A quick and easy briefing for those interested by Robin Whitlock, Freelance Renewable Energy Journalist
As many people now know, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is increasingly favoured by the UK government as a new source of oil and gas. Here’s a quick and easy explanation of why this is a VERY bad idea.
Why are governments turning to fracking as a source of energy?
Shale gas and other fuel resources obtained by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) are known as ‘unconventional fuels’. The main reason why governments have been turning to unconventional fuels in recent years is because of global oil depletion (peak oil), with other reasons being energy security (remaining oil and gas reserves are often located in areas of the world with a history of instability or extremism – e.g. the Middle East).
Oil depletion, or ‘peak oil’, first came to public attention with the theory of M. King Hubbert that at a certain point in time, the maximum rate of extraction of oil would be reached and that thereafter oil reserves would begin to decline (oil depletion). The graph depicting this is known as Hubbert’s Curve and it is also applicable to other fuels such as natural gas and uranium. More of that later. A bit on terminology here. Peak oil specifically refers to the maximum point of production (the top of the graph) while oil depletion refers to the decline that follows it.
The theory of peak oil has been much discussed over recent years by oil industry experts, such as Kenneth S. Deffeyes and Matthew Simmons who have pointed out the risks to the global economy by peak oil. This goes as follows: Oil basically underlies everything we do and everything we consume, from agricultural fertilisers to plastics to transport fuels. Reductions in oil therefore means economic stress as shortages are reflected in higher prices. It is not necessary for oil to ‘run out’ for this happen. The mere fact that shortages happen is enough to force the price up on stock markets. If the global shortage is bad enough, in theory it could provoke a ‘panic’ on the stock market, in turn causing a global recession. Some think this has already started to happen to some extent.
Hubbert originally predicted that US oil production would peak in about 1970. That was pretty close, because US conventional oil did indeed peak in 1970, at 9.6 million barrels per day. Guess what happened next? Yes, you guessed it, the US introduced hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and that in turn caused US oil production to rebound.
Hubbert’s original predictions for global peak oil proved to be premature, however it is true that other reserves of conventional oil have already peaked. For example, North Sea Oil peaked in 1999 at 6 million barrels per day. British gas is also starting to decline sharply (and see below). Currently, there is no sign that overall oil production has peaked, in fact oversupply has forced prices to fall. Given that the global gas price is linked to the global oil price, this means that gas prices have also fallen. Nevertheless, industry experts expect the price to rise again – the only question being when. The point to remember however is that although global oil hasn’t peaked, all the major oil reserve discoveries have already been made, as noted by William J. Cummings in 2005:
“All the easy oil and gas in the world has pretty much been found. Now comes the harder work in finding and producing oil from more challenging environments and work areas.”
Lord Roxburgh, a former chairman of Shell Oil Corporation, made the same point in 2008:
“It is pretty clear that there is not much chance of finding any significant quantity of new cheap oil. Any new or unconventional oil is going to be expensive.”
Thus when we talk about oil reserve discoveries, we have indeed passed the peak – in the 1960s at around 55 billion barrels. According to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO), the rate of discovery has been falling ever since. Here is another to point to note – after the discovery of the last new oil reserve, new resources come not from new reserves but from additional oil and gas in existing fields and extensions of them. This is why, alongside unconventional oil and gas, despite discoveries having peaked in the 1960’s, global oil resources have not.
However, there is a further problem. Some countries may be incorrect in their assertions about how much oil is left in their reserves. Indeed, some of them may actually be lying about it in order to avoid a panic. There is wide suspicion about OPEC’s stated figures for example, although some people argue that oil companies have a vested interest in stating that oil reserves are rarer than they actually are in order to force the price up.
“[World] reserves are confused and in fact inflated. Many of the so-called reserves are in fact resources. They’re not delineated, they’re not accessible, they’re not available for production.” – Sadad I. Al-Husseini, former VP of Aramco, during a presentation to the Oil and Money Conference in 2007
A 2013 study of 733 giant oil fields around the world noted that only 32 percent of recoverable oil remained. In 2006, Aramco estimated that its reserves were declining at a rate of between 5 and 12 percent per year. The largest oil field in the world, Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, peaked in 2009. Burgan Field in Kuwait, the second largest, went into decline in 2005.
One of the clearest signs that global oil discoveries have indeed peaked, and thus production will also peak at some point, following the curve downwards in discoveries, is the increasing drift towards unconventional oil and gas resources, such as fracking. Another sign is increasing difficulties in recovering the conventional oil that is left. Remember the Gulf of Mexico BP (Deepwater Horizon) oil disaster? That happened basically because oil companies have been tempted to cut corners and take greater risks as they try to extract ever more difficult-to-reach sources of oil and gas. It and other disasters like it that may happen in the future, are warning signs that we are now in deep doo-doo as far as conventional oil and gas resources are concerned. That is why governments are turning to unconventional sources.
Unconventional oil and gas
Oil resources are categorised by their grade, specifically light, medium, heavy, or extra heavy. Light oil flows naturally to the surface and is easily recovered, but the heavier grades do not, increasingly reaching the point where they have to be extracted by unconventional methods. This in turn forces the price up because of the need to develop specific technology to reach and exploit it.
Unconventional oil resources can be split into four categories. Tight oil is extracted from tight deposits of permeable formations, sometimes shale, using hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Oil shale is a common term for sedimentary rock, such as shale or marl, containing kerogen, a precursor to oil that hasn’t yet been transformed into crude oil by high pressure and temperatures caused by deep burial. It is generally close to the surface and is typically mined, crushed and retorted, thereby producing synthetic oil from the kerogen. Its net energy yield is much lower than conventional oil. Oil sands are unconsolidated sandstone deposits containing very viscous crude bitumen or extra heavy crude oil. This can be recovered by surface mining or oil wells using steam injection or other techniques. It can then be liquefied and processed by an oil refinery. The recovery process requires advanced technology but is more efficient than oil shale, the reason being that the oil sands actually contain oil and the sandstones that contain it are much easier to process than shale or marl. These oil sands are often called ‘tar sands’ but the substance found in them is not tar but extra heavy oil (bitumen). Coal liquefaction or gas to liquids are liquid hydrocarbons synthesised from the conversion of coal or natural gas.
What is fracking?
Actually, there are three types of fracking, depending on what material the company doing the fracking is trying to get out of the ground (see Frack Off for further details).
Coal bed methane
Coal Bed Methane is methane (natural gas) trapped in coal seams underground. To extract the gas, after drilling into the seam, it is necessary to pump large amounts of water out of the coal seam to lower the pressure. It is often also necessary to frack the seam to extract the gas. Negative environmental and social include methane migration, toxic water contamination, air pollution, increased carbon emissions and a general industrialisation of the countryside. Impacts that are specific to CBM include depletion of the water table and potentially subsidence.
In common with other unconventional gas extraction, such as Shale Gas, CBM wells do not produce large amounts of gas per well and production declines very quickly. It is therefore necessary to drill large numbers of wells, covering huge swathes of the landscape. In the UK CBM is more advanced than Shale Gas and full scale production may begin soon.
Shale Gas is methane, a form of natural gas, which is trapped in impermeable shale rock deep underground. This has to be broken through in order to extract the gas. A large number of wells have to be sunk at regular intervals for the same reason, in fact, whereas conventional gas wells require only a dozen or so wells, shale gas extraction requires hundreds of thousands of wells in order to obtain the same amount as conventional gas. This in turn leads to heavy industrialisation of the countryside, even more so than wind turbines or solar farms, which are pretty tame in comparison. This in turn, leads to methane leaks, water contamination, air pollution, radioactive contamination, exacerbating climate change and with a risk of earthquakes. That’s in addition to the severe adverse health effects experienced by people and animals around the fracking sites.
Underground coal gasification
Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) – this is a process for exploiting coal that cannot be mined because the seams lie too deep beneath the ground for it to be reached by conventional methods, or they are too thin or too fractured. The process for exploiting it involves injection of air/oxygen into the coal seam and then setting the seam itself on fire. Partial burning of the coal is possible by controlling the amount of air injected. The gases can then be brought to the surface and burned in order to generate energy. However, the process also creates a nasty mix of toxic and carcinogenic (cancer causing) coal tars which can then contaminate groundwater and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
RECENT NEWS: The Guardian published a story on the 9th December 2016 reporting that UCG will not now go ahead in the UK after the government decided it was too dirty a technology. You can read the story here.
Is fracking really that bad?
YES. Here are some of the reasons why:
- It unlocks a whole new source of fossil fuels, which we should be ditching in order to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and stop climate change. These include methane which is 20 to 50 times worse than carbon dioxide in terms of its global warming potential.
- It restrains the development of renewable energy, which we need in order to stop climate change
- The amount of shale gas in the UK remains uncertain anyway, furthermore, US shale oil and gas is already in decline.
- It is very possible to meet UK energy needs with renewables, given the political will and enough investment, so fracking isn’t actually necessary. All it does is generate profits for those with a vested interest in oil and gas.
- It is NOT likely to replicate the US experience with shale gas, and will therefore lead to higher energy prices.
- Pollution of water supplies
- Problems with the well casing (can also affect conventional oil drilling)
- Radioactive substances released into rivers
- Methane in drinking water
- Consumption of water supplies
- Ravaged environment – flattened earth, abandoned condensate tanks, compressor stations and pipelines, large open pits of waste water, release of radon gas into the environment
- Fracking can cause minor earthquakes
- The UK has failed to regulate the industry, and the US even more so
- Effect on property prices
- Political corruption – contributions from fracking companies likely to assist the election of politicians sympathetic to fracking
Are there any good sides to fracking?
Er, no…not when you look at it in detail
Is there a good side to fracking? Well industry experts might like you to think so, and in fact some of their arguments seem to make sense. But unfortunately these arguments are easily countered:
- Fracking in the US has forced gas prices downwards, even cheaper than in Europe. That means cheaper energy bills – HOWEVER, this experience is NOT likely to be replicated in the UK according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) and furthermore, these meagre benefits are heavily outweighed by all the downsides, above.
- The fracking industry has created thousands and millions of jobs – true, but investment in renewable energy can also do that, and renewable energy is much better for a whole host of reasons.
- Gas produces around half the emissions of coal – except that this apparent benefit is negated by the methane leaking from fracking sites.
- CONCLUSION: Actually, there aren’t any advantages to fracking at all when you weigh it all up
Let’s look at these issues in a bit more detail.
Unlocks a whole new source of fossil fuels
Fracking binds countries to a continued fossil fuel future, when we should be ditching fossil fuels completely. Climate scientists and the International Energy Agency (IEA) have said that we need to leave four-fifths of proven fossil fuel resources in the ground if we are to avoid dangerous climate change.
Furthermore, there have been reports of methane escaping into the atmosphere from fracking operations. This is particularly serious given that methane is 20 to 50 times worse than carbon dioxide in terms of its global warming potential. Between 3.6 and 7.9 percent of the methane from fracking operations escapes into the atmosphere from venting and leaks over the lifetime of a well, occurring when the wells are hydraulically fractured.
A report commissioned by the Norwegian government found that fracking for oil is even more dangerous to the climate than fracking for gas, with around 20 percent of the oil production generating emissions that exceed the 2 degree scenario (2DS) carbon budget for petroleum production.
A German report, published in the journal Earth’s Future, found that methane leaks from fracking sites can not only be detected by satellites from space but also are likely to negate the benefits gained from reducing coal burning with regard to countering climate change. In other words, fracking represents no real benefit at all to climate action and may even be a hindrance or even contribute to or worsen GHG emissions.
Restrains the development of renewable energy
The International Energy Agency (IEA) warned in 2012 that the focus on developing hydraulic fracturing could stop the development of renewable energy in its tracks. Incomprehensibly, the gas lobby managed in that same year to get gas classified as a ‘green fuel’, thereby siphoning off billions of euros that could have been used for renewable energy development.
UK Shale gas resources remain uncertain, and US shale gas and oil is already in decline
In August 2014, the London School of Economics noted that the amount of shale gas that can be recovered remains uncertain, with the main estimates based on the three main formations; the Bowland Shale in Northern England, the Weald Basin in Southern England, and the Midland Valley of Scotland. When the British Geological Survey (BGS) conducted its assessment, it didn’t assess how much of the gas could be feasibly extracted with existing technologies. When BGS or companies like Cuadrilla talk about ‘gas in place’, this means the volume of gas in the rock, but it does not include a feasibility assessment of whether the gas can actually be extracted. Thus, proven reserves have yet to be estimated in the UK.
Greenpeace describes the picture very well indeed when it talks about the amount of shale gas that is potentially recoverable. The technical difficulties of extracting gas from deep and impermeable rock formations means that the UK will never be able to extract all of the gas present in the rock. That’s the first thing to note.
Secondly, an oil and gas resource has to be categorised as a ‘proved reserve’ before it can be assumed there is a high probability of extracting it. As Greenpeace points out, useful estimates of the amount of gas that can be extracted are not possible outside of production experience, and since there hasn’t been any of that in the UK as yet, such estimates aren’t actually possible.
It is unlikely that any recoverable amount of gas will satisfy more than 10 years of UK demand at best, probably less than that actually.
Here is something else of interest. We all talk of how successful the US experience has been, but very little has been said about how US shale gas and oil resources are already beginning to decline. This can be easily seen in this table, produced by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) as part of its Drilling Productivity Report:
This is also noted by the World Bank’s report on commodity markets, predicting that US shale oil will sharply decline in 2016. This is made even more likely that the top shale gas field in the entire US is already in decline.
Renewable energy can satisfy our energy demand, so fracking is actually unnecessary
Question: Which do you prefer?
Picture: Simon Fraser University (Flickr)
The truth of the matter is that the UK can actually meet ALL of its energy needs by deploying renewable energy. As the government’s own advisory committee, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) noted last year.
Here’s how it works:
- Onshore wind and solar can ALREADY compete with fossil fuels on price.
- Intermittent technologies, such as wind and solar, can be supported by the following:
- demand management and energy efficiency strategies
- interconnectors (HVDC cables running along the sea bed to other countries) bringing electricity in from Danish, German and Irish wind farms, among other sources
- smart grid technology (which will be able to automatically and instantly pick electricity from the grid from the most effective and plentiful source)
- Energy storage (currently batteries, but other more exciting storage technologies are on the horizon as well)
There are some people who say that we need conventional power plants to backup renewables. That is actually open to debate, there are some who say it isn’t actually necessary (because of all the measures outlined above). However, biogas can be generated by anaerobic digestion at waste water treatment plants (processing solid sludge) and from UK food waste (a vastly under-utilised resource). The Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA) believes that biogas from these sources can replace 30 percent of our current natural gas requirements, which can be used for heating and to support renewable energy.
In short, all it requires for the UK to have a renewable energy future is the political will to do so and to create a stable policy environment. Unfortunately, the cuts to UK clean energy subsidies initiated by the Conservative Government 2015/2016 show that the Conservatives would rather mess up the country with fracking plants than drive forward to a genuine renewable energy future.
What was the sense in cutting subsidies for solar when it was only 5 years away from not needing them anyway? Guess how much it is likely to save off UK energy bills? Just 50p, that’s how much!
Which electricity generating technology is now the cheapest? Onshore wind!!!
Fracking will NOT replicate the US experience and will lead to higher energy bills.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) found in 2013 that fracking in the UK is not likely to replicate the US experience, and will therefore lead to higher energy bills. Furthermore, it will NOT counter the decline in production of British natural gas. This means that energy prices will continue to be dominated by the price of imported gas, which is linked to the oil price and therefore, at some point, they will increase again from their present low level. In short, the economic argument for fracking is extremely weak.
However, BNEF supports the conclusion by the British Geological Survey (BGS) that there are substantial recoverable amounts of shale gas in the UK, which the BGS estimates at 5.3 trillion cubic feet (tcf). The reason why BNEF argues that UK fracking will not replicate the US experience is because it will be more costly to get the shale gas out of the ground, due to a whole range of environmental, legal and planning issues. This is countered by The New Scientist, which supported the position held by the CCC, arguing in 2013 that BGS has only assessed the Bowland Shale in the north of England, basing its estimate on that alone. New Scientist said that it remains to be seen whether this shale gas was either recoverable or burnable.
Pollution of water supplies
Homeowners have reported fracking chemicals leaking into their drinking water. These reports have included video footage of water that can be set alight because of the methane contained within it. This was supported by a study published in 2014, although the study concluded that the contamination was due to defective well construction, not fracking itself. The problems were due to faults in the cement casing of the well. Conversely, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has investigated these claims and largely cleared the industry of water pollution. However, an investigation by the New York Times, focusing on North Dakota, found that 18 million gallons of oil and toxic wastewater have been spilled in the state January 2006 to October 2014. In fact, the NYT managed to acquire thousands of EPA internal documents showing conclusively that the threat to groundwater from fracking operations is actually much greater than previously thought (some of them are here). The documents show that EPA scientists are very concerned about the threat to drinking water supplies from fracking. Furthermore, they include studies by the EPA and a confidential report revealing that radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be diluted in water. The concerns about this issue have compelled the US government to get directly involved in the debate, much to the irritation of some states such as Texas.
In the UK, the water industry knows full well that fracking operations presents a threat to groundwater, particularly from the risk of pollution by drilling chemicals, although they neither support nor oppose the technology, advocating a risk-based approach to fracking. Nevertheless, water companies across the UK have warned the fracking industry directly that water supplies must not be threatened by fracking operations.
In 2013, Water UK’s Business and Policy Adviser, Dr Jim Marshall, gave a speech to a shale gas industry conference in which he set out the risks to the UK water industry presented by fracking. This included risks of contamination with methane and harmful chemicals, huge consumption of water resources and damage to existing water mains.
According to Reynard Loki, writing on Alternet, just one fracking site uses about 40,000 gallons of chemicals, consisting of 600 different chemical substances including many known carcinogens (cancer causing substances) and toxins such as lead, mercury, benzene, uranium, radium, methanol, hydrochloric acid, ethylene glycol and formaldehyde.
It’s not just chemicals that present a risk to the wider environment and groundwater. According to Greenpeace, fracking operations also present a risk from naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM) which can be present in the gas obtained from fracking operations. These include radium 226, which was discovered in 2011 in returned fracking fluids at the Preese Hall fracking site. This substance is highly radioactive, having the ability to cause cancer (carcinogenic) and other disorders, because radium and radon emit alpha and gamma rays upon their decay, which kill and mutate cells. It has a half-life of 1,600 years. In the same year, a truck carrying drill cuttings from a fracking site in Pennsylvania was turned away from a landfill site because it was emitting gamma radiation from radium 226 at ten times the amount permitted by the landfill. In June 2013, a report prepared for the FreshWater Accountability Project in Ohio, USA expressed concern at procedures for disposal of radioactive waste from fracking sites in landfills.
The UK Environment Agency (EA) has found that flow back fluid from fracking operations contains significant amounts of sodium, chloride, bromide and iron as well as higher incidences of lead.
Heavy consumption of water supplies when water supplies are scarce
The fracking industry’s water demands have been blamed for the running down of reservoirs, which is insane when climate change is already threatening those very same water supplies. How much water does a fracking site use? About 7-8 million gallons for a single well.
It gets worse though, since, according to a report published by San Jose University, more than 90 percent of the water used by a fracking well is lost permanently, as it never returns to the surface and is therefore taken out of the water cycle.
The BNEF report estimates that in order for fracking to bridge the energy gap in order to eliminate imports of natural gas, the industry would have to construct at least “10,000 wells over a 15-year period” based on an optimistic flow rate. If the flow rate turned out to be not so favourable, around 20,000 wells might be required, representing an area twice the size of Lancashire. Greenpeace points out that these wells would be arranged in groups of 6-10 wells on ‘drilling pads’. New roads would have to be constructed to service these drilling sites and these would see 7,000 to 11,000 vehicle movements for a single ten-well pad.
A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that incidences of radon gas, a naturally occurring radioactive substance that is the second leading cause of cancer after smoking, were 39 percent higher around fracking sites than in other areas.
Fracking can cause minor earthquakes
A 1.5 magnitude earthquake that affected Blackpool in Lancashire has been blamed on fracking test drilling conducted by Cuadrilla. In the US, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) found that earthquakes in eight US states could be linked to oil and gas drilling operations, with a few linked to fracking specifically. The problems were caused by the injection of wastewater deep underground, which in turn can activate dormant faults. The cases involving fracking were caused by the injection of water, sand and chemicals into the rock formations. USGS said that the faults are ancient faults, “we don’t always know where they are”.
The UK government has failed to regulate the industry adequately and the US government seems reluctant to
In 2013, fracking company Cuadrilla halted operations at one of its three drilling sites, citing the need for an environmental assessment. In the same year, The Guardian revealed that government ministers warned the company over its performance at fracking sites, specifically the fact that it recognised it had a problem with one of its wells in 2011 but did not report the fact for six months. The company has also exceeded a 90-day drilling limit and broken a wildlife protection agreement intended to protect overwintering birds.
In the US, despite concern about fracking forcing the government’s hand, so to speak, to some extent, both federal and state regulators are allowing most wastewater treatment plants accepting drilling waste to avoid testing for radioactivity.
Effects on property prices
A report by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in 2015 found that fracking operations may cause house prices to fall by 7 percent. The report had to be forced out of the department by a Freedom of Information request levied by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, and even when it was released it was heavily redacted, which just shows how keen the government is to cover certain things up. However, the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) later ordered the department to release it unredacted.
Political corruption – contributions from fracking companies assist the election of conservative politicians sympathetic to fracking
An investigation in the US by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) found that contributions to political coffers made by fracking companies tended to influence their stance towards the industry. For example, Republican candidate Joe Barton representing Texas received more than $500,000 between the 2004 and 2012 election cycles. Barton subsequently exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act via the Energy Policy Act (2005).
Find out more here:
ASPO website: http://www.peakoil.net/
Jeremy Leggett Half Gone: Oil, Gas, Hot Air and the Global Energy Crisis – a brilliant book about peak oil.
Peak Oil.com: http://peakoil.com/
The Oil Drum: http://www.theoildrum.com/
Frack Free Somerset: http://www.frackfreesomerset.org/
Frack Off UK http://frack-off.org.uk/
Friends of the Earth: https://www.foe.co.uk/campaigns/climate/issues/fracking_background_information_33157
Renewable Energy Magazine: http://www.renewableenergymagazine.com/
Solar Trade Association (STA): http://www.solar-trade.org.uk/
Renewable Energy Association (REA): http://www.r-e-a.net/
RegenSW (renewable energy trade association for south west England): https://www.regensw.co.uk/