A new anti-fracking initiative, Talk Fracking, is currently touring the country. Their website has a thin veneer of balance, claiming to seek an "open debate" on fracking, but you don’t have to scratch too deeply to see their true motivation.
I’ll consider one particular video in detail, which claims to have “busted” all of the reasons to support shale development in the UK.
Before addressing the substance of the video, however, I will address the style. Talk Fracking say that they want to open up a balanced debate on fracking. Yet the video has this strange, childish, mildly insulting caricature of an “industry representative” to present the pro-fracking case. If you’re looking for a balanced debate, putting up insulting straw-man caricatures of your opponents is hardly the best way to start.
Now, to the content. The first “myth” is the impact (or not) that shale gas will have on energy prices. My view is that the only realistic position to take is that we simply don’t know what impact it’ll have on prices. It also depends heavily on whether the rest of Europe also develops shale gas. I suspect that the impact is unlikely to be dramatic as we’ve seen in the USA. Some studies have indicated it will have little impact, while others have suggesteda possible price reduction of up to 25%.
The Talk Fracking video argues that fracking will “keep a monopoly of energy with the big six companies”. In fact, Centrica’s farm-in to Cuadrilla’s Lancashire acreage aside, current operators in UK shale have no connection with the big six, so I’d really like to know how shale development strengthens their monopoly. In reality, the big six monopoly is unlikely to be affected whether or not we develop shale gas. However, one of the most fundamental rules of economics is that producing more of something can only have a downward impact on prices.
The second “myth” is the impact of shale on jobs and the economy. The latest figures on this come from EY, which comes up with similar numbers to the 2013 IoD report. EY estimates 6,000 direct jobs, 39,000 supply-chain related jobs and 19,000 induced jobs. As we have seen in in my “Spotlight on SMEs”, there are a lot of UK businesses that stand to benefit from shale development - in the supply chain and providing ancillary services - beyond those working directly for Cuadrilla and IGas.
The Northwest Energy Task Force now has over 400 business supporters who see the benefits of shale development in Lancashire. This includes the Chairperson of “Stay Blackpool”, which represents over 200 hoteliers and guesthouses. The “induced” jobs created in the hospitality trade may not count as far as Mr Mobbs and Ms Rothery are concerned, but I bet they count to the people holding down these jobs.
This is exactly what we have seen in the USA: the economic benefits of shale development extend far beyond the drillers themselves. Hotels are booked out all year round. Restaurants are full. There are jobs created in haulage and construction.
Finally, note the sleight of hand where Ms Rothery switches attention to sex workers in the jobs total. Rest assured, the IoD and EY reports don’t consider sex workers in its jobs figures.
“Myth” 3 is energy security. Joseph Corre invites us to “ask yourselves what energy security really means for you”. I would suggest that it means that when you press the light switch, the lights come on. We saw over the winter, when storms affected power supplies for several days, the level of disruption that resulted. Keeping the lights on is no laughing matter.
We’re already in a situation where electricity generation capacity is getting perilously close to the margin. The National Grid are looking for volunteers to receive payments in return for being the first to be switched off in the event of outages. At best, this is additional cost on our bills. At worst, put yourselves in the shoes of a high-energy industrial user, such as a factory. Would you be likely to invest in the UK knowing that you might be asked to shut down if demand spikes? Energy security has impacts across the economy, even if it’s just a buzzword for Mr Corre.
Current projections suggest we will be importing 76% of our gas, at a cost of over £15 billion per year, by 2030. The question is not whether or not we will burn gas, but where that gas will come from – domestic shale or imported. Even Caroline Lucas accepts this. If gas is imported, that £15 billion is lost from our economy – it creates no jobs and pays no tax. If gas is produced domestically, the jobs and tax stay at home, benefitting the UK economy.
Any yes, Dame Westwood is correct that we don’t presently import gas from Russia. However, Talk Fracking want to have their cake and eat it. The impact of shale development on UK prices will be modified by the fact that we are part of an interconnected EU market. However, they then ignore these interconnections when it comes to considering the impacts of events in Eastern Europe. Much of the rest of Europe does import much of its gas from Russia. As they are so fond of pointing out, we are connected to this market. So we are impacted, even though none of the gas in our pipelines actually comes from Russia.
Moreover, we are importing substantial amounts from Qatar instead. There are environmental implications of liquefying gas and shipping it halfway around the world as well, and the middle-east is hardly the best place to be sending £15 billion a year if we can really help it. Producing domestic gas is a better option than importing Qatari LNG, for a whole host of reasons.
“Myth” 4 is the “gold standard” regulatory system in the UK. I’ll be honest and say that I’m not sure exactly what counts as “gold standard”, and who gets to decide whether something meets that standard. But it’s pretty safe to say that regulations in the UK are significantly stronger than they are in the USA. Anyone who thinks otherwise simply cannot be familiar with the industry.
I’m not sure how what has happened in the banks or our supermarkets has any bearing on shale gas development. It’s not the same people regulating these very different industries. I’ll admit that I have no idea the regard to which our food industry is held, but prior to the banking crash I remember hearing more about light touch regulation than gold standard regulation. But apparently “the banks went bad” is a good argument to ban fracking.
Liz Arnold goes on to regurgitate the SLB Oilfield Review, which examines well integrity in the Gulf of Mexico. Anyone who thinks deep-water GoM data is relevant to onshore drilling either doesn’t understand drilling or is intentionally looking to mislead. Anyone who argues that the numbers in the SLB report show wells “leaking” either doesn’t understand well construction or is intentionally looking to mislead. When someone is presented as an expert, flown over from the USA specifically for her expertise, I lean strongly towards the latter conclusion.
Wells are constructed with multiple layers of steel and cement to isolate the well from surrounding rocks, preventing gas from getting into shallower layers. Sometimes, one of these barriers develops an issue of some kind, but this does not mean that gas is able to leak from the well. Actual well leakage is very rare. King and King summarise the issue better than I can, so I’ll quote:
“while individual barrier failures (containment maintained and no pollution indicated) in a specific well group may range from very low to several percent (depending on geographical area, operator, era, well type and maintenance quality), actual well integrity failures are very rare. Well integrity failure is where all barriers fail and a leak is possible. True well integrity failure rates are two to three orders of magnitude lower than single barrier failure rates.”
Ms Arnold also makes the erroneous claim that well integrity issues have allowed frack fluid to leak into shallow aquifers. In fact, fracking fluid is dense, and therefore unlikely to rise from deep formations. So even if a well has experienced a total loss of annular integrity, you wouldn’t expect to see frack fluid in shallow formations. This has been the case in the USA – even where methane migration has been attributed to well integrity, such as at Dimock, or in the Duke PNAS paper, no evidence for fracking fluid chemicals has been found.
Finally, the best place to look when considering the efficacy of existing regulations in the UK, whether they are gold standard or not, is to look at the existing onshore industry and its environmental impact. Over 2,000 wells have been drilled onshore in the UK, over 200 of which have been hydraulically stimulated in some manner. No significant environmental impacts have been noted.
While modifications to the regulatory system might be appropriate to address the increases in frack fluid volumes and the number of wells associated with shale gas development, I think in general past experience points to a regulatory regime in which we can place confidence.
The fifth and final myth is that of gas being a bridge fuel. It is true that greens where advocating gas as a fuel decades ago, because its CO2 footprint is substantially lower than that of our dominant fuel, coal. This argument still holds true today: and is recognised by the IPCC, which states that
"In mitigation scenarios reaching about 450 ppm CO2eq concentrations by 2100, natural gas power generation without CCS acts as a bridge technology, with deployment increasing before peaking and falling to below current levels by 2050 and declining further in the second half of the century (robust evidence, high agreement)."While in the press conference associated with the report's release, the IPCC spokesman said
"We have in the energy supply also the shale gas revolution, and we say that this can be very consistent with low carbon development, with decarbonisation. That's quite clear."
I would like to know whether the organisers of Talk Fracking dispute the IPCC’s conclusions, and if so, why?
In the closing stages of the video we learn that Talk Fracking's position runs far deeper than just shale gas extraction – in fact, Talk Fracking believe that our whole model of industrial civilisation, and all the developments we’ve made in the last 200 years, needs to be changed. I’m not about to be drawn into an argument over the benefits or issues with this sort of debate – resource use and limits to growth are hugely complex issues. However, I don’t think that this as a reason to abandon shale gas development will chime with the wider public. If Talk Fracking’s true manifesto goes far beyond the fracking issue to a wholesale reorganisation of our economic system, then I believe they should be honest about this to the general public.