Andrew Simms: ‘Fracking represents real and substantial risks to people and the environment’
Shale gas and tar sands are big, sticky and controversial. Energy-intensive and messy to extract, the fossil fuel industry sees them as a buffer during the dying days of conventional cheap oil. In Canada, the debate has taken an almost hallucinatory turn, rightwing blow-hard political activists have begun promoting tar sands as “ethical oil”. The intellectual gymnastics are achieved by implying that the exploitation of oils sands can replace importing oil from the oppressive regime of Saudi Arabia.
In the UK the debate has been important but distant, until now that is, and apparent confirmation that large amounts of shale gas lie beneath Lancashire. An inverse relationship seems to exist between the overall prospects for the oil industry, and the excitement generated by any new fossil fuel find. So, after the hype, how positive should we be?
The Tyndall Centre at Manchester University observed that the “fracking” process – pumping a liquid cocktail of water, chemicals and sand into rock to release the gas – represents real and substantial risks to people and the environment. Even though this is gas from shale, rather than tar sands, as an “unconventional” fossil fuel it has in common with sands a higher climate impact than conventional gas. That’s because fracking releases more methane which is a potent global warming gas. What’s more, our regulators seem to be hopelessly ill-prepared for the rapid development of shale gas in the UK.
In spite of all these concerns, and others, the company behind the find and potential development, Cuadrilla Resources, probably feels it has a trump card. In times of recession, and other times too, the favoured gambit to suspend all debate and win your case is to talk about the promise of jobs. A potential number of 1,700 has been quoted in the area the company are licensed to operate in.
And yet, of course, equal if not greater numbers of jobs could just as easily be created with all the work that needs doing to reduce our energy usage: the employment intensive task of making homes and offices more energy efficient so that we need less gas in the first place, and creating the wide range of renewable energy alternatives that Deutsche Bank concluded in a study produces between two and four times more jobs for every pound invested.
This won’t be the last example, but there’s something of an air of desperation about the tenacious clinging to the old fossil fuel economy. Each glimmer of continued promise is greeted with the nostalgic flush of the ageing diehard still longing for the return of the dictator. But its time to move on and lay the foundations of the modern clean energy economy, it will be better for Britain’s short- and long-term economic prospects, and better for the planet.
Rob Lyons: ‘Claims made about problems caused by fracking seem to be greatly exaggerated’
The rapid rise of shale gas has been possible thanks to recent developments in hydraulic fracturing: basically drilling horizontally into rock formations deep underground, using charges to blow cracks in the rock, then using fluid (over 99% of which is water and sand) to keep those cracks open to allow gas to escape.
World Energy Outlook suggests that alongside conventional sources of gas, unconventional sources like shale gas could supply the world’s gas needs for 250 years at current levels of consumption. At present, the majority of shale-gas output is in the US, but the announcement that there may be large reserves in the UK suggests that shale gas could become a very significant part of energy supplies here, too.
Burning gas produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than coal or oil because the ratio of hydrogen to carbon in methane is higher. It’s not a low-carbon energy source, like renewables or nuclear, but it is certainly lower carbon. Research from Cornell University published earlier this year suggested that shale gas was as bad, if not worse, than coal. But, as critics have pointed out, the paper is flawed in both its methods and its data. Gas can be used for heating and to generate electricity, but it can also be used as a substitute for oil for motor vehicles. Compressed natural gas is already widely used in developing countries. Worldwide, there were 11.2m natural gas vehicles by 2009.
Those who oppose gas tend to raise two main objections. First, that gas will distract investment from renewables. Given that wind power in the UK is currently extremely expensive and only feasible through large subsidies, that’s no bad thing. Gas could buy us some time so that we can implement renewables when R&D has made them more cost-effective. Using more gas would provide quick and relatively cheap emissions reductions. If the UK does indeed have substantial supplies of gas, it would provide energy security, too.
Second, there are fears of water sources being contaminated either with methane or with chemicals used in the fracking process. However, the gas resides at much deeper levels than the water table and the pipes are sealed with concrete. The industry should, of course, be held to high standards over the quality of those concrete seals, but the claims made about problems caused by fracking seem to be greatly exaggerated.
With the world’s population heading toward nine billion by mid-century, and with more of those people having access to electricity and motorised transport, we will need all the energy we can get. Turning our backs on a major source of cheap, easily used and lower-carbon energy seems perverse.
Author: Andrew Simms and Rob Lyons
Source: The Guardian