In Part 1, we clarified the fracking process and began to flesh out some of the economic realities of shale gas exploitation. Going forward, we shall examine some of the other industry claims (namely safety and cleanliness) and find out where the opponents find their pitch.
When it comes to safety, the picture is slowly becoming less opaque. Although fracking has been definitively linked to a number of small earthquakes, including those in Lancashire, the source is not the fractures in the shale themselves but rather with the method of disposing of the huge quantities of waste-water - pumping it at high pressure deep into the ground. With sensible regulation, this risk could be largely ameliorated.
Methane leaks are another well publicised safety issue, as demonstrated with shocking reality in the documentary Gasland. Whilst acknowledged as a real effect, the source is not well understood – a fact that should worry us. Fracking occurs at a great depth below the water table, and shale beds in Europe are even deeper than those exhibiting issues in America and so it is believed at the moment that the source must be from inadequacies in the casing of the borehole allowing methane to seep into the ground at a much shallower level. If that is true, then the issue is not specific to the fracking process, but an issue with drilling in general. Nonetheless, this is still bad news and a solution needs to be found or there will continue to be reported instances of backyard wells exploding, as in Dimock, and tap water lighting on fire. You should probably not be able to set water on fire…
A further concern is the chemicals used in the fracking water itself. This has caused much consternation in the US as, up until recently, most of these chemicals were considered trade secrets and companies did not have to disclose them. Of the 600 or so chemicals known to be used, 29 of them are known to be either carcinogenic or hazardous or both. Add this to the known issues with waste-water disposal and the as-yet undiscovered source of methane leakage into groundwater, and we have an unnerving problem. Again, sensible regulation can help with the waste-water disposal and its carcinogenic component as fracking water components are not protected from scrutiny in the UK the way they have been in the States.
As for the ‘cleanliness’ of the process, this can also be debated. Gas is indeed cleaner to burn than coal or oil but, given that there may be significant leakage of methane (which is a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide), it is essential that the amount of methane lost to the environment is accurately quantified. It has been argued by proponents that the carbon footprint of constructing a rig for hydraulic fracturing is no larger than that of an ordinary oil rig, but this ignores the fact that for a given area or quantity of gas recovered, many more fracking wells must be dug than for the equivalent oil field – significantly increasing CO2 output.
Environmental groups have used many of the arguments listed above against fracking, along with other issues such as environmental degradation (if country folk don’t like wind turbines, I’m guessing they won’t be too pleased with an unbroken view of fracking wells) and air pollution. Unfortunately, much of the debate has been coloured by the experience in the USA, a country with a far more permissive regulatory landscape than the UK and the EU. As shown above, many of the issues causing concern can be minimized with sensible (that is, fact-based) regulation and monitoring.
Obviously, we cannot go ahead with full shale gas exploitation until the exploratory platforms have been run for long enough to gather the necessary data in order to inform the regulation – sadly, although it is still valuable, we cannot rely on the US experience to inform our policy as the resources and economics are somewhat different over this side of the pond.
Many environmental protection organisations have decided that the only course of action possible in the face of this looming threat is to ban all hydraulic fracturing. Certainly, following the small earthquakes in Lancashire, that is exactly what happened – in an uncharacteristically sensible reaction from the government. The recent decision to lift the moratorium on drilling came as the report on the incident made the link with waste-water disposal and suggested tighter controls. Whether those controls will be implemented is something we shall see.
Where do we go from here?
As you can see, the cases for and against hydraulic fracturing are not as clear-cut as each side would have you believe. The environmentalist reaction to ban all fracking operations is, at this stage, undoubtedly an overreaction. On the other side, industry may well be overstating the case for the benefits to be gleaned. With an energy crisis ongoing (whether it be shortage of resources or global warming), the government must be careful not to be blinded by the possibility of abundant clean gas before the facts are completely in.
With the state of play as it is, the only sensible course of action is to create a heavily regulated environment in which exploration and data collection can take place – something which, at the present time, does not exist. It would be foolish to ignore the resource in these uncertain times, but it would be even more foolish to ignore the potentially massive environmental consequences. No short-term gain can be allowed to trump the importance of the environment on which we, and the rest of life on earth, rely.
Creating a safe way to do this will require activism. In a world where the profit motive and GDP figures rule, corporations and governments can ill be trusted to ‘do the right thing’ of their own volition. A quick look at the recent history of deregulation in the finance sector illustrates that point nicely. But it is also important that the movements which have the greatest power to motivate this activism do not become intransigent in their opposition to anything that involves extracting resources from the Earth. It is far more incumbent on them to be straight with the facts – no-one trusts government and industry these days. Unless they wish to lobby for democide to reduce the human population to paleolithic levels, they must come to terms with our need for resources. It is up to them (and, more importantly, us as citizens) to make sure that the resources that we have are used responsibly as we move inexorably towards a sustainable future.