The debate over hydraulic fracturing of shale beds has caused huge controversy in the USA for half a decade. In the UK however, the debate has ignited fairly recently and since the coalition’s decision to restart exploration, the rhetoric is set to get even hotter.
With the promise of lower gas prices and greater energy independence to offset dwindling North Sea oil reserves, it is understandable that the government and energy sector are chomping at the bit to get the gas flowing. However, the potential environmental impact of the process is becoming more and more worrying to many. Further, it is far from clear that fracking will ever be economically viable in Britain, as it is in the United States.
In the absence of scientific consensus amid conflicting reports of the true impact of fracking, inflated projections and visceral emotion abound. How are we to make sense of all this? We might start by examining the claims made on either side of the aisle.
What is fracking?
Before it is possible to evaluate the evidence effectively, first it is necessary to understand the process itself. Shale gas beds lie more than a thousand metres below ground. As they are horizontal and relatively thin, a rig must first drill vertically down to the seam and then horizontally along its length. The vertical section of the borehole is encased in a concrete seal and the horizontal section of steel piping is perforated.
Tens of millions of litres of water are then forced into the well, exiting through the perforations at immense pressure causing the shale bed to fracture vertically. This water is heavily doped with chemicals to ease the process and contains sand in order to hold the fractures open once the water has been drained. Gas (and perhaps oil) under pressure can now find its way out of the shale, through the fractures and out of the well. Simple, right? Apparently not…
In the USA, the shale reserves are staggering. By 2010, fracked gas had provided 23% of all America’s gas needs, and prices have plummeted. It is hoped by many in government and industry that this can be emulated in the UK. It is claimed that fracking is a safe, reliable process with a small carbon footprint (albeit only relatively so) that can provide a stop-gap on our road to renewable energy. Is it too good to be true?
This is no trivial question, to which the answer is: perhaps. Exploration is at a very early stage in Europe, and estimates for reserves of shale gas in the UK vary wildly – the most commonly accepted figure (150 bcm) is based on the Barnett Shale in the US and so is hardly concrete. Even Ed Davey, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has warned that “the shale gas reserves in this country are not quite as large as some people have been speculating”.
Furthermore, it is not at all clear that it will turn out to be economically viable at all. For the Guardian, Andrew Rawnsley writes that the United Kingdom has some of the thinnest and deepest shale beds in Europe , making it more expensive to reach and exploit them. Even more worrying, of the 50 or so experimental drilling operations under way on mainland Europe, not a one of them has so far been shown to be commercially viable. Not one. There are further concerns that, even if the reserves are as reliable and abundant as claimed, any price decrease may not make it to the consumer.
In Part 2, we’ll hear more about the weaknesses in the industry and anti-fracking camp’s claims, and discuss where we go from here…