Why I’m against fracking
Photo credit: wcn247
August 12, 2013 // By: Chris Williams
As you've probably already heard, Cuadrilla started their test drilling in Balcombe, West Sussex last week. As a Sussex resident and someone who appreciates our woodland, chalk grassland, clean drinking water and a horizon without burning gas flares, this concerns me – and I’m not the only one.
Fracking is the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at high pressure to fracture shale rocks and release the natural gas deposits inside them. Local residents are concerned that this hydraulic fracturing is a risk to human health and the natural environment, through the noise, pollution and even possible ground tremors it can cause.
The fluids used in the process contain hundreds of chemicals, including lead, uranium, mercury, radium and hydrochloric acid - not exactly what you’d like to find in your local groundwater or aquifer. In the US fracking is expanding at an alarming rate, with fracking companies are under no obligation to disclose what chemicals they use. Cases of water contamination next to areas of gas drilling, as well as health problems, have already been reported.
The economics of fracking don’t add up
Environmental and health concerns aside, fracking just doesn’t make economic sense. The problem is one of production rates, which start high but fall fast. Shale gas production declines very rapidly as pressure within the earth closes up the fracking fissures. An article in Energy Policy noted that production at wells drops off by as much as 60-90% within the first year, and as Nafeez Ahmed has shown, the rapid decline rates of shale gas wells mean huge sums of money need to be continually ploughed into them to keep production going.
As production declines, operators must drill new wells to sustain production levels. New drilling causes a glut of gas every time a new site comes into production, creating the perfect scenario for ‘boom and bust economics’. The likely result is an unsustainable shale bubble: structural instabilities masked by temporary recovery. What’s more, even the UK Parliament's energy and climate change committee says there is "substantial uncertainty" over what impact shale gas will have on gas prices and it is "by no means certain" that prices will fall .
Shale gas is expensive to develop as it requires horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing of the shale beds, both of which are hugely costly. Most of the work used to justify fracking comes from the USA which is a bad comparison for a number of reasons, such as size, population density and mineral rights ownership.
Recent work has shown that US companies concentrate on developing shale ‘sweet spots’, which are not representative the countries overall shale beds in terms of productiveness. This is part of the reason that reserves are overestimated, but even the USA’s purportedly vast shale gas resources will last only 23 years under current consumption rates. Companies claim much longer lives and higher residual values for their wells as it supports their projections for profitability or non-profitability. These claims need to be scrutinised.
Closer to home, data from Poland’s shale gas wells show poor flow rates in over-pressured, hard-to-develop shales. Europe’s shale is generally less productive, giving rise to additional concerns around water supply, proximity of population centres, water contamination, ownership and leasing.
Our own research has highlighted the threat of high and sustained oil (and gas) prices to the future of the UK economy as a key issue we need to address.
Supporting fracking avoids the real issues
The solution, of course, is a transition to a low-carbon economy based on renewable sources of energy, yet instead George Osborne has recently given fracking companies a 50% tax break. Subsidies and tax breaks for renewable energy could create more jobs and help our energy and climate change targets instead of putting our health, countryside and geology at risk.
We also need the Government to use the Green Investment Bank to turn investors towards new, low carbon sectors. More investment in mass public transit systems, more efficient vehicles, people travelling less due to home working, and cheaper, low carbon energy alternatives are the route to go down. Not making a fracking mess of our national heritage.
Shale gas is not the answer to our energy problems.