Fracking and “scientific misunderstanding”
“The opposition to fracking is a product of scientific misunderstanding – or worse, an agenda put forward by supposed environmental advocates who stand to profit if natural gas never lives up to its full potential.”
Whilst Chris Faulkner, CEO of Breitling Energy Corporation, was outlining his views on the benefits of shale gas fracking, those evidently misunderstanding the message were delivering a letter to David Cameron summarising their objections to the government’s plans – with supporting carols.
There must be some relationship between science and regulation, in developing any new energy source. Yet this week, David Cameron warned the European Commission not to propose EU legislation to regulate the fracking industry, saying it would “create uncertainty and stifle investment.”
But, as we blogged earlier this week, the mandatory EU Directive on strategic environmental assessments (SEAs) helped ensure we are better informed on the science and impacts of shale gas fracking. The DECC study looks at the scale of shale reserves and impacts on public health, water supply and management, climate change and job creation. It is now out for public consultation until 28 March 2014.
The report provides the kind high level transparency that has been absent from the debate on shale gas fracking in the UK. If anything, it adds to the case for a clear and wide ranging regulatory framework. However, it’s still difficult to envisage the on the ground impact of a drilling site from “inside the fence”. It would have been helpful if this study had been accompanied by a site specific case study of a full scale shale gas operation, including an inventory of chemicals used and returned to the surface, actual water usage and cleansing processes, transport, public health and workplace health and safety impacts, as well as laying of gas pipelines and access roads, and how the site will eventually be made good.
Inevitably, the report raises further questions. For example:
- Employment forecasts seemingly based on data provided by prospective companies are not independently verified.
- Climate change effects appear to omit the impact of methane gases released free to air.
- There is no assessment of the energy required to transport, mix, pump, store and clean millions of gallons of waste water.
The report identifies significant negative impacts from fracking, including:
Waste water: the largest significant waste stream is from a chemical reflux or flowback from water pumped into each well – up to six Olympic sized swimming pool’s worth of returned waterborne chemicals per well. “Depending on where this treatment occurs, this volume could place a substantial burden on existing wastewater treatment infrastructure capacity. This has been assessed as having a significant negative effect on the waste objective.” The total volume of returned “water” is estimated at 108 million gallons from the 2,880 drilled wells foreseen in the report. Who pays for this process? Annual water use could be up to 9 million cubic meters
- about 1 million tonnes of CO2 emissions a year are associated with preparation (energy usage associated with laying the field-sized concrete pads for each well, drilling, methane released from soil excavations, etc).
- 1.4 million tonnes of CO2 from shale production per year from use of machinery, and “fugitive emissions and from flaring and venting.” This is equivalent to up to 15% of emissions from the current oil and gas sector.
In line with the Committee on Climate Change, the report says that the effect of UK shale gas production and consumption on UK carbon emissions is uncertain, its main effect being the displacement of imported liquid natural gas or possibly pipeline gas from the EU and elsewhere. However, the CCC repeats its view that this “shouldn’t mean a ‘dash for gas’ in the power sector … it is appropriate to invest in a portfolio of low-carbon power generation, as this will be the lowest-cost approach in a world of rising carbon prices [including] the use of natural gas with carbon capture & storage.”
Health: the report notes but does not quantify the effects of noise, dust and vibrations during construction drilling and heavy vehicle movements on “community disturbance and the health of some people in communities living close to well pads or HGV routes.” Up to 51 vehicle movements a day for up to three years are envisaged.
In terms of landscape and geology impacts, “effects could be more significant and permanent.”
The largest benefits include:
Jobs: The report states frankly that its estimates are not definitive views but “representative” based on assumptions, which seem to be drawn from US experience and an employer’s report on sale gas exploration in Lancashire in 2011. Added to these uncertainties, a separate DECC study concludes that “not enough is yet known to estimate a recovery factor” from the known large scale Lancashire-Bowland-Hodder shale formations.
The employment estimates are based on the assumed development of 2,880 fracking wells over 13 years. Direct jobs peak at 13,973 posts in year 6 and holding at that level for four years when at this midway point (1440 wells) the average number of direct jobs falls to 9.5 per well. Of course, jobs will arise from supply chain development and local expenditure of wages. But these estimates are impossible to verify. Taking them into account, the report headlines up to 32,000 jobs generated in total. This is less than half the claim in the recent report from the Institute of Directors .
Community payments: The report includes the Chancellor’s decision that £100K will be provided to “host communities” per well pad, followed by 1% of revenues from production, which could be worth between £2.4 and £4.8 million per site, or up to £600m across all sites. Will these funds come directly from developers’ profits, be passed through to UK consumers’ energy bills as a whole, or paid for by taxpayers in the form of matching tax breaks, on top of the tax breaks already promised? We don’t know, and given the likely role of main and subcontractors and internal transfer pricing arrangements, we may not know.