‘’ Ministers have been advised to allow the controversial practice of fracking for shale gas to be extended in Britain, despite it causing two earthquakes and the emergence of serious doubts over the safety of the wells that have already been drilled,’’ writes Fiona Harvey, Environmental Correspondent for the Guardian in April 2012.
The hydraulic fracturing of shale rock, which has been blamed for causing earthquakes and polluting ground water and has generated fierce opposition from environmentalists, should proceed as long as it is monitored carefully and is accompanied by measures to minimise carbon emissions, said the chairman of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith of Finsbury.
Cuadrilla Resources, Britain’s first shale gas exploration license holder, claims a 1200km2 area around Blackpool, Preston and Southport contains enough methane to meet national gas demand for at least 65 years, reducing prices for British consumers and creating thousands of jobs. This is said to lead to £120m in business rates being paid to local councils over 30 years, £5-6bln in tax revenues for the government and up to 5,600 new jobs created with an average salary of £55,000.
Cuadrilla Resources, a joint venture between Australian drilling firm AJ Lucas
and American private equity firm Riverstone, announced a 500m2 area of the Bowland sedimentary rock basin in West Lancashire, for which it holds shale gas exploration licenses. This area holds a total potential resource of 5.66 trillion m3 of natural gas which is more than 10 times the existing UK gas reserves.
Beside the potential danger of contaminating our precious water supplies, greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas operations could be much greater than emissions from conventional gas drilling. This is because more natural gas (methane), which exerts a powerful greenhouse effect in the atmosphere, is likely to escape when the rocks are split to extract it.
Green groups argue that fracking will put carbon-cutting targets out of reach, by locking in high-carbon emitting infrastructure and crowding out investment in renewables. “We should be developing the huge potential of clean British energy from the sun, wind and waves, not more dirty and dangerous fossil fuels,” says executive director of Friends of the Earth, Andy Atkins. The wave of extreme energy extraction methods that is sweeping across the planet, driven by rising energy prices and constrained supplies, is forcing similarly rapid changes in the world around us.
In April last year, around Cuadrilla’s main Blackpool site, there was a tremor measuring magnitude 2.3 and in May one measuring magnitude 1.5. These tremors are enough to be felt but do not in themselves cause serious damage.
An independent panel commissioned by the government said the controversial method of obtaining natural gas should no longer be permitted unless a strict new system is set up to detect warning tremors in the rock.
The controversial drilling method is now likely to be given the green light with Ministers set to accept the advice that it could be extended with new controls
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) published an independent expert report recommending measures to mitigate the risks of seismic tremors from hydraulic fracturing. An effective monitoring system and a traffic light control regime are among measures recommended by the report
The report recommends the following measures to mitigate the risk of any damaging seismic activity from future shale gas operations in the Bowland Basin:
- That the hydraulic fracturing procedure should include a smaller pre-injection and monitoring stage.
- That an effective monitoring system to provide near real-time locations and magnitudes of any seismic events should be part of any future hydraulic fracturing operations.
- That future fracking operations for shale gas should be subject to a “traffic light” control regime. A red light at activity levels of magnitude of 0.5 or above means fracking should be stopped and remedial action taken. Unusual seismic activity, even at lower levels, should be carefully assessed before operations proceed.
Estimates of the amount of shale gas in the UK vary widely. Cuadrilla puts the potential resources in Lancashire alone at 200 trillion cubic feet – an amount that could supply the whole of the UK’s gas needs for more than five decades.
In order to wring the maximum from the UK’s resources, there will need to be six to eight wells per square mile around each of the tens of sites to be explored, including as many as 800 in Lancashire and more in areas such as Sussex.
But using more conservative methods, the British Geological Survey put the likely resources at 4.7 trillion cubic feet, one-40th of the company’s figure. Even then, only about 5% to 10% of that figure is likely to be recoverable.
What is the energy minister’s response to this?
Energy Minister, Charles Hendry believes that the proposed operations in the UK are safe. He claims that shale gas drilling in the UK is governed by one of the most robust and stringent regulatory frameworks in the world.
Each fracking application must go through the local planning application process and before any drilling occurs, proposals must also be scrutinised by the Environment Agency to make sure there is no risk to the environment, and in particular to water sources; by the health and safety executive for safety; and by the DECC to ensure best use is made of the resources.
As part of this process, operators are required to disclose the content of fracking fluids to the Environment Agency. Cuadrilla has published this information and nearly all, 99.96%, of the fluid used has been made up of fresh water and sand. The remaining 0.04% was made from polyacrylamide, commonly used in cosmetics. Other additives which might be used in future operations include hydrochloric acid, typically at a concentration of 0.125% or biocide at a concentration of 0.0005%, which can be used if needed to purify the water used in the process.
The House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee agree that there was no evidence that fracking poses a direct risk to underground water aquifers, provided the drilling well is constructed properly.
Promoters of shale gas concentrate on debunking the water contamination theory but fail to mention the carbon footprint of shale gas extraction and burning.
Minister Hendry feels that if we reduce our dependence on foreign fuel, it’ll buy us more time to invest in renewable energies and nuclear power, however, he’s not ruling out coal and gas in the future. As an energy source, fracking “potentially ticks the boxes on energy security, on availability and on cost”.
I find it most unlikely that the government has any real grasp on this.