On Wednesday 19th October at the Parish Hall the Civic Society hosted two representatives from Cuadrilla, the company which has been given permission to explore the possibilities for extracting shale gas in our area and indeed (together with other companies) across a huge swathe of northern England.
The speakers gave an interesting presentation in which they gave an overview of Fracking (or hydraulic fracturing), the method used to extract gas or oil from shale rock by injecting large volumes of water containing a number of additives. This includes sand and lubricating fluids into the rock under high pressure. Shale gas or oil is trapped within impermeable shale rock, as opposed to conventional natural gas deposits such as those under the North Sea, which are trapped below impermeable rock. Therefore simply drilling down to it is not enough. The rock has to be fractured at high pressure or to get the gas or oil out.
Fracking involves drilling down to over 2km vertically, then laterally outwards for as much as 3km. The gap between the lining of the borehole that has been drilled and the surrounding rock is then sealed up with concrete. The well casing is perforated to allow fracking fluid to get into the rock, and gas to get out. Then, on a typical well, up to 10 million litres of water containing sand, lubricating fluids and other additives are pumped into the borehole under extremely high pressures. This opens up cracks in the shale for up to 50 metres. The cracks are kept open by the sand particles when the pressure is released, so the shale gas can escape. A well head is then installed to capture the released gas. The drilling and fracking equipment is then taken away.
The speakers assured the audience that regulations in the UK would ensure the safety of all of their operations so that problems that have arisen in other countries will not occur here. They admitted to having caused an earth tremor in Lancashire but said that this was extremely rare.
The Government is now backing a big push to extract gas and oil from the shale rock onshore to increase UK production of gas and oil as it says that this would reduce reliance on imports and generate economic benefits. The speakers supported this view with statistics to show that an increasingly large proportion of our natural gas is now being imported as our own reserves are dwindling. They insisted that if we want to continue to keep our homes heated into the future there is no other viable alternative to fracking.
The arguments presented were very persuasive and the speakers received warm applause from the audience. However, other organisations paint a very different picture of Fracking. This is the view of one of the more moderate organisations, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England:
“The USA has been developing shale gas rapidly over the past 10 years now has several hundred thousand shale gas wells. Experience from the USA shows fracking can be a substantial environmental hazard. The robustness of the safeguards put in place through regulation of shale gas and oil development is critical if environmental harm is to be prevented.
We all have a role to play to reduce our energy consumption, but we are realistic and recognise there are no easy solutions to our energy mix. However, we rapidly need to move away from fossil fuels towards low carbon energy.
The Government’s Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) process highlighted significant uncertainties associated with the impacts of shale gas. The impacts of shale oil are even more uncertain – the SEA did not adequately cover shale oil. We believe that the Government needs to do more to tighten the safeguards to adequately protect the countryside and climate, and reassure the public. We also believe the shale gas and oil operators need to do more to demonstrate that they are following the very best practice. We would like to see a more precautionary approach given the major uncertainties, and the potential cumulative impact on the landscape and climate change.
Based on current information, we do not oppose exploration for shale gas in principle, provided it meets certain conditions. Our Policy Guidance Note sets out those conditions and how we are trying to secure them. We will oppose proposals which fail to meet these conditions. The conditions are that shale gas development should not:
Harm the beauty and tranquillity of the countryside; in particular vehicle movements to transport the large volumes of water needed for fracking have the potential to significantly reduce tranquillity
Pollute or natural resources unsustainably, especially water
Undermine meeting the country’s climate change commitments.
The Government argues that shale gas is consistent with the transition to a low carbon energy system, but this is only the case if it replaces a higher carbon energy source. An example of a relatively higher carbon option is coal power without measures to capture and store greenhouse gases, which are not yet available anyway. The carbon benefits of shale gas are not certain, but it is even more unclear how shale oil exploitation can fit with an overall reduction in carbon given that it is a relatively high carbon fuel.
Without effective global agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, new fossil fuel exploitation − including shale gas and oil − will increase overall emissions and the risk of climate change.”
The Frack Off Campaign goes somewhat further:
“For all these processes water contamination is a major issue. All wells will eventually leak, as steel casings rust and cement rots, and unconventional gas (and oil) means many, many more wells. Contamination of groundwater has been a consistent feature of unconventional gas extraction, in the US, Canada and Australia.
The amount of water used in these processes and the amount of waste produced are also major issues. In Colorado farmers are losing access to water as fracking companies buy up supplies. Meanwhile the vast streams of toxic and radioactive waste are a nightmare to dispose of, and attempts to get rid of this waste by injecting it into the ground are causing large numbers of earthquakes.
Air pollution is also an underestimated threat from unconventional gas. In previously pristine wilderness areas of the US ozone levels now routinely exceed those in the centre of Los Angeles, while leaking toxic and carcinogenic hydrocarbon vapours are also common. Such pollution can be blown hundreds of miles from its source. Breathing difficulties are common complaints for those living in the shadow of these industries.
While targeted health studies of the effects of these developments have just not been done, what evidence there is shows major impacts. Cancer clusters, neurological and reproductive problems in humans and animals have all been reported and should be expected given the chemicals that are being emitted. In the vicinity of unconventional gas extraction communities are getting sick and the response has been to make people prove that the industry is the cause, or shut up.
At a global level, there are already far more conventional fossil fuel reserves than we can afford to burn without causing catastrophic climate change. As with all unconventional fossil fuels unconventional gas (and oil) simply adds to this store of unburnable carbon. Widespread exploitation of unconventional fossil fuels could produce enough carbon dioxide to make the planet literally uninhabitable.
In the shorter term methane emissions from these processes amplify the effects of the carbon dioxide emitted. Studies have shown that Shale Gas and CBM are worse than burning coal in the short term, and it is the short term that matters when considering potential tipping points in the climate system like melting arctic permafrost and the fate of the Amazon rainforest. UCG is even worse, with its direct carbon emission far higher than from the conventional exploitation of coal.”
Perhaps the Civic Society would consider hosting a talk in which both sides of the debate were represented?