Christopher Pincher MP: Exposing the mythical horror stories about shale gas
Christopher Pincher is the Member of Parliament for Tamworth. Follow Chris on Twitter.
Shale gas is back on the agenda in Village Westminster. An all-party group chaired by my colleague Dan Byles was recently launched to a packed audience. The Select Committee for Energy & Climate Change has also just published another supportive report (free of carbon targets). DECC has lifted its moratorium on drilling and is launching a new round of licenses. The Chancellor has promised proposals on community incentives to support exploration. And the leader of rhe Greens, Natalie Bennett, has been inveighing against the horrors of fracking.
Despite the latest positive pressure, that Green attack continues to be significant. Laying aside for the moment their axiom that “If it don’t blow, we don’t want to know”, consider the cumulative impact their tightly-focussed opposition campaign, allied to lazy journalism, complacent industry PR, sloppy scientific analysis, miniscule geological data and half-hearted political backing, has had on the prospects for shale gas as a significant energy source, job creator and revenue generator for the United Kingdom.
Myth One: Shale gas is different
The first myth is bound up in the jargon in which all experts like to cloak their specialism. “Unconventional hydrocarbon” sounds mysterious, even menacing. And because it sounds different, people are uncomfortable about it. Yet it is gas, just gas, like any other gas that heats the home or cooks the dinner. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is another baffling buzz term. Yet it is essentially no different to oil or gas drilling which we have done for years, which have their own dangers, but which everyone accepts as ordinary and understood. So the first myth to be busted is that shale gas is different. It is not. The industry itself must stop using strange slang and stop others from using it too.
Myth 2: There’s no point in exploring for shale as there isn’t enough of it, anyway
It is hard to assess accurately the volume of shale gas locked beneath the British Isles, and that is because no one has done any significant exploratory drilling. However, the British Geological Survey (BGS), based on geological analysis, estimates UK onshore shale gas reserves to be 5.3 trillion cubic feet (tcf). They also admit they are really just waving a wet finger in the air, and are happy to accept the Cuadrilla (who have done a bit of drilling) estimate of 200tcf. Other models suggest there could be much more shale gas, perhaps even half as much again. Of course we cannot squeeze every last methane molecule out of the ground – thinking that is as bonkers as some of the claims made by the anti lobby. But we can squeeze out a significant amount (the US recovery rate is 18%), and certainly enough to support our needs for decades to come.
What we need is more information. And the way to get it and bust this myth is for companies to get on with their drilling and for the government to give them the help they need to do so. And while they are at it, DECC might want to release the extractable reserve estimates the drilling companies have given to it – and which they say they are perfectly happy to be published – to scotch the story that there just is not enough gas to bother about.
Myth 3: Shale extraction causes earthquakes.
It is true that there have been tremors reported near the drilling sites in Lancashire and that fracking contributed to the seismic event. However the two tremors felt at the surface have not been anywhere near enough to cause any damage. The fact is that there are seismic movements documented on a daily basis. In March alone there were 16 tremors across the British Islands of greater intensity than the movements picked up near Blackpool and Fylde. Though the drilling companies must take care to reduce the risk of inducing seismic activity, we should not think shale gas exploration is going to result in earthquakes. That is just scaremongering. Remember that coal mining results in landslips, yet no one seriously cited that as a reason to close the collieries.
Myth 4: Shale gas will have no effect on my bills.
The US now benefits from some of the lowest gas prices in the world thanks to its shale revolution and it is on the way (once their terminals are redeveloped) to becoming a gas exporter. That is not to say that we will benefit in the same way partly because our gas market is so integrated with Europe. However, significant exploitation of British shale gas across the continent could reduce our exposure to hydrocarbon price volatility on the world markets. That could contribute to the stabilisation of British energy costs – good for homes and for businesses – at the very least. Indeed, initial assessments suggest that production levels of 12bcf per year will start to have a positive impact on our domestic energy prices.
Myth 5: Shale isn't green.
Those opposed to shale gas development (in fact opposed to almost any energy source which does not involve wind) claim it will add to our CO2 emissions, not reduce them. Though no one denies that gas has a carbon footprint, it is far smaller than coal and oil and can be a viable method of bridging the short-term gap between hydrocarbons and cleaner fuels such as nuclear. In 2011 42 million tonnes of coal was burnt, producing 90million tonnes of CO2. Natural gas emits half as much carbon, saving 45million tonnes per year or 8% of the total CO2 released.
Since the shale explosion in America CO2 emissions have fallen by 450million tonnes in just five years - more than in any other country. The global economic slowdown and other economic factors may have also contributed to this decline but there is little doubt that shale has been a major factor in the US carbon clean-up.
Myth 6: Shale gas extraction leads to contamination of the water supply
This is frankly rubbish. The shale deposits are buried deep, many hundreds of feet beneath the earth. Aquifers are much closer to the surface. Between the two lie hundreds of feet of solid rock. Fracking in itself cannot lead to pollutants permeating the rock and rising up into the water supply. The only way that fracking chemicals can find their way into the water table is if the well bore hole itself is compromised. And the efforts to avoid that, such as boring then concreting twice over to make the bore hole secure, reduce the risk massively. The ECC Select Committee found no risk to underground water aquifers whilst further developments could see chemical free fracking with extraction using vibrations and sound waves to release the trapped gas. And lest anyone forget, the chemicals used in fracking do not make you glow in the dark. They are the sort of chemicals everyone has under their kitchen sink (and which they flush down the plug hole) every day.
Myth 7: Shale gas extraction wastes valuable water
Another myth. Shale gas fracking certainly requires quite a lot of water – but no more than is used to irrigate the average golf course. And though some of it stays in the shale beds, much of it is pumped out and carried away for treatment. It does not all stay stagnating underground. And as I have already pointed out, advances in shale science mean new and even cleaner methods of fracking could soon be on the way.
Shale has the potential to represent 21% of gas supply to the United Kingdom and that could keep LNG imports below 50% of our needs. It could, in conjunction with continental shale deposits, be a significant source of European energy. The Government must remove the obstacles to successful exploration and extraction of shale gas at scale. It has made a good start by lifting the drilling moratorium and announcing a new licensing round after too many years without one. Crucially the government should look at planning rules for shale drilling. The biggest roadblock most companies highlight when turning plans on paper into holes in the ground is the negative reaction of local planning committees.
Clearly winning community acceptance through better local engagement is essential, and companies that fail to do that are foolish. But we must not be foolish in assuming that shale gas exploration will now simply forge ahead. Perhaps a Private Member’s Bill in this session could look at ways of fast-tracking planning applications whilst ensuring communities are properly involved in the process. The best way to bust the myths about shale gas is to turn the plans into reality.