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4 September 2012

Shale gas – what a fracking liberty! Or is it?

Let’s not name names, but when it comes to energy policy most of what you hear from the Westminster village is load of old toot. That’s because, as a bunch of humanities graduates (for the most part), their grip on scientific matters is shaky to say the least.

Elementary errors, that would be cause for public shame if made on a matter of economics, pass all but unremarked if made on a matter of physics, chemistry or biology. For instance, when the previous government u-turned on the issue of nuclear new-build, Labour ministers could be heard claiming that 20% of our energy comes from nuclear power. In fact, the figure referred to electricity, not energy – our consumption of the former being but part of our consumption of the latter.

Natural gas is another area of confusion. Not that long ago, the pundits were convinced that our rising consumption of this fuel would leave Britain at the mercy of the Russians. In fact, Britain was, and still is, hugely more dependent on imports of Russian coal than Russian gas, a fact that was rarely, if ever, mentioned in all those column inches of ignorant scare-mongering.

However, fashions change – and now, we are told, natural gas is the answer to all our energy problems. This, supposedly, is thanks to the development of ‘fracking’, a drilling technology than can extract natural gas from previously un-exploitable shale formations. Naturally, the reality is more nuanced than the hype would suggest.

There’s a wonderfully clear explanation of how fracking works in a report for ScienceNews by Rachel Ehrenberg. The article also provides a refreshingly balanced account of the counter-hyped downside of the shale gas industry – in particular the threat of blowouts, contamination and earthquakes:

  • “While the dangers are real, most problems linked to fracking so far are not specific to the technology but come with many large-scale energy operations employing poor practices with little oversight, scientists contend. Whether the energy payoff can come with an acceptable level of risk remains an open question.
  • “‘People want it to be simple on both sides of the ledger, and it's not simple,’ says environmental scientist Robert Jackson of Duke University.”

The earthquake issue is particularly interesting to us in Britain, because we’ve already had our first shale gas earthquake scare – near Blackpool, last year.

  • “…scientists agree such earthquakes are extremely rare, occurring when a well hits a seismic sweet spot, and are avoidable with monitoring.
  • “Of greater concern are earthquakes associated with the disposal of fracking fluid into wastewater wells. Injected fluid essentially greases the fault, a long-known effect.”

So, yes, there is a potential problem, but, no, it’s not an unavoidable and inherent feature of the fracking process itself. Rather, it’s all about the way that the wider industry and its practices are regulated. Getting that regulation right will depend upon transparency on the part of the drilling companies and the regulators, but also maturity on the part of politicians, campaigners and the media.

One has great hopes for the transparency.


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