Debate: For and against fracking - is it one of the best things to happen to onshore gas exploration?

Is the extraction of natural gas by fracking the best energy story or an environmentally dangerous short-term fix to a long-term problem?

For: Fracking is one of the best things to happen to onshore gas exploration for a century

By Nick Grealy

Shale gas refers to natural gas trapped within sedimentary shale rock formations and is found abundantly in many regions of the world. Recent advances in technology such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) have meant that access to this valuable resource is now viable.Onshore oil and gas exploration is the best, most transformative energy story since the transition from coal to oil a century ago. This is because what we are getting is a far cleaner and more economic source of energy than its predecessors or competitors. Even though gas is a fossil fuel in replacing coal for electricity - which is the global goal - it means that we can reduce CO2 emissions by more than 50 per cent. It is also a secure source of energy because it is globally ubiquitous.

The two main objections to this technology are its impact on the environment and that it is a short-term fix with a sell-by date. What we are hearing about the environmental impact stems from the media’s unfamiliarity with the reality of onshore gas and oil exploration. Certainly, issues raised from the use of this technology in the US - and there have been some - are exaggerated and overstated. And because it has been very well publicised there is this distortion in perception. But the effect on the environment in the US has been minimal. Here in the UK environmental pressure groups, which tend to be quite vociferous, have got the wrong end of the stick. I have to say that the blame for this has to rest with the media, which has done a poor job of informing people on the issue.

Environmental groups in the UK are ignoring what those in the US and the rest of the world are saying, which is that fracking provides us with a feasible and realistic way of reaching the next phase of energy generation: the renewable phase. Basically, renewables are not ready for ‘prime time’. I confidently predict that there will be engineering and scientific advances in solar power and energy storage. But they are not here today and they won’t be for some time.

On the subject of resources, this is not a short-term solution. It is probably correct that we should try to avoid fossil use going out into a 30 or 40-year timeframe. But on the other hand the global prevalence and ubiquity of natural gas shows us that there is at least 200 years’ worth of supply and is therefore a mammoth resource.

There are active and passive opponents to fracking. The active ones tend to be from the environmental lobby and, for whatever reason, they tend to exaggerate the environmental impact of shale gas. The passive opponents are every other energy source. We mustn’t forget that the nuclear industry has been effectively killed in the US by the emergence of shale gas and the nuclear industry in the UK is under the same threat.

UK energy policy has been founded on the idea that natural gas is going to be expensive and insecure. But it’s my opinion that neither of these is true today. This transformation has been so rapid that very few people are aware of the global story. In any number of scientific studies from the UK, EU and the US, nobody has found evidence of what is alleged by the environmental lobby - that oil and gas exploration is a rape of the ‘green and pleasant land’.

Most of what happens is underground. We’re talking of a temporary building site that would last six to eight months, with sites at maybe one per ten miles. People have visions of the Texas oilfields of 100 years ago, but it won’t be anything like that.

Onshore oil and gas exploration is a global revolution that the UK cannot afford to sit out. A proper understanding of the true impact of such exploration and production would reveal this to most people. This is the greatest news for the economy and the environment that we have had for many years. And maybe the reason that we are not more aware of the up side is that good news doesn’t sell.

Against: Fracking is dangerous to the environment and throws good energy after bad

By Ian Ratcliffe

As any good engineer knows, a complex system will consist of many parts with potentially many dependencies between them. Changes in one part of a system can have knock-on effects in many other places. The system that is human society is particularly large, complex and interdependent, but this does not make it immune from the physical laws that govern all systems. This system is, at present, fuelled almost entirely by fossil fuels but this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Fossil fuels are finite though, and the rate at which they are being burned is staggering. After slowing in the 1970s, growth in extraction has almost ground to a halt in the last decade. While this has come as no surprise to those familiar with the work of M King Hubbard, the economists were right about one thing; that shortages would raise prices, which would encourage new extraction techniques. The question is whether this is a good thing or not.

Unlike any other resources, energy sources by definition have to produce more energy than is used in extracting them, otherwise they are an energy sink. Despite public perception, our present technology is largely a process of harnessing large amounts of surplus energy to do things that could not be done otherwise. Throwing more energy at a problem may have been the easy default solution for the brief age of energy abundance we have experienced, but it is a stupid option in the present circumstances.

Despite this, humanity is pushing ahead with extracting energy. Drilling rigs are moving out into deeper water, from depths of 1km to 3km in the last 15 years. Miners in the eastern US are resorting to blowing apart mountains to get at seams of coal a few inches thick. Meanwhile wholly new extraction techniques such as tar sands and fracking are on the rise.

The consequences of extreme energy extraction are numerous and profound. In most cases greater extraction effort correlates with greater environmental destruction.

Exploitation of fossil fuels already has a major issue with carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere. These new unconventional techniques not only emit more carbon during the extraction process but are also making significantly more carbon available to be burned.

The socioeconomic impacts of extreme energy are profound. At a societal level greater extraction effort translates into a greater fraction of societies’ resources devoted to energy extraction, and less for everything else. In the last decade global GDP devoted to fossil fuel extraction has risen from under 5 per cent to over 10 per cent.

For fracking in particular, the impacts are almost too numerous to count. Since the difference with unconventional gas is that it is trapped in impermeable rock it is necessary to drill wells, since the gas cannot flow any distance.

Until now the largest onshore gas field in the UK had only eight wells. Hundreds would be needed to produce as much gas as this small conventional field, and tens of thousands, covering an area the size of Wales, to produce the amount of gas needed to fuel the 30-40 new power stations the government proposes. Water contamination, air pollution, industrialisation of the countryside and health impacts are among the likely effects.

Extreme energy is a decision to go down a particular path, seeking infinite growth through ever more desperate means, which can only lead to environmental destruction and human impoverishment. Unfortunately governments and corporations have invested a lot in the present system.

We need to re-engineer our society to require less energy. The debate on these issues is PR spin that is not based on reality, such as the claim that shale gas has lowered US gas prices and carbon emissions, when in fact this has been a result of the recession. Overcoming this by forcing honest debate on our predicament is the main challenge.

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