The search for UK shale gas has started but despite the promise of cheaper, 'cleaner' fuel, the threat of water pollution and environmental damage lingers
Search for 'fracking' on the Internet and you'll find a host of videos from 'Fracking 101' and 'No fracking way' to 'Fracking hell', and yes, 'Frack off'. This very public backlash against fracking – or hydraulic fracturing, the process of extracting natural gas from shale formations – follows the release of 'Gasland' in January 2010. The Oscar-nominated documentary tracks the lives and chronic health problems of US families living in regions where shale gas drilling has taken place. Its claims of groundwater pollution amid images of flaming faucets not only angered US citizens but also roused concern at the White House.
Today, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is investigating the safety and risk implications of hydraulic fracturing while the New York State Senate has imposed a moratorium halting all practices within its State. Other US Senates, as well as Canadian province Quebec, are poised to follow and the first legal claims for contamination caused by the drilling have been filed.
The UK picture
Across the Atlantic, could a similar story emerge? Last year, just as UK shale gas developer Cuadrilla started to ramp up exploration in the north west, the Energy and Climate Change Committee launched an inquiry into shale gas drilling. Key questions include: what are the risks and hazards, and how does the carbon footprint of shale gas compare to other fossil fuels?
Professor Kevin Anderson, director at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Manchester, has already presented a clear message to the inquiry: delay shale gas drilling.
'Any prudent government would await a scientific inquiry before proceeding with something where there is significant anecdotal evidence of surface and groundwater contamination,' he says. 'The UK [shale gas industry] is in its infancy, it's caused sufficient unrest in the US for New York State to have a moratorium and for the EPA to launch an inquiry; what more do you need to say?'
Anderson is co-author of a recent Tyndall report on shale gas that assesses the risks to the environment and climate change. He is certain hydraulic fracturing could contaminate groundwater.
The fluid used in hydraulic fracturing contains chemical additives, some of which are toxic to humans (see panel 'What is fracking?'). As Anderson points out, if the wellbore was to fail or if contaminants travelled upwards from the target fracture through existing underground cracks and fissures, they would reach groundwater.
Beyond groundwater contamination, surface pollution from either drilling mud, additives used in the fracturing liquid or so-called flowback fluid is another worry. The latter is the liquid returning to the surface after fracturing. This typically contains the fracturing fluids pumped down the well but could also pick up naturally occurring radioactive materials and other substances, such as heavy metals, mobilised within the shale formation during fracturing operations.
'Yes, these surface hazards are similar to those found in many other industrial processes, but for shale gas extraction they only exist over a very short time-frame during construction of the pad and initial drilling,' says Anderson. 'Unsurprisingly, a number of incidents have been reported in the US.'
Anderson is also worried fracking would drain local water supplies as the process demands massive volumes of water. What's more, given the UK's relatively high population density compared to the US, noise, traffic and landscape impacts could be felt more keenly.
'And what if something goes wrong?' he adds. 'In the US, you don't generally have anyone living near drilling sites, so you're not going to face anywhere near the same number of problems as you could over here.'
UK shale gas developer Cuadrilla has been swift to respond to the critics with chief executive Mark Miller firmly saying: 'There are no grounds for a moratorium on this proven and long-standing technology. We are confident that no issues will occur in our activity in the north west of England that would cause any local or national concerns.'
Miller also highlights that since 2009, of the hundreds and thousands of fracking operations that have taken place in the US, regulators have not confirmed a single case of hydrocarbons or fracking fluid leaking into shallow water, as a result of fracking. 'Shale gas exploration and production sites typically occupy a small geographical footprint and their visual impact can easily be minimised,' he adds.
For his part, Anderson believes Cuadrilla is 'acting like a very responsible company', but remains dogged on the need for an independent inquiry. 'Given time and funding the relevant UK bodies will produce an appropriate regulatory framework for best practice, but we need this before proceeding,' he says.
Moratorium or not, a firm UK regulatory framework would alleviate many environmental concerns, leaving the UK with a new, and relatively cheap, fuel source. Long before 'Gasland', shale gas was hailed the answer to US energy security issues and soaring fuel prices. As Miller highlights: 'Shale gas can offer a triple win: energy security through new domestic energy supplies; lower cost and price volatility of energy; and, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions if burned to create electricity instead of burning coal.'
Anderson disagrees. 'Even if we [the UK] switched from coal to shale gas, the price of coal would go down and in an energy-hungry world, that will get picked up by other countries very rapidly indeed,' he asserts. 'Globally, we're going to burn shale gas in addition to coal, not as a substitute, and there is absolutely no way out of that in the absence of a global cap on carbon dioxide emissions.'
So, what about the investment required to exploit shale gas? Renewable generation proponents are certainly worried shale gas development could delay the roll-out of near-zero and zero-carbon technologies, crucial for tackling carbon dioxide emissions. As Anderson points out, a gas-fired plant costs up to £450 per kW to build whereas wind generation and nuclear plants cost more than £1,000 per kW to build.
'If more gas is available and you want to make money, what do you do? In the absence of a strict regulatory regime, you build gas,' he says. 'The market will go towards gas, as it repeatedly does, so at every turn, shale gas is not good for climate change.'
So what next? At the time of writing, Cuadrilla chief executive Mark Miller had just appeared before the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee, reassuring MPs that industry best-practice will ensure fracking operations, scheduled to start within weeks, are safe.
As part of the inquiry, the same MPs are now getting ready to visit Cuadrilla's operations in Lancashire. They face a tough choice; advocate a new form of energy production that could secure future UK energy supplies and keep fuel affordable or single-mindedly pursue climate change targets and keep shale gas in the ground.
Could you choose? No fracking way.