Published in Third Way, October 2014
Depending who you ask, hydraulic fracturing – fracking – is either a panacea for our energy crisis or an environmental apocalypse in waiting. Clare Bryden drills through the propaganda in search of some answers.
Fracking has been a controversial news story since the protests at Balcombe in West Sussex against test drilling by Cuadrilla Resources in August 2013. In July this year, it knocked even the Middle East from the top of the news agenda when the Government announced the 14th Landward Licensing Round, opening up half of the UK to shale oil and gas exploration.1
Notably, it had refused to rule out fracking in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and World Heritage Sites. New planning rules, also announced, stipulate that licences would be granted in these areas only in ‘exceptional circumstances’ if ‘it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest’, and give the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles the right to overturn planning decisions. But environmental campaigners are a suspicious group, and took the view that the rules allow Pickles the automatic right to overrule local authorities who reject an application, thereby actually making it easier for developers.
Here as elsewhere, much heat was generated – but what is the truth of the matter? Is fracking good or bad?
SOME BASIC FACTS
Gas production in the North Sea is in decline, and to continue to meet demand, it needs to be supplemented with imports of natural gas or shipped-in liquefied natural gas (LNG), or with alternative sources.
Shale oil and gas is tightly locked into very finegrained rock. ‘Fracking’ is a short-hand for hydraulic fracturing of the rock. The technique was developed in the US, where it has boosted oil production and driven down gas prices. It involves drilling a well vertically down, then horizontally into the shale layer. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is injected into the rock at high pressure, creating fissures, and allowing the oil or gas to flow out through the well.
The British Geological Survey (BGS) has identified abundant potential reserves of shale oil and gas across swathes of the UK, especially the north of England, the Midland Valley of Scotland, and the Weald Basin in southern England.2 Assuming that 10 per cent can be extracted, shale gas could meet the UK’s gas needs for more than 40 years. But there’s the rub. As the BGS notes, its estimate ‘represents the gas that we think is present, but not the gas that might be possible to extract… [which] depends on the economic, geological and social factors that will prevail at each operation.’
From thousands of wells in the US, companies have not extracted more than 5 per cent.3 US technology has been found not to work on Polish geology, even though Poland was thought in Europe to be the most likely to replicate the US success.4 The UK shale gas industry is in its infancy, and there is no reliable understanding of the geological factors without a programme of drilling and testing.
Again, even in the US, the economics do not necessarily stack up. Drilling is expensive, and because yields from shale wells typically halve in four months,5 ever more wells must be drilled just to maintain production. According to Jeremy Leggett, ‘Oil and gas companies drilling American shale today spend a collective dollar and a half for every dollar of oil and gas income’.6
Leggett also comments drily on the social factors: ‘Anyone who knows the extent of necessary industrialisation at a fracking sweet spot in America, and who also knows the sentiments of rural England, knows that it will be impossible to replicate the American shale boom in the UK.’ Which brings us back to the impacts of fracking on the environment.
An environmental report produced for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), as part of its consultation on licensing proposals, considered the effects of ‘between 30 and 120 well pads being developed (each having between 6-24 wells and occupying up to 3 hectare of land per pad)’.7 It is difficult to conceive a well pad development the size of three Trafalgar Squares not having an impact on the countryside.
About one-tenth of the area now open for licensing is covered by the National Park or other protections. The rules covering the remainder of the country are unchanged. But I would argue that any local landscape and green space has value and needs conserving. Landscape is formative, the land is our heritage. Why else would we be so protective of our ‘backyard’, and the issue be so emotive?
Beneath our backyard, two minor earthquakes near Blackpool in April and May 2011 were seized on by campaigners as indicative of the dangers of fracking. A DECC report co-authored by the BGS concluded that test drilling by Cuadrilla was responsible and that further small earthquakes cannot be ruled out, but that the risk is low and structural damage extremely unlikely.8
Of greater concern is water, both the amount required for production and the risk of pollution and contamination of fresh water aquifers. Globally, fresh water is a more valuable resource than oil or gas. It is essential for life.
Each fracking well requires between 10,000 and 30,000 cubic metres of water. Over a decade of operation, this is equivalent to the amount needed to run a small coal-fired power station for just 12 hours. Even when multiplied up by hundreds of wells, the figures are therefore not exceptional. Nevertheless, water companies are required to produce a long-term water resource plan with contingency reserves in case of a drought, and will assess the amount of water available before providing it to fracking operators.9
The operators must declare the chemicals used in drilling and fracking to the environmental regulator, which assesses them for hazards on a case-by-case basis. Some of the water may return to the surface as flowback fluid, and the operator must dispose of this safely. Movement of flowback fluid by tanker may be an issue on local roads.
The risk of methane in drinking water is one of the most sensitive questions over fracking. The videos of people lighting the water coming out of their taps are somewhat unsettling.
According to mapping by the BGS and the Environment Agency, almost all the shale gas resource in England and Wales lies beneath at least one aquifer. An independent review by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering considered the most likely cause of contamination to be faulty wells drilled through aquifers, and recommended well examination by independent specialists. It also found that the risk of fractures reaching overlying aquifers is very low if extraction takes place at depths of many hundreds of metres.10 The Environment Agency says it will refuse permission to developments if they are too close to supplies of drinking water.11
So far, then, it seems that the visual impact of fracking on the landscape is likely to be unacceptable. The local environmental risks should be manageable if robust regulation is introduced and enforced, although this is a big ‘if’, as ministers have rejected calls in the UK for specific regulation and defeated EU proposals.12
BRIDGE TO FUTURE?
But what of the carbon footprint of shale gas, and can it, as claimed, be a bridge to a low-carbon future?
To have an even chance of keep global warming below 2°C, and avoid dangerous climate change, world carbon emissions must peak before 2020 then steadily decline. The total amount of carbon we can afford to emit is very small compared with the carbon content of coal, oil and gas reserves still in the ground. Countries, companies and individuals are therefore looking for low or zero-carbon alternatives.13
The UK has so far managed to meet its carbon targets largely through a ‘dash for gas’ replacing coal in electricity generation. DECC expects a second dash in the next few years, the share of renewables to increase steadily to 40 per cent by 2030, and new nuclear stations and coal and gas-fired power stations fitted with carbon capture and storage to come online from about 2025.14 So the government argues that shale gas could be an important bridge to help secure energy supplies until renewable energy capacity increases, while being a cleaner replacement for coal in the generation mix.
Anti-fracking campaigners point to a Cornell University study which found high methane leakage from fracking wells, giving shale gas a higher greenhouse gas footprint than coal. However, DECC’s chief scientific adviser considers this study to be an outlier. If adequately regulated – again, note the ‘if’ – local emissions should be only a small proportion of the shale gas footprint, which is similar to conventional gas, lower than LNG and significantly lower than coal.15
It seems clearer that UK shale gas cannot be considered a bridging fuel because of timescales. The chief executive of Cuadrilla has said it would take two or three years to drill enough test wells to determine whether commercial extraction is viable, and large-scale production would be unlikely to start for several years.16 Other commentators look to China, where the barriers to the industry are relatively low but significant production is still eight to ten years away, and consider timescales of fifteen to 20 years to be more realistic.17
WHAT ABOUT RENEWABLES?
Even a cursory comparison with the renewables sector clearly shows that fracking is a distraction. A 2009 report by National Grid found that biogas, produced predominantly from waste, had the potential to supply 5-18 per cent of total UK gas demand by 2020.18 The most optimistic forecast expects shale gas to fulfil at most 5 per cent of gas demand by 2030.19 In terms of contribution to electricity generation – and gas is far too versatile a fuel to be wasted in this way – Germany has already shown that renewable capacity is capable of expanding rapidly.
Even in the UK, renewable electricity capacity grew by 27 per cent in 2013 and renewables contributed 15 per cent to generation, while heat from renewable sources grew by 19 per cent.20 The Government is now trying to limit subsidies paid to solar farms, because they are growing too rapidly.21
Business and Energy Minister Matthew Hancock claimed in July that shale gas will bring jobs and growth, which is supported by the Institute of Directors’ estimate that it could attract annual investment of £3.7 billion and support up to 74,000 jobs.22 But according to research by the Renewable Energy Association, launched by the then Climate Change Minister Greg Barker, the UK renewables industry was already worth £12.5 billion and supported 110,000 jobs in 2010/11, with 400,000 in total required to meet the UK’s renewables targets in 2020.23
A second ‘dash for gas’ would lock the UK into a high-carbon future, and would divert investment away from cleaner renewables now. It would also lock the UK into an future of uncertain gas prices and supplies on global markets, as DECC expects the UK will need to import 70 per cent of consumption by 2025.24 That figure dwarfs the 5 per cent maximum contribution by shale gas, and almost mocks Hancock’s claim that shale gas has the potential to provide us with greater energy security.
Moreover, as the chair of Cuadrilla Lord Browne pointed out: ‘We are part of a well-connected European gas market and, unless it is a gigantic amount of gas, it is not going to have material impact on price.’25 So much for the insistence by David Cameron and George Osborne that shale gas would drive energy prices down and reduce household energy bills to the benefit of the fuel poor.
Instead of rhetoric on shale gas, what the UK needs is a truly sustainable energy policy that challenges the status quo; that is underpinned by conservation and decarbonisation; that invests in energy efficiency; that makes as sparing and smart use of fossil fuels and nuclear as possible; that seriously considers the potential of decentralised electricity grids, and invests in demand side management and storage alongside increased ‘home grown’ renewable generation; and that seriously considers the potential of renewable biofuels, consistent with sustainable food and waste policies.
SO WHY PROMOTE IT?
Why, then, is the UK Government so keen to promote fracking, when the Scottish Government has recently supported residents’ rights to oppose it26 and many countries in Europe have banned it?
The Government has announced an extraordinary range of financial incentives to fracking companies, local councils and communities: a 30 per cent tax rate for onshore shale gas production, well below the top rate of 62 per cent on new North Sea oil operations;27 altering planning fees to account for only the above-ground area, rather than the entire area of underground drilling;28 allowing local councils to keep 100 per cent of business rates from fracking operations rather than 50 per cent;29 payments to local councils and communities of £100,000 per site and 1 per cent of revenues from any successful wells.30
It is also making protest more difficult, rushing through planning reforms which mean that homeowners will no longer be individually notified of a planning application for drilling or fracking beneath their home,31 and changing trespass laws, so that companies are granted access to run pipes through land below 300m from the surface.32
Yet it knows that public support for fracking is weak. DECC’s latest survey of attitudes towards its priorities found that 80 per cent supported renewable energy and 59 per cent would be happy to have a large scale renewable energy development in their area, whilst only 29 per cent supported shale gas extraction. The survey did not ask respondents whether they would be happy to have a fracking development in their area.33
Nor will the Government’s refusal to rule out fracking in National Parks and AONBs endear it to its backbench MPs in rural constituencies.
I can only conclude that it is about money and power. Osborne is hoping for a repeat of the North Sea oil bonanza, and there are strong links between the Government and the fracking industry. Campaigners have named five non-executive directors working within government departments who have fracking interests, including the Cuadrilla chair Lord Browne,34 and six members of the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee which published a report on ‘The Economic Impact on UK Energy Policy of Shale Gas and Oil’.35 The new chair of the Environment Agency has also had links to the fracking industry.36
All interests are declared and there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing, nor do any of the five non-execs sit in DECC, but it is no wonder that the anti-fracking action camps at Balcombe and elsewhere are called ‘Reclaim the Power’.
UNMASKING THE POWERS
Alastair McIntosh in ‘Soil and Soul’ describes a model for activism of naming the Powers, unmasking the Powers and engaging the Powers. All power ultimately comes from God, but expressed through human agency is fallen. Naming the Powers makes the invisible visible. Unmasking the Powers exposes their effects on life, for example their sanctioning of violence. Only then should the Powers be engaged, not through meeting violence with violence, because that is legitimising the Powers, but by challenging and redeeming the Powers.
We must hold our Government to account, reminding them that we live in a democracy and they work for us. One obvious way is to use our vote next year. We can also write to our local councils, MPs or members of the Lords. But we should not assume that the Powers are all in Government and have already been named and unmasked. We are also culpable.
There is a disconnect between public opinion of fracking ‘in my back yard’, and our energy-hungry lifestyles. One of the more helpful contributions to the fracking debate has come from the Bishop of Chichester, who questioned whether our present consumption of energy is justifiable (not simply sustainable), and how we can demand much less from the earth and still live rich and fulfilled lives.37
OWNING OUR CULPABILITY
We are addicted to energy, and take it for granted. We think nothing of driving miles to leisure activities, and are ignorant of what happens when we flick on a light switch. We are quite happy, if we consider it at all, for our energy to be extracted overseas or generated on the other side of the country. In this respect, I admire a farmer who is willing to lease land for fracking and put up with the visual impact, noise and inconvenience.
Our relationship with energy is at odds with our other relationships: with God and creation; with our neighbour affected by the impacts of energy production or climate change, including future generations; and with our own souls. Living within constraints can be a well-spring of creativity – think of the beauty encapsulated by the strict form of sonnets and sonatas – and we damage ourselves when we live without compassion, mindfulness or simplicity.
I have already mentioned money as a Government motivator. But where have we put our treasure, and thereby our heart? If it is invested in fossil fuels, is it time we followed the example of the World Council of Churches and disinvested?38 We need to be wary too of placing a monetary value on the environment or community. The fracking protests at Balcombe divided the village and caused great bitterness. That could well happen elsewhere. But is a community worth £100,000 plus 1 per cent of revenues?
Thankfully, Balcombe has become an example of an alternative way. It has started a community energy project, raising money through personal savings and share issues to install solar panels and generate enough electricity for the village. The project is helping to bring healing to the community, offering a visible reminder of what lies behind that light switch, and demonstrating that ordinary people can have a choice about how they source their energy.
6 Resurgence, Jul-Aug 2014.
9 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/277211/Water.pdf [link no longer active]