Fracking Confusion

The news on the radio this morning featured a story about the Prime Minister wanting the UK to “get behind” hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking” as it is known for short) , a means of  liberating shale gas that offers the prospect of boosting the UK’s energy supply.

There’s not much sign any “getting behind” happening up the road from here in Balcombe, where a sizable anti-fracking protest has been going on for some time. There’s actually no fracking going on in Balcombe at the moment; the company involved, Cuadrilla Resources, is doing exploratory drilling to look for oil but may apply for a licence to pursue hydraulic fracturing if that is unsuccessful.

There’s a simple graphic on the BBC website that illustrates how fracking works:

_65309507_shale_gas_extraction464

In simple terms it involves pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into a deposit of shale ato fracture the solid material contained therein and thus liberate the gas. Environmentalists argue that this technique might cause earth tremors and/or contamination of the water supply; advocates of fracking dispute these claims. I’m not sufficiently expert to be able to comment usefully on the arguments about the possible environmental dangers associated with it, so I’d be glad to receive comments via the box below.

One thing I will comment on, though, is the very poor quality of the media reporting on this issue. I’ve yet to see any meaningful attempt to comment on the science involved when surely that’s the key to whether we should “get behind” fracking or not? It struck me that quite a few readers might also be interested but ill-informed about this issue to, so for them I’d recommend reading the Beddington Report, the key findings of which were:

  • The health, safety and environmental risks can be managed effectively in the UK. Operational best practices must be implemented and enforced through strong regulation. Fracture propagation is an unlikely cause of contamination.
  • The risk of fractures propagating to reach overlying aquifers is very low provided that shale gas extraction takes place at depths of many hundreds of metres or several kilometres. Even if fractures reached overlying aquifers, the necessary pressure conditions for contaminants to flow are very unlikely to be met given the UK’s shale gas hydrogeological environments.
  • Well integrity is the highest priority. More likely causes of possible contamination include faulty wells. The UK’s unique well examination scheme was set up so that independent, specialist experts could review the design of every offshore well. This scheme must be made fit for purpose for onshore activities.
  • Robust monitoring is vital. Monitoring should be carried out before, during and after shale gas operations to detect methane and other contaminants in groundwater and potential leakages of methane and other gases into the atmosphere.
  • An Environmental Risk Assessment (ERA) should be mandatory. Every shale gas operation should assess risks across the entire lifecycle of operations, from water use through to the disposal of wastes and the abandonment of wells.
  • Seismic risks are low. Seismicity should be included in the ERA.Seismicity induced by hydraulic fracturing is likely to be of smaller magnitude than the UK’s largest natural seismic events and those induced by coal mining.
  • Water requirements can be managed sustainably. Water use is already regulated by the Environment Agency. Integrated operational practices, such as recycling and reusing wastewaters where possible, would help to minimise water requirements further. Options for disposing of wastes should be planned from the outset. Should any onshore disposal wells be necessary in the UK, their construction, regulation and siting would need further consideration.
  • Regulation must be fit for purpose. Attention must be paid to the way in which risks scale up should a future shale gas industry develop nationwide. Regulatory co-ordination and capacity must be maintained.
  • Policymaking would benefit from further research. The carbon footprint of shale gas extraction needs further research. Further benefit would also be derived from research into the public acceptability of shale gas extraction and use in the context of the UK’s energy, climate and economic policies.

I’m not sure how many anti-fracking activists, or others involved in the Balcombe protest, have read this report.

Anyway, in an attempt to gauge the mood of my totally unrepresentative readership, I thought I’d try a little poll:

And if you have strong opinions, please feel free to use the comments box.

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21 Responses to “Fracking Confusion”

  1. I tried looking into this subject a few weeks back in order to bring a reasoned response to anyone who might ask me about it. One thing which dismayed me about the report was the lack of numbers.

    “The risk of fractures propagating to reach overlying aquifers is very low provided that shale gas extraction takes place at depths of many hundreds of metres or several kilometres. Even if fractures reached overlying aquifers, the necessary pressure conditions for contaminants to flow are very unlikely to be met given the UK’s shale gas hydrogeological environments.”

    The scientist in me reads this and asks how low the “very low” risk is. As the designers at the LHC discovered with their coolant system, a failure rate of 0.001% sounds great until you have 10,000 of said element in the system, making failure profoundly likely. Similarly, if the “low risk” of fracture propagation is hypothetically 0.1% per operation then I wouldn’t be keen to drink water from a reservoir located near 100 fracking sites.

    Without greater clarity I do not think that anyone can make an educated decision to “get behind” or oppose fracking regulation.

  2. I have seen videos (there are probably some on YouTube) where one can hold a match to the water coming out of the tap and it ignites, allegedly a result of nearby fracking.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, I’ve seen such videos. This is due to gas getting into the water supply which, presumably, can happen if the fracking is carried out too close to the water table. It can also occur without fracking, if there is a lot of gas in the groundwater.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      That’s what you get when you pay cash to a plumber who doesn’t understand English…

      • telescoper Says:

        Fortunately I don’t live in Wales anymore..

      • I know an Englishman married to a foreigner who speaks very good English—of the type one learns at school. Not long after she had moved to England, a plumber (or similar) came by, having been asked to fix something. When he got home, he asked his wife what the plumber had said, and she replied “Mrm jfweiojf bmmf mffme fjwijioj mcmifjijiojsg mrmfjiwejgi, love.” :-)

  3. Loretta Dunne Says:

    Another point to consider is why invest all this money and effort into extracting methane to burn when what is really needed in an alternative way to power our energy hungry activities. There isn’t a shortage of oil/coal/gas etc, if we burn what is currently available then we will exceed the CO2 levels thought by most scientists to be ‘safe’ wrt climate change. Surely this is the bigger question, not whether fracking is a safe/not safe method of extracting a very unsafe source of energy in the long run.

    • telescoper Says:

      Loretta,

      I think the immediate problem is that the UK is so dependent on imported gas, especially from Russia. That places a very big question mark over our energy security in the short-term. There is no viable solution in terms of renewable or nuclear that can be deployed in time to achieve this on the timescale of a few years even if we manage to improve energy efficiency. As long as it is recognised as a stop-gap, there may therefore be a sensible role for fracking if it can be shown to be safe..

      Peter

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter, immediately after I voted I was shown what the score was in your poll. how can I do that without trying to vote again?

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    I predict that the “Frack off” fraction will go down as electricity bills and landscape-wrecking wind turbines continue to go up; certainly if there are power cuts. Nuclear fusion is the longterm solution and I am not worried about CO2 levels in the interim as it hasn’t got warmer in the last 15 years, taken globally, although China and India have continued to open a coal-fired power station every week on average during that time.

  6. There was an interesting letter published in the FT on this issue today. The article is here and the first few comments on it seem to offer some reasonable counter-points: http://liberalconspiracy.org/2013/08/12/banker-destroys-argument-for-shale-gas-in-a-short-letter/

  7. When many people hear of global warming and that temperatures might increase by a few degrees, they perhaps think of their last seaside holiday when it could have been a bit warmer and don’t see a problem. The problem is not the increase in temperature per se, but rather its effects. First, because warm air can hold more water than cold, various types of storms become more severe. Also, sea levels rise. This is due to two effects. One is the thermal expansion of seawater. The other is the melting of ice on land (mainly Greenland and Antarctica) which increases the sea level. (Unlike thermal expansion, the magnitude of the effect is independent of the depth of the oceans. To first order, the melting of sea ice doesn’t directly contribute to an increase in sea level, but can do so indirectly through a reduction in the albedo, hence increasing the warming.) Each effect could give a meter or two, which would not be good for the population in coastal areas. (The main reason to worry about global warming is not because it affects the Earth—the Earth has seen, and will see, much bigger changes—but rather because it can affect a large fraction of humanity. The income from wine made from grapes grown in Newcastle will not offset the damages caused by a rise in sea level.)

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I simply don’t believe in an effect which causes the standard deviation to increase but not the mean.

      • Whether or not you are right is a different question, of course, but you do realize that you are in a minority with this position, at least among, say, university graduates.

  8. kazekkurz Says:

    AFAIK fracking requires much more wells that tradidional oil/gas drills. If so, then additional resources are needed for establishing them on the developement stage and for gas transport. Only relativelly small amouts of wells give economic profit.
    The whole bussines may be not so big success as it looks like…
    Take a loook here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/us/natural-gas-drilling-down-documents-4.html#document/p1/a22779

  9. […] And it’s not behind a paywall! The abstract of the paper, which I’m passing (as with my earlier post) on in the (probably forlorn) hope that it will introduce some rationality into the so-called […]

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