The Fracking Debate

At the start of this week the county council of Lancashire, in the north-west of England, did something quite astonishing.

Much to everyone’s surprise it voted down a planning application by a company called Cuadrilla to start ‘fracking’ in the county. Cuadrilla is the only company that has done any fracking in the UK to date. Cuadrilla had wanted to start drilling four wells at a site near Little Plumpton, not far from Blackpool. Of the 14 councillors on Lancashire’s development control committee, nine voted against Cuadrilla on the grounds that it was contrary to planning policy number EP11 – the “cumulative effect of the proposal would lead to the industrialisation of the countryside and adversely affect the landscape character”.

Lancashire’s councillors clearly don’t like fracking very much; they rejected another application by Cuadrilla the week before.

This poses a bit of a problem for David Cameron, the Prime Minister. Back in January 2014 he said that the then coalition government was “going all out for shale”. The UK certainly needs gas; it became a net importer of gas in 2004, as production from the North Sea decline. But does it need to produce its own gas?

That’s debatable in a world that currently has a surfeit of natgas. The wholesale price of natgas has dropped from a peak of almost $14 per million British thermal units (mBtu) in 2008 to less than $3 today. Not all that 78% price collapse can be attributed to the financial crash and subsequent economic slowdown.

On the current outlook, global natgas prices are unlikely to rise much. While European gas import requirements “are set to increase by almost one-third between 2014 and 2020” according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) most recent report on natgas, “the experience of the past two years has opened the gas industry’s eyes to a harsh reality: in a world of very cheap coal and falling costs for renewables, it was difficult for gas to compete”, according to Maria van der Hoeven, executive director at the IEA.

And as renewables take an increasingly bigger chunk of overall energy supply and demand, both in the UK and elsewhere, cheap natgas might be here to stay.

What is fracking?

Fracking, an abbreviation of hydraulic fracturing, is a drilling technique to extract oil or gas from deep underground shale deposits. Hydraulic fracturing has been around since the 1940s. A well is drilled vertically or at an angle to the surface to a depth of a mile or more. Once it reaches the deep layer of shale where natgas or oil exists, the well curves about 90 degrees and begins drilling horizontally. Fracking fluid is then pumped down into the well at extremely high pressure, which is powerful enough to fracture the surrounding rock, creating fissures and cracks through which oil and gas can flow. The fluid that is pumped into the well to fracture the rock is called slickwater. It is mostly water, though it also contains a wide range of additives and chemicals, such as detergents, salts, acids, alcohols, lubricants and disinfectants.

Once the underground rock is shattered trapped reservoirs of gas and oil are pumped back to the surface, along with millions of gallons of ‘flowback’ liquid, which contains water and contaminants, including radioactive material, heavy metals, hydrocarbons and other toxins. This wastewater is stored on the fracking site in pits, injected into deep underground wells or disposed of off-site at a wastewater treatment facility.

A fracking boom has taken off the US. In 2000 the US had about 276,000 natgas wells. By 2010 that number had almost doubled. Each year about 13,000 new wells are drilled. Today, at least 15.3 million Americans have lived within a mile of a fracking well that has been drilled since 2000.

How safe is fracking?

There are worries concerning water pollution, and fracking wells release compounds into the air, such as benzene (an established carcinogen), ethylbenzene, toluene and n-hexane; long-term exposure to these has been linked to birth defects, neurological problems, blood disorders and cancer. In 2012, researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health released a study showing that air pollution caused by fracking could contribute to immediate and long-term health problems for people living near fracking sites. Research by over 150 studies suggests that chemicals released during natural gas extraction may harm human reproduction and development. Additionally, many areas of the United States not considered earthquake-prone, such as Ohio and Oklahoma, are now experiencing relatively strong seismic activity. Fracking is believed to be the cause of Oklahoma’s strongest recorded quake in 2011 and more than 180 tremors in Texas between 2008 and 2009.

What do scientists say?

Many contradictory things of course.

But for me one of the most authoritative papers published recently (March 2015) comes from academics associated with the UK Energy Research Centre, an independent body and therefore with no axe to grind.

Called Conditions for environmentally-sound UK shale gas development it sets out “ten caveats that we consider fundamental to ensuring that any potential shale gas development in the UK is compatible with its required greenhouse gas emissions reductions and environmental protection more broadly”. There’s no space here to run through all the caveats, but the first is worth quoting: “The first condition is that there must be both technically and economically recoverable volumes in the UK at costs that are below future gas prices, with these costs ideally including an appropriate charge for carbon emissions. As recognised by the British Geological Survey in the report on the Bowland shale, at present there are no UK shale gas reserves, and next-to-no information or data on volumes that could be considered to be recoverable resources. Whether any will be resources that are recoverable in an economically viable way is unknown, despite frequent claims to the contrary, and this is self-evidently necessary for there to be any development of UK shale gas.”

The paper concludes that given “the current incomplete state of knowledge about shale gas and its potential role in a low-carbon transition, we suggest that policy makers should take as their basis for energy policy that there will be no shale gas produced domestically and plan their gas security strategy accordingly. Furthermore, while we are not against shale gas exploration in principle, we believe that it is incumbent upon the shale gas industry and its supporters, and the government, to demonstrate that the above conditions are met, as most if not all of them are not at present. Only then should shale gas production be permitted to proceed in the event that it is proved to be economically viable, in the knowledge that it is consistent with a decarbonised UK energy system and environmental protection more generally.”

That sounds to me like a resounding call for the current gallop towards an English fracking industry – both the Welsh and Scots’ parliaments have voted against it, as has France – to be halted, pending much deeper and wider independent investigation. It also suggests that companies currently seeking riches from possibly ruining parts of the English landscape (never mind risking the health of those living nearby fracking operations) may not be great investments. So three cheers for Lancashire’s dissenting councillors.