15 December 2012
There’s a growing trend in the production of hydrocarbons. Having taken a lot of the ‘easy’ stuff out of the ground, we’re now moving on to ‘unconventional’ sources. There are massive potential reserves of unconventionals, but their extraction comes at a high risk to the environment.
Shale gas is obtained by fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, a process whereby large amounts of water, chemicals and sand are injected into underground rock formations to ‘fracture’ them, releasing gas. As with tar sands, previously inaccessible or unviable reserves of shale gas now look more attractive, thanks to new technology and rising fossil fuel prices. Add to this the UK’s importation of more than half its gas supplies this year, now the offshore reserves that made us self-sufficient have peaked, and the second dash for gas gathers momentum.
Over the last 15 months, I’ve delivered events and community outreach for a ‘Frack Free Future’ as part of The Co-operative’s Clean Energy Revolution campaign, engaging with threatened communities across the UK, staging events where the issues can be discussed co-operatively.
The Co-operative first started looking into shale gas in the summer of 2010, commissioning the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research to undertake an assessment of its environmental impacts. The findings of the Tyndall Centre report were published in January 2011 (and its update published in November 2011), exposing three main areas of concern and led The Co-operative to call for a moratorium on its extraction across the UK.
At local level, shale gas extraction presents pollution risks, especially to groundwater. Arguments centre around whether risks can be adequately managed through regulation of well construction and maintenance. Looking at the US, where the industry is much more advanced, there are many concerning examples – see for example, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s report released in November 2011 into groundwater sampling at Pavilion, Wyoming, where numerous hydrocarbons and thermogenic methane have been identified[Footnote]. Assuming that this couldn’t happen in the UK appears naïve. Scaling up to the c.3,000 wells that would be required to produce 10% of the UK’s gas from shale over any sustained period, the risks become substantial: even if well design and site management were good enough to reduce failure rates to 1 in 1,000, this would give us a 95% chance of at least one failure.
Nationally, there’s a real risk that the development of shale gas will compromise the UK’s ability to hit its emissions targets. If we extract and burn just 20% of the shale gas resources identified under Lancashire this year, it could result in CO2 emissions of over 2,000m tonnes, or nearly 15% of the UK’s emissions budget through to 2050 – dispelling the myth that shale gas is a ‘low carbon fuel’. Additionally, with up to £32bn of investments required to obtain 10% of our current gas use from shale sources and convert it to electricity, investment could be diverted from genuinely low carbon renewables, leaving us overly reliant on unproven carbon capture and storage (CCS) and risking the economic losses from what could ultimately become stranded assets.
At the global level, we hear that shale gas is good news, because it will displace much more polluting coal. Perhaps it would - if we had a legally binding global cap on emissions. Unfortunately, in our energy-hungry world, it’s likely that countries such as India and China will burn shale gas in addition to their coal reserves, as they quite fairly pursue economic development. This is mirrored by the situation in the US, where the massive expansion in shale gas is simply projected to meet the energy demands of a growing economy without a carbon cap and is failing to displace coal[Footnote]. Scenarios for relatively conservative exploitation of between 15% and 30% of the world’s identified shale gas resources are that it would increase global atmospheric CO2 by between five and sixteen parts per million by volume, taking up over a quarter of the CO2 emissions budget that we have left if we are to stand a good chance of avoiding more than 2ºC of warming.
As governments met in Doha, Quatar, for the latest round of UN climate talks last Saturday, December 1st, anti-fracking campaigners across the UK joined the Global Day of Action on Climate Change.
Activists from Frack Off erected a 20-foot drilling rig outside the home of the Chairman of Cuadrilla Resources, Lord John Browne. In Blackpool, members of Resident Action on Fylde Fracking marched and, together with members of Ribble Eastuary Against Fracking, held a rally in St Anne’s. Kirklees Campaign Against Climate Change toured Huddersfield, asking the public to sign postcards calling for a moratorium on fracking. Swansea Against Fracked Energy were out on the streets of Swansea, while Frack Free Somerset brought street theatre to Bath. About 300 environment campaigners held an anti-fracking protest in Parliament Square in London, where residents from Falkirk, Belfast, the Fylde, the Ribble Estuary and the Vale of Glamorgan delivered a letter to David Cameron, calling for a ban on shale gas and coal bed methane exploitation in the UK.
This month, alongside his Autumn Statement, George Osborne unveiled the government’s new Gas Strategy, which sets out to "ensure we make the best use of lower cost gas power, including new sources of gas under the land", The Chancellor told the Commons.
The Gas Generation Strategy confirmed that DECC will set up an Office for Unconventional Gas and Oil, joining up responsibilities across Government to provide a single point of contact for investors, to ensure a simplified and streamlined regulatory process. It also states that tax breaks for shale gas will be considered as “HM Treasury has opened discussions with industry on the appropriate structure of a fair tax regime for future shale gas production”,
According to a recent Greenpeace report, more than 60 per cent of the British countryside could be exploited for shale gas. A decision on whether to lift the current moratorium on shale gas production, put in place after fracking caused two small earthquakes near Blackpool in 2011, is expected from the Secretary of State shortly.
Community feeling against hydraulic fracturing is strong, combining a desire to keep fracking out of the UK with a passion to find energy solutions. Climate change issues are up close and personal for the first time in the UK, no longer disconnected from us by space or time. It seems to me that the campaign for a Frack Free Future is less of a fight against an industry we don’t want – and more of a call for the future we need.
Sarah Woods (Transition Bro Ddyfi) is a playwright and campaigner, working primarily in the fields of climate change and social justice. She is currently working on THE ROADLESS TRIP, a performance piece about systemic change and future narratives and just reached the end of a year leading the outreach arm of the Co-operative Group’s FRACK FREE FUTURE campaign, delivering events in communities affected by fracking. She currently teaches playwrighting and political theatre to undergraduates at Manchester University.
Article originally published on The Social Reporting Project
Further information on The Co-operative’s position on shale gas and the Tyndall Centre’s research can be found at: www. co-operative.coop/fracking
2 Energy Information Administration (2010), Supporting materials for the 2010 Annual Energy Outlook, Report # DOE/EIA-0554(2010).
3 Gas Generation Strategy (December 2012), DECC. www.decc.gov.uk/en/content/cms/meeting_energy/oil_gas/gasgenstrat/gasgenstrat.aspx
4 Fracking in the UK (update 2) 30th Nov 2012, Hannah Davey, Harry Kennard and Damian Kahya
Images: photo by EnergyTomorrow (Flickr Creative Commons)