Tuesday 20 August 2013

“Fracking” – is there a good side to it?

Well no, actually, I don’t think there is.  But I’d like to look at one of the arguments in favour of fracking to see if there is bigger picture here that we need to take account of.

An argument often used is that fracking provides us with a short-term, interim energy source that buys us time while we develop non fossil fuel based forms of energy generation.  Burning natural gas produces less carbon dioxide for the energy it provides, it is claimed, than other forms of fossil fuel so, as an interim fuel it could be a good one.

Let us put to one side all the other problems with this energy form.  Forget that this could industrialise Sussex, ignore the amount of water that is needed, the transport footprint from the lorry movements, the land needed to treat polluted water and the risk of air and water pollution and so on. 

If fracking gives us more energy for less greenhouse gas emissions then it has to be taken seriously. This sounds persuasive; it is often repeated and rarely challenged.  But there are problems.

Fracking gas is methane, which does indeed produce more energy for less greenhouse gas than, for example, coal.  Methane, however, is itself a very potent greenhouse gas.  An often quoted figure is that methane is 25 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.  This, however, is a 100 year long term average, as it does not remain in the atmosphere for long.  In the short term, say 20 years, methane is about 70 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

This means that you only need a small amount of gas leakage to completely negate any greenhouse gas emission advantage that burning methane has.

Whilst they have been criticised, there are some peer-reviewed studies that indicate a leakage of around 10% of methane from wells in the USA.  So let’s play with some figures to see just how relevant this might be.

Instead of 10%, let’s be generous and say that only 2% of the methane is lost to the atmosphere.  And instead of 70 times as bad as carbon dioxide let’s say it’s 50 times as bad (it makes the sums easier!).  If my maths is correct this means that a 2% leakage of methane has the same greenhouse effect as the other 98% burned and emitted as carbon dioxide.  In other words (and even if my maths is not spot-on) it doesn't take much leakage to make exploiting fracking gas twice as bad as it appears in terms of climate change.  This could make it as bad or worse than coal and as such could not be considered an interim fuel.

Another problem with the interim fuel idea is that I've heard it before.  I am old enough to remember similar arguments when North Sea oil was developed.  Yes we were talking about wind and wave energy in the 1970s and it was said that North Sea oil would buy us the time to research and develop this properly.  Ideas quickly forgotten in the rush to develop. 

I am also unconvinced that an apparently lucrative gas supply will be abandoned before it is fully exploited as renewable energy sources are developed.  It is far more likely that, as with North Sea oil, attention will turn away from any thoughts on long-term sustainability and focus entirely on the apparent benefits of apparently cheap energy.

There are now highly emotive arguments being presented by the pro-fracking lobby: from dire warnings of the lights going out, to unchallenged claims that fracking will save the planet, that it is supported by the science, that it is good for the economy or that it will bring us out of recession.  Perhaps the worst thing, however, is the way that fracking has taken over a far more important agenda about developing an economy that is fit for purpose, delivering real prosperity while maintaining and improving the environment on which we depend.   

1 comment:

fatfairandfortyfour said...

Excellent piece, well put. My group were discussing this very argument last night: how do we counteract the propaganda put out by proponents of the industry. We need civilized, reasoned debate. We need to present "facts" not industry "fracts". Thank you for your well thought out discussion.