Access to justice on environmental issues
Uncomfortable conclusions for the government in its latest report on the impacts of shale gas fracking on our climate change targets. “Without global climate policies (of the sort already advocated by the UK) new fossil fuel exploitation is likely to lead to an increase in cumulative GHG emissions and the risk of climate change.” The Energy Secretary has committed to adopting its recommendations in full. What is less clear is whether the government will adopt a precautionary approach to shale gas extraction, not just because of widespread local public concerns, but because of the uncertainties involved in gas fracking with which this report is shot through.
First, our word search of the report finds no references to “public consultation”. Residents’ and campers’ protests at Balcombe voice growing public concerns linking energy and environmental issues. The European Commission has opened a timely consultation on citizens’ access to justice in environmental matters in a review of the Aarhus Convention (closing date 23 September) 2013.
The Aarhus Convention provides citizens with three basic rights:
- Access to environmental information held by public authorities – including policies or measures taken. Applicants are entitled to obtain this information within one month of the request and without having to say why they require it. Public authorities are obliged to actively disseminate environmental information in their possession.
- The right to participate in environmental decision-making – to enable the public and NGOs to comment on, for example, proposals for projects affecting the environment, or plans and programmes relating to the environment. These comments must be taken into due account in decision-making, and information to be provided on the final decisions and the reasons for it.
- >Access to justice – the right to review procedures to challenge public decisions that have been made without respecting rights or environmental law.
Here are some environmental “red lines” in a perspective on the DECC study, Potential Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Shale Gas Extraction and Use:
Cheaper energy bills? It dispenses once and for all with the myth that shale will bring down energy bills: “Because the UK is well connected to the Western European gas market, the effect of UK shale gas production on gas prices is likely to be small, and the principal effect of UK shale gas production and use will be that it displaces imported LNG, or possibly piped gas from outside Europe.”
Until more exploration work is undertaken, “it will not be possible to make any meaningful estimate of the likely shale gas reserves in the UK.” The cost of shale gas extraction is likely to be significantly higher than in the US.
Climate change impacts: But the production of shale gas could increase global cumulative GHG emissions if the fossil fuels displaced by shale gas are used elsewhere. Globally, the USA’s switch from coal to gas has been accompanied by an opposite effect: the reduction in coal demand in the USA has led to exports of coal to other regions, including Europe, where the carbon intensity of electricity production has increased. Coal’s share in UK power generation increased from a low of 27% in 2009 to 39% in 2012.
Methane flaring: DECC is committed to eliminating all unnecessary or wasteful flaring and venting of gas. Yet report says that methane emissions from the UK energy supply sector contributed 1.3% (7.3 MtCO2e) to UK GHG emissions in 2011, although this estimate is not based on well-audited measurements. But these emissions escape the government’s minimum carbon price, set at £16 per tonne in April 2013. If carbon pricing applied the oil and gas sector, as it does to UK industry, it would pay the Treasury £112m a year in carbon tax.
Risks in carbon and methane emissions on site
- Vented emissions of methane and CO2. Vented emissions are intentional. Many processes associated with shale gas exploration and production can cause gases to be vented, where permitted. Examples include: release of gases during water flowback, and release for safety reasons and during certain maintenance operations.
- Emissions from energy used on site – generators, diesel engines used for drilling, hydraulic fracturing and natural gas compression, and from flaring of shale gas.
- Fugitive emissions. Unintentional gas leaks, difficult to quantify and control: leaks from valves, well heads and onsite accidents, or accidental releases from the well casing into groundwater. “It may be be possible for gas in the shale formation to escape into ground water due to fracking activities.”
Water flowback: could cause the highest proportion of emissions from shale gas exploration and extraction. There’s just a handful of studies of these emissions. Research shows that returned water does not match the chemical composition of the solution put into the wells during the fracking process
Water consumption: Hydraulic fracturing requires a large volume of water – up to 29,000 tonnes, though the report opts for a UK average of 15,000 tonnes, or perhaps 450 lorry loads per well. “Cuadrilla, in a personal communication, suggested that the vast majority of water used during the hydraulic fracturing process could be reused.” However, in Pennsylvania (the only state to monitor water reuse in the USA), reuse represents 4% of the total water requirement. This would still mean up to 450 tanker loads per well if piped water is not available.
The report rightly comments, without providing a solution: “The social consequences of transportation of water, especially in the context of water shortage in the UK and the more urban context than the USA, must also be considered.”
Responsible management: The wastewater resulting from fracking and the produced water (the water which is continually produced from an operational well) are saline and contain dissolved methane, as well as chemicals from the fracking fluid and geological strata, which include naturally occurring radioactive material. In the UK the wastewater “would have to be responsibly managed and would require treatment before being discharged.” The authors consider evidence of gas escaping from wells into aquifers, concluding that the likely cause is poor well construction. “We believe that sufficient regulations are in place that leakage of gas into aquifers is unlikely to occur.”
More study needed: So in the absence of sufficient and robust information on all of the above, it’s not surprising that the report recommends: “a detailed pilot programme is set up at one or more sites, to establish the geological conditions within the shale formation and to identify when and where emissions are released and in what quantities.” It’s high time for public consultation and participation in this high stakes national energy debate.
Meanwhile, undeterred, DCLG has amended its oil and gas planning guidance to remove a requirement to “serve notice on owners and tenants of land” across the “widely drawn area” that is created by including horizontal drilling.
And West Sussex County Council has moved to serve notice to evict the Balcombe Community Protection Camp. The camp has urged West Sussex County Council “to take urgent steps to preserve its democratic role in the community.”