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Environmental concerns, fuel poverty, and fracking: the debate continues

13 September 2013


From Mr A. M. Hughes
Sir, - Dr Paula Clifford (Comment, 6 September) is right to draw attention to the theological aspect of the use of fossil fuels and its implication for climate change.

I think, though, that we need to distinguish between this aspect, which applies equally to other forms of energy acquisition, such as the coal-mining that she mentions and conventional oil-drilling, and the alleged consequences of fracking that are peculiar to this process.

Emotive language such as "the sheer violence of the process" and "snatching of the earth's resources" is common in this debate. Two aspects in particular have worried people. One is "earthquakes". Dr Clifford rightly calls them earth tremors, and that is what they are: the ones near Blackpool in 2011 were of magnitude 1.5 and 2.3, and Britain routinely experiences tremors of similar magnitude through natural causes. Other human activities cause larger quakes, notably the impoundment of water behind a dam.

The other worry frequently expressed is pollution of ground water by chemicals. The injection of chemicals into the shale occurs at great depths, typically one or two kilometres down, far below the level at which water is extracted. Research in the US found no evidence of fracking chemicals in local water supplies (New Scientist, 10 August). There is a justified concern about possible leakage of methane as it travels from deep in the shale to the surface.

If fracking is to be opposed on environmental grounds, there are other human activities that should share the scrutiny. The larger picture is that global energy requirements are such that it is difficult to see how they can be met without the continued use of fossil fuels, all of which have environmental impacts.

Do we oppose the use of oil and petrol because there have been oil spills that harm local sea life and coasts? The problem is that the number of people on the planet and the standard of living to which, overall, we aspire are barely compatible with the earth's resources and the earth's size.

3 Moody Road
Oxford OX3 0DH

From Mr Richard Murray
Sir, - Part of the "robust thinking" that Dr Paula Clifford called for concerning the possible exploitation of the UK's shale-gas resources concerned environmental issues. Reference was also made to its potential to address fuel poverty.

Those who argue that fracking would bring down UK energy prices are basing their arguments on a false analogy, namely the US experience. The fundamental difference is that the US is essentially an isolated market; so gas producers have no scope to export to the highest bidder. The UK, however, is part of an integrated European market, meaning that unless there is a huge supply of shale gas from the UK and the Continent, and both now seem unlikely, the world price of gas will be undented.

Unconventional gas may be able to offset the decline in North Sea production, but not enough to replace our dependence on foreign imports; so we will still be dependent on international gas prices. Given that the UK imports half of its gas needs, an exponential growth of drilling wells would be required. Try to imagine the Balcombe protests multiplied by 10,000!

The estimates of gas available being touted at the moment do not mean that these are either recoverable or economically viable. The lacklustre experience of Poland suggests that they will have to be revised downwards. And the number of new rigs in the United States has reached a plateau, not-withstanding the recent rise in gas prices and US economies of scale (Texas is nearly three times the size of the UK).

As for the number of jobs that might be supported by a thriving shale-gas industry, this needs to be put into perspective. This figure pales to insignificance compared with the potential from the renewable-energy industry. The Energy and Climate Change Secretary has claimed that the renewables industry could support as many as 400,000 jobs by 2020.

This figure is not limited to those involved in wind, solar, hydro, or tidal power; so the employment potential of the supply chains of supportive industries and research and technology institutions need to be factored in.

In short, a coherent economic case for fracking has yet to be made. The truth is that shale gas is nothing more than a will-o'-the-wisp.

Rowanbank, Kendal Road
Kemnay, Inverurie AB51 5RN

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