The government has presented the extraction of methane from underground rock beds (known as fracking) as some kind of ‘magic solution’ to the future energy needs of the UK.
The government are so keen to attract fracking companies that chancellor George Osborne has given the industry that he describes as the ‘most generous tax regime in the world’.
What is fracking?
Shale gas is natural gas found in very fine-grained sedimentary rock, which is typically 2 to 3 kilometres under the earth’s surface. The gas is tightly locked in very small spaces within the reservoir rock requiring advanced technologies to drill and stimulate (fracture) the gas bearing zones.
The creation of fractures within the reservoir is critical in allowing the natural gas to flow to the well, and this is achieved through a process called ‘hydraulic fracturing’.
Hydraulic fracturing uses pressurised fluid to free the trapped gas. Wells are drilled and fracking fluid is injected at high pressure to crack the rock. The fracking fluid consists of water, sand, and a chemical cocktail, many of which are highly toxic. It has been claimed that the chemicals used in UK fracking operations will be non-toxic, but the exact mixture of chemicals fracking companies will use has not been released as yet.
In the US, companies use their own cocktail of chemicals which they claim are a ‘trade secret’, which makes them exempt from revealing the exact make-up of the fluid under US law.
Fracking fluid generally consists of 98% to 99.5% water. Fracking companies claim the chemicals are added to prevent corrosion of materials and to give the fluid the right consistency.
Common chemicals used in the US fracking cocktails include:
|Crystalline silica||Methanol||Isopropanol||Hydrotreated light distillate||2-Butoxyethanol|
|Found in concrete, brick mortar and construction sands.
|Found in antifreeze, paint solvent and vehicle fuel.||Found in glass cleaners, antiperspirant, cosmetics, perfumes and soaps.
|Found in the fuel for the US Air Force’s U-2 Aircraft.
|Found in paints and varnish.
|Ethylene glycol||Diesel||Sodium hydroxide (lye)||Naphthalene|
|Found in de-icing agents, automotive antifreeze, household cleaners.
|Found in fuel oil.||Found in drain cleaner, manufacturing products.||Found in mothballs.|
Other chemicals found in some fracking fluids which pose very serious health risks are:
|Formaldehyde||Sulphuric acid||Benzene||Lead||Boric acid|
|Found in embalming agent for human or animal remains.||Found in lead-acid batteries for cars.||Found in gasoline.||Found in paint, building construction materials and roofing joints.||Found in insecticides, antiseptics, flame retardants|
|Fuel oil #2||Kerosene||Hydrofluoric acid||Hydrochloric acid||Formic acid|
|Found in heating oil.||Found in jet and rocket fuel||Found in rust removers, aluminium brighteners and heavy duty cleaners.||Used in the treatment of steel, found in household cleaners and stomach acid.||Used for tanning leather, as a preservatives for livestock feed, and in toilet bowl cleaner.|
Millions of gallons of water and tons of chemicals are needed to frack one well. During the process, about 20% to 30% of the fracking fluid is recovered.
While underground, the fracking fluid comes into contact with rock which is under pressure and at a very high temperature. When the rock is fracked, material is transferred from the rock into the fracking fluid, and includes toxic element such as arsenic and radioactive material – most notably radium-266.
The first problem with the process so far is the supply of sufficient water. The amount of water needed per well will place a serious strain on the existing water infrastructure, whether taken directly from the water table or existing water supply network. This will inevitably result in water having to be transported to the site by road, which will have a serious impact on the local environment.
Statistics on fracking in the US show that each well requires 400 to 600 tankers of water, 20 to 25 lorry loads of sand, and 200 to 300 lorry loads to remove the waste material.
According to Water UK (the body which represents water companies) the seismic activity from the fracking process may fracture existing water pipework.
Another concern expressed by Dr Jim Marshall of Water UK at the ‘UK Shale 2013 – Making it Happen’ conference on 17th July this year, is that the process could cause contamination of the drinking water aquifers that overlie shale gas reserves by allowing gases such as methane to permeate into drinking water sources from rocks where it was previously confined. Contamination can also be caused by chemicals used in the fracking process entering drinking water aquifers through fractures caused by the process or, potentially, by poor handling of wastewater on the surface.
Here is a video of what happens when methane gets into the water supply (the interesting part is about 4:30 minutes into the video). Water on fire:
If irrigation water becomes contaminated, it will mean that the food supply will also become contaminated, causing health problems for millions of people across the country.
Air pollution is another concern. The leakage of gases from well sites into the air is known to produce significantly increased rates of low-level ozone (usually associated with exhaust fumes from vehicles). In the US, a small county of 9,000 residents, Sublette County, has ozone levels equal to Los Angeles. The increase has occurred since fracking was started in the county.
Have a look at around the 8:30 minute mark on the video above for thermal imaging of the gas releases from the well head.
Research by the Colorado School of Public Health showed that the air pollution caused by fracking resulted in health problems for people living nearby, including eye irritation, headaches, and breathing difficulties. Of particular concern was an increases presence of the carcinogenic Benzene, which has been linked to increased lifetime risk of developing cancer.
Treatment and disposal of the recovered fracking fluid is also of concern to Water UK. Water companies may be asked to accept and treat discharges of contaminated water recovered from the fracking process. This may not be possible in all areas because some water companies may not have a suitable site near enough to carry out the required treatment.
Fracking fluid has to be stored awaiting collection, and in the US this is often an open pit close to the well which allows some seepage of the fluid into the surrounding area.
Shale gas is not a sustainable resource. It comes with a high environmental cost.
In addition to the risks of pollution and contamination as a direct result of the extraction process, there is the environmental impact of building the infrastructure – well heads, transport links (mainly roads), and pipelines to carry the gas – and of disposing of waste material – transport and processing.
‘Clusters’ of wells could appear across the countryside as more shale gas resources are tapped into, like this one in Australia:
Shale gas reserves are not unlimited, and estimates of how long these reserves will last vary, but are generally in the region of 25 years.
The extraction of shale gas is a controversial subject and has attracted criticism from environmental groups, politicians, and the public.
The announcement by Osborne that tax on producing shale gas is going to be 30% also raised a few eyebrows. Gas production is typically taxed at 62% although in some parts of the North Sea long standing operations are taxed at up to 81%.
In addition to the tax break, the government also plans to give communities where the gas heads are located £100,000 per site and up to 1% of shale gas revenues.
Nowhere else in the world are shale gas companies given such an advantageous tax break.
In an interview with the BBC Osborne said “We want to create the right conditions for industry to explore and unlock that potential in a way that allows communities to share in the benefits,” and continued “I want Britain to be a leader of the shale gas revolution because it has the potential to create thousands of jobs and keep energy bills low for millions of people.”
So what Osborne expects the public to believe is that shale gas is going to “keep energy prices low”, insinuating that they are not going to reduce, but may – if the public are ‘lucky’ – stay at the same rate – which are already horrendously high.
He also expects the public to believe that the government has to resort to shale gas because they have not had an opportunity to control energy prices before. The government has had more than enough opportunity to regulate fuel prices and bring the largely unregulated energy industry under control, but have chosen not to do so. Now, we are expected to believe that all of a sudden they are concerned about how much fuel is costing the average person.
Criticising the chancellor’s comments on fuel prices, Lawrence Carter, energy campaigner at Greenpeace, said “Analysts from energy regulator Ofgem, Deutsche Bank and Energy UK are lining up to say that UK shale gas won’t bring down bills for households or businesses. Even the company with the biggest stake in Lancashire shale gas, Cuadrilla, privately admits that it won’t reduce energy prices. It’s alarming that the Chancellor is staking his growth strategy on an industry that doesn’t buy his hype.”
Cuadrilla, which is chaired by former BP chief executive Lord Browne, is Britain’s sole active shale gas producer. According to company press released, the production of shale gas could reduce the wholesale price of electricity and gas by as much as 4%.
Contradicting the company’s statement, at a meeting for concerned residents at a potential fracking site in West Sussex, a Cuadrilla representative was asked to comment on whether shale gas could drive down customers’ energy bills. “We’ve done an analysis and it’s a very small…at the most it’s a very small percentage…basically insignificant,” said Mark Linder, a public relations executive at Bell Pottinger who is also responsible for Cuadrilla’s corporate development.
The statement by Linder also contradicts the impression Osborne and the government are trying to give the public that energy prices will reduce.
No – the government are trying to keep the energy companies sweet with a nice little deal that will increase their profits, and the dividends of their shareholders – who no doubt include members of the government or/and their friends.
Cameron is also under the spotlight over the ‘sudden’ enthusiasm for shale gas by the government.
Cameron’s relationship with Lynton Crosby, the Conservative party’s chief election strategist, was questioned by the opposition Labour party.
Jon Trickett, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, pointed out that Crosby’s lobbying firm, Crosby Textor, represents the Australian Petroleum Exploration Association which campaigns for fracking. One of its members, Dart Energy, has a UK subsidiary, Dart Europe Limited, which has an interest in the Bowland Shale site in Lancashire and Yorkshire, which contains 1,300tn cubic feet of gas.
A spokesman for the campaign group Frack Off told the Independent “You cannot see where government stops and the corporate interests begin. When it comes to an issue like fracking, where human health and our shared environment is being put at risk, we have to question whether those in power are even capable of putting the interests of the general public first.”
There are questions to be asked and concerns to be addressed about the process of fracking, its impact on the environment and lives of people who live close to well heads. So far, it appears as though the government see fracking as a commercial opportunity rather than an opportunity to commit to the UK’s long-term energy security.
The government has shown no serious interest in developing renewable energy sources.
Investing in renewable energy supplies would give a much better return on the initial investment, produce energy which would be cheaper for the consumer, and secure the long-term energy supply of the UK.
Renewable energy would also pose much less of a risk to the environment and the health of the population.
The government has already faced significant criticism over the misinformation they have given the public about energy cost control, and their shady dealings with existing energy companies – companies who never seem to come under scrutiny for their business practices.
Some useful fracking resources:
In closing, we will repeat the quote from Frack-Off:
“You cannot see where government stops and the corporate interests begin.”