Shale gas drilling
Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli

The ongoing debate surrounding use of renewable energy in the UK moves on pace in light of recent media coverage of the government’s Green Deal scheme, the frequent arguments over wind farms and more recently, the development of shale gas production in the UK.

Shale gas is causing the biggest ripples in the pond at the moment due to the concern around the environmental issues which may be involved in the extraction process and also at what methods may be used to facilitate an efficient storage and transport infrastructure within the UK.

When a 200 trillion cubic feet deposit of shale gas was found in 2011 near Blackpool in Lancashire, there was excitement within the energy sector. Quickly hailed as the newest of the next big things in the sector, it was described as a “game changer” for the industry. Claims were made that that stated the seam was so rich, it could potentially satisfy UK natural gas consumption for nearly 60 years.

Tall poppies syndrome seems to have taken over quickly though and there have now been a number of criticisms and fear around what initially seemed like a solution.

Problems arose when the extraction process, the rather ungracefully titled “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing, if you prefer to call it by its Sunday name) was held to be responsible for 2 earthquakes which happened in close proximity to the three exploratory wells which were drilled for the purpose. This caused exploration to be shut down until the end of 2012, but even though this ban has been lifted, the worry around how safe the process is remains.

At this point, and for anybody who is unsure, fracking involves the following steps:

  • Deep drilling into the earth (down to depths of 20,000 feet for shale extraction)
  • A mix of water, proppants  (matter such as sand) and chemicals (such as benzene and formaldehyde) is then pumped into the bore hole to keep the fracture open and ease the gas flow for extraction

So what are the concerns and why does it matter for UK energy suppliers? The biggest problem is the chemicals used in the fracking fluid mix and the damage they may cause.

Environmental concerns

Water contamination: Prior to fracking commencing in Blackpool, an organisation for climate change research in the UK recommended that “precaution” be taken due to a lack of concrete evidence as to what the process did to the water table. Fracking has come under heavy scrutiny in the US (where the process is more widespread) and has been cited in a number of EPA reports as being the possible cause of contamination to the water table in a number of locations where the process has taken place.

Seismic activity: Although the earthquakes which occurred in Blackpool were found to have been caused by fracking techniques, a report by the DECC concluded that although risk from these earthquakes is low, future seismic activity could not be ruled out. The report also laid out a number of suggestions which would mitigate the possibility of these happening again in the future, significantly, the report recommended that less fracking fluid should be used in any further exploration. The report also recommended that fracking fluid should also be allowed to flow out of the fracture in order to minimise any percolation into the water table.

Air pollution: The main by-product of fracking which causes air quality concerns is methane emissions from the wells. A study conducted in the US revealed that up to 8% of the methane from fracking escapes into the atmosphere. Methane in the atmosphere is not a new problem, this has long been a thorn in the shoe of the environmental movement as it is responsible for increases in CO2, and at the amount of methane being released over the time the process has been used, fracking has a worse greenhouse gas footprint than fossil fuels in a comparative timescale.

 

Infrastructure concerns

Wastewater treatment – The biggest concern over fracking if it becomes more practiced in the UK is what  to do with the wastewater which is produced. The process requires millions of gallons of water and the water which goes into the well must also come back out of the well. The amount of fluid which can come back can be between 20-50%, with the remainder of the fluid being deposited into the clay in the shale. This water contains harmful chemicals, which could cause damage to plants and animal life. Any storage and treatment of this wastewater would therefore have to be tightly  monitored.

It should not be in question that this wastewater should be recycled for other purposes, but this raises questions around where and how it should be stored and treated. In the US, any wastewater from the process is stored in open pits prior to being treated, if fracking becomes more widespread in the UK then any storage pits would have to be covered. The number of current locations in the UK may also mean that wastewater would have to be transported to other locations which will also pose a number of risks.

 After previously being heralded as the next big thing for energy in the UK, it is not a panacea and perhaps the final word should go to the Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change, David Kennedy, who has stated that despite the initial enthusiasm around it, shale gas may only provide around 10% of the current gas demand of the UK. He stated that “it is not going to be a game changer…..there may be enough shale gas to contribute to heating our homes but let’s be clear, it is not going to drive prices down and it is carbon intensive”.

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Nicholas A. Tonelli