Monday 10 September 2012

A debate on hydraulic fracturing

I went to a very interesting meeting last week on hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”, as it has become known.  Its objective was to help the community gain a better understanding of this method of extracting gas from underground shale deposits.  Is it an economic salvation or an environmental disaster?

This was very well organised by the Wiggonholt Association and excellently chaired by Prof. Joe Howe of Central Lancashire University.  Two others on the panel were County Councillor Morwen Millson, who was asking serious questions of public concern about fracking and Nick Grealy, an energy consultant who presented the case in favour.

The panel presentations and the lively scrutiny by the audience were all very good – whether you agreed with either side or not.  However, there is a tendency (not just at this event but elsewhere in the press and in general conversation) to consider this a complex, technical, difficult issue that lay people will have difficulty understanding.  The sub-plot by some might be to say we should leave it to the experts (but who are the experts?), disempowering local opinion, painting it as uninformed and emotive.  My current view is the complete opposite.  I will not explain fracking here, I am no expert, but a short internet search will give you all the basic information you need. 

The basic approach of fracking is simple.  Yes it is surrounded by all manner of complexities but the basis is simple.  Many ecological concepts that we regularly talk to “ordinary” people about are far more complex than fracking. It is not the case that scientific experts are saying one thing – that fracking is OK – but that emotive local objectors are saying another.  There are clear scientific concerns.  So don’t be put off, do some basic reading and you’ll be in a reasonable position to question the experts.  This was very clear at the meeting.  There were many in the audience who were almost as well informed as the panel and no “blinding with science” was possible.

The benefits of fracking are clear, and again simple.  Abundant gas supplies providing vast sums of money.  This is part of the emotive appeal of fracking, often presented as the key fact that trumps everything else.  Worryingly, I suspect this may prove correct.

In my mind the concerns about fracking boil down to 3 key areas.
  • Water resource use
  • Water contamination and disposal of fracking fluid
  • Climate change.

Water resource use
Huge amounts of water under pressure are needed to pump into a well in order to fracture the rock deep underground that holds the gas.  In a water-stressed region this is bound to be a concern.  Some answers to this point were rather unconvincing.  Desert regions elsewhere still carry out fracking, indicating that even they are not worried by water use.  I do not agree - bad practice in one area does not justify its use in another.  Nevertheless, total water use might be a relatively small proportion of our overall use so, at the right time of year and done in the right way there could be a technological solution to this.

Fracking fluid
Water pumped into a fracking shaft contains various chemicals, some of which we should be concerned about.  Fracking fluid coming out of the shaft is further contaminated by whatever it came into contact with in the underlying rock.  Attempts to dismiss this concern were, I am afraid, rather insulting, relying too heavily on assumed ignorance in the audience.  99.5% of what emerges, we were told, is still water.  Well, let us use an analogy.  Probably more than 99.9% of your morning cup of tea is water but I suggest you would not be happy with just boiled water.  Add a spoonful of sodium cyanide and it would still be mostly water, but I suggest you wouldn’t touch it!  (This is not to suggest that fracking fluid consists of either cyanide or boiled tea!).  Polluted water from industrial processes has been a problem since the Bronze Age, there is nothing new here and the weakness of the response was worrying.  The answers must be very clear and well-known – either transport fracking fluid away to be treated (huge numbers of truck movements) or treat and dispose on site or treat and recycle on site.  All approaches have huge issues which should be seriously addressed.

Fundamental to these issues is regulation.  If there are technical solutions then we must be absolutely convinced that regulation is in place and that it is robustly applied.  I am not confident about either.

Climate change
We are told that natural gas produces 50% less carbon dioxide than coal and that it therefore provides an excellent transition to cleaner energy.  There are several things wrong with this:

First this does not allow for any effect of methane (natural gas) leakage.  Methane is up to 70 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.  Some estimate that, with leakage of a few percent, this could make fracking as bad to twice as bad as coal.  Opinions vary, but the industry claims this is untrue - why would a business waste so much of its product?  I remain sceptical – an industry’s cost-benefit analyses may point to it being more economic to waste a few % rather than go to the effort of plugging every last gap.  Arguably, however, this might be solvable but again may rely on robust regulation, detection and enforcement (how confident are you?).

Second, that figure of 50% less carbon only gets you a little way.  If we changed our remaining coal-fired power stations to gas tomorrow and energy use, inevitably, continues to rise, then in a few decades we will be using twice as much energy.  So – twice as much energy producing 50% less carbon per unit energy means a total of the same amount of carbon as we produce today.  Even without the fear of methane leakage, gas usage will continue to fry the planet.

Several academics active in this area say that, from a climate change perspective, the only safe thing to do with gas from fracking is to leave it in the ground.

There does remain, however, the possibility of using fracking as a transitional energy source on the way to carbon free energy.  An interesting idea but there are major worries, for instance:
  • We’ve been here before.  Renewable energy was abandoned in the 1970’s when we found oil in the North Sea
  • Why would a gas company engage in a “transition” strategy that would result in its own eventual destruction.
  • With all that money rolling in to shareholders and going to the public purse as tax revenue, who is going to change course to systems that will inherently be more expensive.
  • We are told that there could be 200 to 1000 years’ supply of gas available from this method globally. If true, then no one is going to stop production in a few years. 

Meanwhile, we now hear that the arctic ice has broken all records in terms of the amount lost this summer, three weeks before the normal minimum, for arctic ice cover.  Unless better answers are found, climate change repercussions could be a complete show-stopper for fracking.