Saturday, 20 October 2012

Frack free Frome

In the news recently - the town of Frome in Somerset has been declared a 'frack-free zone'. This is a largely symbolic gesture, given that it'll probably be years before we even know if there is any shale gas under or near Frome. But I found the minutes from the council meeting where this decision was taken made for worrying reading. You can read them here (pages 6 and 7 of the pdf):
Why is fracking a problem?
In the vicinity to where fracking takes place the gravest concern is water contamination. Many of the chemicals used in the fracking process have known negative health effects, including cancer, and can contaminate groundwater supplies, eventually polluting the water table and leaching into waterways. The industry itself estimates that 30-40% of the toxic water created in the fracking process is never recovered. The contamination of irrigation water could also affect food supplies. The fracking fluid can leach chemicals like arsenic out of the rocks making it even more toxic and so any recovered fluid (processed water) becomes a big disposal problem. Fracking in the United States has already resulted in numerous spills of these fluids, causing injury to human health and wildlife. Additionally, the fracking fluid can leach radioactive elements out of the rocks causing radioactive contamination.

Like other forms of ‘extreme energy’ (e.g. Tar Sands extraction), fracking is very carbon intensive. It uses a lot of energy (and therefore emits a lot of carbon dioxide) in order to get just a bit more energy back. Fracking has the additional problem that the natural gas (methane) that is being extracted is a stronger greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide emitted by burning it and the method results in significant amounts of methane escaping directly into the atmosphere.

Fracking creates a large industrialised footprint on the landscape, and causes significant increases in traffic.  It can also compromise the geological structure of an area, which is of serious concern in the Mendips, where the subterranean systems are still mysterious even to experienced cavers, and where a build-up of methane could have potentially explosive results. Local councillors in Bath, including the leader of B&NES Paul Crossley, have further concerns about the potential contamination of the hot springs, the source of which lies somewhere in the Mendips, and thus on revenues from tourism.

There are, therefore considerable concerns around fracking pertinent both to our region and the greater environment.  The American experience points towards relatively small gains in energy at huge long and short term environmental cost.
If this is the sole information on which the council has made its decision then this is very worrying. No mention of any numbers or science here - numbers which would show that for several tens of thousands of wells, there have been two documented, scientifically verified cases of contamination - one at Dimock where a faulty wellbore leaked methane (no fracking fluids, no radiation), and one incident at Pavilion, which is currently under dispute as it appears that the EPA testing may have been faulty.

The 'extreme energy' paragraph is simply complete nonsense! It's a term that is being used to describe the move towards more unconventional hydrocarbon sources. It may have some validity for tar sands, which are pretty intensive to produce, but to describe shale gas in this way is complete bullsh!t. To frack a well, you pump water down a hole at high pressure for a few hours. This well will then produce gas for years. So it would be better described as 'you put a little bit of energy in, and get absolutely shed-loads back'. This is why shale gas is pushing US gas prices so low. As for the methane leakage issue, this has been firmly put to bed, including by an EU Scientific Report. Climate-wise, producing European shale gas would be better than importing gas from Russia or the middle east (not to mention the geo-political and economic impacts).

What about 'compromising the geological structure of an area'? As a geologist, I'm not even sure what that means, so it's hardly worth refuting. As for the caves - the maximum cave depths are ~200m: any likely shale gas deposits will be 2 - 3km below the surface. As far as the geologist working 2km down is concerned, these caves might as well be at the surface.

Does fracking create a significant industrialised footprint? I guess that depends on your definition of 'significant'. Yes, there will be a well pad every few miles. During drilling (usually takes about 3 months) the pad will be an acre or so, with a drilling rig about 4 storeys high. After that, the pad can be grassed over, and the well-head is topped by a 'Christmas tree', which is a couple of meters high. Yes, there will be a significant increase in truck traffic. But an increase in industrial footprint has benefits as well, something completely overlooked by Frome council. When industry grows, this creates jobs and it creates money. Even if some of the jobs that are created are specialist positions for trained geoscientists brought in from 'out-of-town', there are plenty of jobs for all walks of life - making the concrete for the drill pads, and construction of them, driving and servicing the trucks, for example. Plus all these people stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, drink in pubs, enjoy leisure activities in their spare time, and if they're there for the long haul, buy houses in the area. I can only assume that the economic situation in Frome is already pretty rosy if the council can afford to turn their noses up at this. If so, good for them, but I doubt that this is the situation across much of the rest of the country.

The American experience does not point towards small gains - the American experience points towards significant gains at small environmental cost: energy prices cut by 75%, economic booms in the shale gas areas, reviving once moribund towns and countrysides, while CO2 emission levels plummet to the lowest levels in years.

It's pretty obvious that this is a one-sided agenda. What's worrying is that these are official council documents. I'd have assumed that there would be some sort of requirement to consider these things from an impartial stand-point, considering the evidence wherever available. Clearly I'd be wrong....

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