Monday, 22 October 2012

A letter to Frome Council (and the Somerset Standard)

My thoughts as sent to the council of Frome, who have declared themselves a frack-free zone (and to the editors of the Somerset Standard as well.....)

Dear Editor/Council-members,

I am writing to express my concern at the actions of Frome Council in declaring a "frack-free" zone. My concern lies primarily in the manner that the decision has been made, rather than the decision itself, which, as the council acknowledges, is largely symbolic.

The basis for the council's decision, as set out in the agenda available on the council website, appears to be based on biased propaganda rather than any consideration of the facts that relate to the debate surrounding shale gas extraction and hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking").

Shale gas extraction is indeed an unconventional resource. However, it can in no way be described as a form of "extreme energy", using "a lot of energy in order to get just a bit more energy back". In fact, to frack a well requires a few hours of pumping at high pressure, creating a well that may produce natural gas for years.

With respect to the energy needed for fracking, a recent life-cycle emissions analysis by the European Commission has in fact shown that in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, locally-produced shale gas has no worse a climate change impact than LNG imported from Russia or the Middle East (with the additional emissions associated with transport), not to mention the economic and geo-political impacts of producing our own gas, rather than handing money to regimes with dubious human-rights records.

The biggest objection raised against shale gas is the issue of groundwater contamination, usually spurred by the dramatic images of flaming faucets easily available on Youtube, where water loaded with methane can be set on fire. However, these videos usually fail to mention that methane contamination is in fact a common and natural occurrence in many parts of the US, and was so long before shale gas extraction came into the picture.

In fact, the US Environmental Protection Agency has documented only two proven incidences where shale gas extraction has caused water contamination: at Dimock, Pennsylvania, and Pavillion, Wyoming. At Dimock, the faulty well was identified, remedied, and contamination levels have now returned below acceptable minima. At Pavillion, the cause of the contamination is still uncertain, as different US agencies have attributed different causes, so investigations are still ongoing.

To put this in context, something like 40,000 shale gas wells have been drilled in the US, meaning that the rate of well-related incidences is something like 0.005%. Similarly, the US Groundwater Protection Council has examined water contamination incidence rates due to onshore oil and gas wells (in this case all wells, rather than solely shale gas), finding an incident rate less than 0.01%. Of course, the far tighter oil and gas regulations that we already have in the UK (in comparison to the US) would likely lead to an even lower incident rate.

The council's view is, apparently, that "the American experience points towards relatively small gains in energy at huge long and short term environmental cost". In fact, the experience in the USA has provided significant gains on both the local and national level.

On the local scale, once moribund rural areas are booming: shale gas extraction has created jobs both for specialists and for the more general labour market, while the influx of workers has seen hotels fully booked for months in advance, restaurants and bars full every evening, and every other service industry experiencing a similar boost. On a national scale, gas prices have tumbled by as much of 75%, providing benefits not just for the average domestic heating bill, but also for the many industries that use natural gas as a feedstock, significantly reducing their costs and therefore increasing their competitiveness.

With respect to the environment, the cheap gas price has lead power companies to switch from coal fired to gas fired power stations, leading to a reduction in CO2 emissions to their lowest levels in 20 years. When considered in a global context, it is worth bearing in mind that China is currently considering shale gas extraction. Given that China emits more CO2 than any other nation, the possibility that they might replace many of their thousands of dirty coal fired power plants with cleaner natural gas ones, represents the easiest and fastest way that global anthropogenic CO2 emissions could be reduced.

It is commonly implied that oil and gas companies are devious, unreliable, and bad neighbours to have (and given past events, this isn't an unreasonable view to hold). However, in this case, companies proposing hydraulic fracturing have in fact been remarkably open and transparent: All of the pertinent data from fracking tests conducted by Cuadrilla in Blackpool are available on the DECC (Department for Energy and Climate Change) website, as is the composition of the fracking fluids used (of which, 99% is H2O). In contrast, the opposition to shale gas has based its arguments on falsehoods, manipulated data and scary Youtube videos. There is a need for a rational, evidence-driven debate about shale gas extraction in the South-West. However, by polarising the debate in this manner, environmentalists are preventing this from happening.

As the council acknowledges, there may well be no shale gas under Frome. Even if there were, it's likely to be years before any operator considers any plans to extract it. As such, the decision by the council is largely a symbolic one. Does the council not have better uses for its time, and its rate-payer's money, than this misguided publicity stunt based on a highly biased representation of the facts surrounding shale gas extraction?

Yours Sincerely etc etc etc,

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