construction materials for the well pads, heavy machinery and drilling fluids, and possibly to bring in fresh water and take away waste water for treatment. The AMEC report estimates that 16 to 51 vehicle movements will be needed per day at each site, causing noise, dust, vibration, congestion, road accidents and pollution.
5. Air pollution
Fracking causes air pollution from operation of vehicles and drilling machinery, flaring of gas and evaporation of drilling chemicals. In the US, local people report health problems including nosebleeds, headaches, nausea, eye irritation and respiratory problems, which have been linked to high concentrations of pollutants such as benzene, toluene and xylene.
Of course, we have been promised that “The UK has the most robust regulatory regime in the world for shale gas and companies will only be granted permission to frack for shale if their operations are safe.” In the UK, for example, the industry claims that flaring will not be allowed and waste water must be stored in sealed vessels rather than open ponds. Yet at the same time, the UK government has just succeeded in preventing the European Commission from making environmental statements mandatory for shale gas companies, and it has rejected calls from the Royal Society for specific regulations on shale gas production. Other regulations are being dismantled fast, including the need to inform householders that fracking is going to take place under their properties.
In the US, there are concerns that the industry is trying to stifle dissent by imposing draconian gagging rules as a condition of compensation paid for the pollution they cause. In one extreme case, a family including two children aged 7 and 10 were banned from talking about shale gas for the rest of their lives.
But what about the promised benefits for fuel prices? As Lord Browne, chairman of fracking company Cuadrilla, pointed out recently, gas prices will probably not go down because the UK is part of the European gas market, which is unlikely to be affected by the volumes of gas produced in the UK.
And jobs? Well, the AMEC report estimates that a maximum of 16,000 to 32,000 jobs could be during the few years while the wells are being developed – somewhat lower than the figure of 70,000 being quoted by Cameron. But this should be offset against the number of jobs that could be created if the investment was diverted to renewable energy.
And finally – is gas really a green, low carbon fuel? Well, it’s certainly less polluting than coal, but far more polluting than renewable sources such as wind and solar. In terms of greenhouse gases, electricity from gas produces about half of the emissions of coal, but you need to add the effect of any methane that leaks from the fracking and drilling operation. As methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide, just a small leakage rate can wipe out the benefits that come from burning gas instead of coal, according to a study by Cornell University. In any case, a gas-fuelled future will not allow us to cut carbon emissions fast enough to avoid dangerous levels of climate change.
Perhaps the most telling comment came from Lord Howell, a conservative peer and former government energy advisor, who suggested that fracking should take place in the “desolate north-east”. Subsequently correcting this by saying that he actually meant the north-west did not really help, and neither did his clarification that “The general story is right – that we want the derricks for fracking to be far away from residences in unloved places that are not environmentally sensitive. It’s odd that they’ve decided to do this in sensitive places down in Sussex.”
So fracking is great, so long as it’s in the “unloved” north, and not in the “sensitive” back yards of Lord Howell and friends.