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Slipping through the fracks

13 November 2015

Is fracking a further assault on our planet, or the way to a cleaner, greener future? Gerry Lynch investigates

Peter Byrne/PA

Digging for answers: mechanical equipment on a possible fracking site in Lancashire

Digging for answers: mechanical equipment on a possible fracking site in Lancashire

LANCASHIRE is the focal-point for a bitter dispute on permitting commercial fracking in the UK.

The energy firm Cuadrilla estimates that the red-rose county’s layers of shale rock, miles underground, could contain 200 trillion cubic feet of gas. That is 15 times the probable remaining UK reserves of conventional gas, and similar to the gas reserves of Iraq.

The passions generated befit the titanic scale of the find. While energy industry and environmental lobbyists are involved, it is striking how many volunteers are sacrificing time and energy to local campaigns.

That is not just on the “anti” side. Extensive shale gas deposits also lie across the Pennines, and Lorraine Allanson, a farmer and hotelier in the Vale of Pickering, has set up the Friends of Ryedale Gas Exploitation.

As well as benefits to the local economy, and energy security, climate change is a factor in Ms Allanson’s argument. “Of course we need more renewables, but we’ll always need a back-up fuel. We also need a transition fuel while renewable capacity expands. Gas produces much less CO2 than coal and oil.”

The Revd David Penney is a retired Anglican priest who volunteers as a press officer for the Keep East Lancashire Frack Free campaign. His involvement, on the opposite side from Ms Allanson, is motivated by Christian conscience and environmental concerns; but invokes climate change, too.

“The recent papal encyclical on climate change shows how serious and urgent this is,” he says. “Christians have a moral responsibility to care for and conserve creation.”


IN THE fracking debate, opposite sides seem at times to inhabit different scientific universes, and it can prove difficult to get hold of uncontested facts. This can make the debate confusing - for those without geological or environmental expertise.

Fracking — short for “hydraulic fracturing” — begins with geologists identifying a target area, usually one where shale rock is expected to contain trapped deposits of gas or oil (in the UK, gas is currently the main target).

Shale is essentially what happens to mud when it has been compressed for aeons: it’s a brittle kind of rock, full of thin cracks, and prone to crumbling into layers. Layers of shale that contain gas often lie deep underground — the wells sunk in Lancashire have been about 3km deep. Further bores are drilled horizontally from the bottom in different directions, out to about 1km. Then a half-and-half mixture of water and sand is forced down the well at high pressure.

The water drives open the tiny cracks in the shale, usually to about 1-2mm in width. This is called “fracturing” the rock, hence the name “hydraulic fracturing”. The sand particles keep the cracks propped open, releasing the gas molecules. Although a field might be exploited over many years, the fracturing occurs only once, or perhaps twice, at the start of exploitation.

Fracking has been used on sandstone and chalk for decades, but fracking shale significantly increases both the engineering challenges and the cost.

It was the sustained rise in world oil and gas prices earlier this century that made shale fracking commercially viable. In the United States, this coincided with post-9/11 concern about dependence on overseas energy, especially from Muslim countries: the two factors which led to commercial exploitation on a significant scale.

Use is slowly spreading internationally: first to Canada and China, now to the UK. Many countries in mainland Europe, however, have slapped indefinite embargoes on the technique, and last month Northern Ireland became the first part of the UK to follow suit.


ONE of the most contested areas of the fracking debate relates to climate change and emissions.

Much of the excitement about the potential of shale gas to reduce emissions comes from the US, where an 11-per-cent drop in emissions in recent years coincided with the fracking boom, which drove a significant shift in electricity generation from coal to gas. Coal produces about twice as much carbon dioxide as gas for the same amount of electricity.

In the UK, our electricity mix is different: more of it is generated by gas, and coal is in rapid decline. Carbon-dioxide emissions per unit of electricity generated are consequently much lower in the UK; so an expansion of gas will not reduce UK emissions, let alone help achieve the 80-per-cent reduction by 2050 to which the Climate Change Act commits us.

Anti-fracking campaigners argue that it is no longer responsible to exploit every known fossil-fuel source. “Global fossil-fuel reserves are four times what we can afford to burn if we want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change,” says Tony Bosworth of Friends of the Earth.

If we need to replace the oil- and coal-fired power stations that are being decommissioned, Friends of the Earth says, the priority should be for zero-emissions options.

It also argues that fracking diverts investment that would be better directed at sustaining recent progress in increasing generation from renewables.

In the second quarter of this year, renewables produced 25 per cent of British electricity — more than coal, for the first time ever.

Renewables’ share of electricity generation is always lower in winter, but the pace of expansion has been such that environmentalists’ long-cherished dream of renewable energy as the mainstay of electricity generation now seems achievable.


IN THEORY, there is no reason that fracking cannot develop alongside renewables and major energy-efficiency efforts. Decisions since the election, however, give reasonable grounds to believe that the Government is promoting fracking as an alternative to supporting renewables.

Countries with mature renewables sectors have nearly always found it essential to have policies similar to the UK’s feed-in tariff, and renewables subsidy. These are being cut just as renewables’ contribution becomes significant.

The “Vote Blue, Go Green” agenda was a key strand of Conservative campaigning in opposition and coalition. Is it being ditched in favour of an ideological anti-environmentalism, now that the party is in sole control?

On the other hand, anti-frackers may be risking practical progress by seeking an unattainable deal on emissions. Britain has spent decades avoiding big decisions on future electricity generation, and the chickens are coming home to roost as oil- and coal-fired plants close.

Besides relying on gas to generate electricity, the UK consumes huge amounts for winter heating; even if a revolution in renewables and energy efficiency were to occur, that would continue to be the case for decades.

British North Sea gas production is at about a third of its peak, and declining. Norwegian and Dutch gas fills some of the gap, but liquefied natural gas from Qatar now provides a quarter of our imports.

Cooling gas to a liquid state and transporting it by ship results in much higher emissions than using locally piped gas. Prohibiting fracking, its advocates argue, is a perverse incentive in favour of energy sources with higher emissions.

“Perverse incentives” cast a shadow over what is otherwise a renewables success story in Germany. Two decades of commitment helped the country to produce 28 per cent of its electricity from renewables last year, and that share is growing.

The problem is the rest of Germany’s electricity mix. With prices low, efficient new gas power stations stand idle, because they cannot make a profit. The country will also end its nuclear programme by 2022.

Meanwhile, Germany’s use of lignite — cheap, but the dirtiest and most carbon-emitting power source in use — is growing, and, after 20 years of decline, German carbon-dioxide emissions have risen slightly.


ONE category in which the pro-frackers are sure that the facts are on their side is energy security. The relationship between the UK and Russia is uneasy, and gas imports from Qatar could easily be threatened if instability in Saudi Arabia or Egypt were to shut the Red Sea-Suez Canal route.

Advocates of fracking also point to the economic importance of the energy industry. Declaring last year that Britain “was going all out for shale”, the Prime Minister said that this could create 74,000 jobs. Supply chains and services could add several times more — an important motivator for Ms Allanson and her pro-fracking group.

Moreover, Britain has become a global leader in servicing oil and gas fields around the world. As North Sea energy supplies decline, domestic fracking ensures that the next generation of engineers and geologists can continue to get experience at home.

Those opposed to fracking argue that the economic costs outweigh the benefits, and point to studies showing that the boost to employment from renewables is still greater, as well as developing engineering expertise in what, all agree, will be the main energy technologies of the future.

Not only that, but the local economies of many of the areas identified as having valuable shale deposits are heavily dependent on leisure and tourism — the Fylde Coast, North Yorkshire, and Fermanagh, for instance.

Good management can minimise the surface visibility of extraction plants, but what happens underground? Geological disturbance caused by energy exploitation is nothing new in Britain: coalfield communities have lived with it for centuries. Even conventional gas drilling can cause tremors.

Twice this year, the Dutch government has cut the amount of production allowed from the largest onshore gas field in Europe, around the city of Groningen, after public anger boiled over at a worsening cluster of earthquakes caused by extraction.

Even while fracking in Lancashire remains at an embryonic stage, small earthquakes have been caused by Cuadrilla’s drilling. In 2011, work at one of the first wells drilled in Lancashire — at Preece Hall, outside Blackpool — was suspended after earthquakes that registered 1.5 and 2.2. In the US, fracking has caused much larger tremors.

Advocates acknowledge that the fracking industry made mistakes in its early, wildcat phase in the US, but say that regulation in the UK is more robust. In Lancashire, Cuadrilla operates a “traffic light” system: drilling is suspended for investigations after tremors as small as 0.5 — well below human perception.

Opponents, on the other hand, argue that the Dutch experience undermines the idea of a green-friendly Europe contrasting with a cowboy capitalist US.

For more than 20 years, energy companies and regulators minimised the earthquake problem in Groningen, and obscured its connection with gas extraction. In 2012 alone, the Dutch exchequer benefited to the tune of €14 billion from the gas fields, without which the Netherlands’ government deficit would resemble those of Southern Europe.

Once fracked gas becomes a significant source of government revenue, campaigners argue, the pressure on regulators to ignore or minimise problems will become acute. The possible risks they foresee include not only earthquakes and subsidence, but groundwater contamination, and leakage of methane, a particularly powerful greenhouse gas.


TRYING to ascertain whether the UK is set for a fracking boom is as difficult as establishing any fact in relation to fracking. Significant revenue streams have been promised by central government to councils that give schemes the green light, and yet only 11 bores have been sunk so far.

Planners in Lancashire this summer rejected Cuadrilla’s plans for two new wells in the Fylde Valley. Energy exploitation of any sort tends to generate huge opposition. Given the turbulence regularly experienced by developers of even small wind-farms, local politicians can expect vociferous objections to a technology as contentious as fracking.

As oil prices stick at $50 per barrel, fracking may not currently be economically viable anyway — in the UK or anywhere else. It costs a great deal more to extract gas from shale than it does from a conventional field. The boom towns that in recent years sprang from nowhere in the North Dakota Badlands, for example, are visibly emptying as production plummets.

We all know, however, that, in an unstable world, it does not take much for energy prices to spike. Cuadrilla is adamant that its recent Lancashire planning applications were rejected for reasons of traffic and noise impact which can easily be mitigated further, and that it is in the business for the long haul.

The only fracking certainty is that this bitter debate, with its tendency to produce disputes over even the most basic facts, will be with us for years to come.


Gerry Lynch is Director of Communications for the diocese of Salisbury, but writes here as a freelance journalist.


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