The decision whether Britain should frack is crucial. The government presents it as the only option. In opposition, a body of evidence suggests it will lead to ecological meltdown. In addition, the current business-as-usual path is creating multiple systemic crises, not least climate change.
Although fracking may boom out across the country 60% of the UK, it is not widely understood. So firstly, what is this unconventional fossil fuel?
What is hydraulic fracturing (fracking)?
The aim of fracking is to extract natural gas from shale that is mostly methane.
In preparation, a rig is erected, under which a borehole or well is dug vertically down to the shale rock, at 1500 metres or deeper. Next, the hole turns horizontally: US fracker Haliburton suggest it can stretch as much as 3,000 metres, running parallel with the surface.
The well is then encased with concrete and steel piping, with perforations or holes in the horizontal sections.
In operation, the process jets millions of gallons of frack-fluid through the pipe, and out of the holes, pressurised at between 10,000-15,000 psi (pounds per square inch). That is similar to the pressure found at the depths of the Mariana Trench, Pacific, the deepest point in the world’s oceans. The fluid is water mixed with silica and toxins, including Volatile Organic Compounds, Formaldehyde and Naphthalene.
Fracking involves similar to the pressure found at the depths of the Mariana Trench, Pacific, the deepest point in the world’s oceans.
Blasting through the holes in the pipe, the fluid fractures the shale rock to create fissures, air gaps releasing methane and other gases. Haliburton suggests it can recover between 10 to 40% of the fluid back to the surface (known as flowback), the rest is left in the ground. After they have recovered what they can, the gas is extracted.
This fracking process can be repeated until the well is used up; each single frack uses 1 to 8 million gallons of frack-fluid.
Shale gas extraction is relatively new, making it an unconventional fossil fuel. Earlier natural gas extraction still used a rig: but with a vertical borehole. It also did not use the same mixture of frack-fluids or the amounts or pressures of water.
This description explains what should happen. But there are many contentions surrounding the process and its ecological impact. For instance, forerunning UK fracking company Cuadrilla was censured by the Advertising Standards Agency for its claim it uses “proven, safe technologies to explore for and recover natural gas,”
Looking across the Atlantic where the industry has proliferated widely over the last decade, numerous scientific reports, industry admissions and newspaper reports substantiates the strong doubts about the industry’s safety.
What are the reported dangers of fracking?
An Associated Press study reports numerous cases of water contamination caused by fracking in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Texas. Texas has increased levels of arsenic near the industry. Groundwater has been contaminated with cancerous benzene in Colorado. Canadian operations have led to elevated levels of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. All are toxins. Broadly, fracking has been shown to increase levels of radium, substantiated further by a peer-reviewed Duke University paper, which tells how underground radioactivity is unsettled and along with the toxins used threatens human life when it comes to the surface. Another report shows how millions of gallons of flowback are 300 times more radioactive than the limit for nuclear plant discharges.
A Duke University paper asserts pollutants from fracking are a threat to human life.
Pollution can spread through different pathways, such as defects in the well’s cement and metal casing. A Connell University study found that 6-7% of wells in Pennsylvania fail. American Shale Oil, whose shareholders include Rupert Murdoch and Dick Cheney has been told it must fix its faulty wells in Colorado. The natural gas industry data suggests 5% of wells leak within 1 year, half within 30, even without the increased pressure and complexities of the fracking process. Underground radioactive materials unsettled by frack-fluid can disperse through rocks, or with toxins and carcinogens travel through subsurface pathways to enter the water cycle.
Accidents and spills are another pollution pathway. Reports from New Mexico show how waste water pits like the one pictured above often overflow or leak. Additionally, there can be too much water to treat as happened in Pennsylvania. Pollution from explosions, over-ground pipeline failures, accidents have been widespread, for instance in North Dakota, Ohio and California. The NY Times reports that residents are more likely to discover leaking over-ground pipelines than the industry.
Evidence shows the industry uses gag orders to silence victims and conceal impacts. They tried to prevent a doctor stating the chemicals in frack-fluids that harmed their patient. Non-disclosure settlements stop homeowners whose water became contaminated speaking publicly. Similarly a case in Texas shows the industry is using intellectual property rules to hide the chemicals from regulators.
Non-disclosure makes it harder to detect pollutants, as regulators do not know what to look for. Problems that can only be exasperated when state officials work to conceal pollution. Concealing information is noted by researchers as a barrier to understanding fracking’s total impact.
Amplifying contamination’s potential drain on clean water supplies, fracking requires millions of gallons of water. The Guardian tells how fracking has sucked parts of Texas dry. The story is re-told in Denver: frackers there outbids farmers for water. Colorado also faces more droughts. US Environmental Protection Agency figures suggest annually the industry is uses between 70 to 140 billion gallons of water, the same as a city of 2.5 or 5 million inhabitants.
“It is not really that complicated: you can be in favour of fracking for shale gas, or you can be in favour of fixing the climate.” John Ashton said at a London panel discussion in June.
You can be in favour of fracking for shale gas, or you can be in favour of fixing the climate.
He was Special Representative for Climate Change at the UK Foreign Office, 2006-12. The International Panel on Climate Change substantiate this claim, asserting a great deal of conventional fossil fuels needs to be left in the ground to tackle climate change, and no unconventionals (including shale gas) should be extracted. The UN Environmental Programme alerts: “This unconventional gas extraction technique presents environmental risks, despite economic or energy security benefits, including: air, soil, and water contamination; water usage competition; ecosystem damage; habitat and biodiversity impacts; and fugitive gas emissions.”
Scientists point to both the energy intensity of the fracking process and that it unleashes methane, seeping out through the same pathways as toxins. It means locals can set fire to their drinking taps. Not only explosive, methane gas is far more potent than CO2 as a heat-trapping greenhouse gas. Consequently, the levels of methane leaking have led independent scientists to calculate that fracking is worse for the environment than coal, substantiating earlier findings.
Fracking has also been linked to massive rises in ozone pollution in both rural Texas and Wyoming. The latter was known for its crisp mountain air, but has recently recorded smog levels you would expect in large cities. A study in Colorado shows how it increases a further range of dangerous gases that cause acute health problems.
Local impacts: health, ecosystems & agriculture
37 health organisations and a hundred plus medical professionals co-wrote a letter calling for a moratorium on fracking in New York.
It states: “The totality of the science—which now encompasses hundreds of peer–reviewed studies and hundreds of additional reports and case examples—shows that permitting fracking in New York would pose significant threats to the air, water, health and safety of New Yorkers.”
More than 100 medics and scientists in New York say fracking causes threats to air, water, health and safety.
The letter suggests fracking of causing numerous health problems, linked to the aforementioned harmful chemicals and radioactive pollution. In Pennsylvania campaigners have compiled a list of 6,000 people harmed or killed due to the industry. A multi-university study has found it endangers babies. Another report shows it can cause infertility, birth defects and cancer. These are among a wide range of serious and often life threatening symptoms, including respiratory problems and neurological impairments that have been reported.
In Pennsylvania, campaigners have compiled a list of 6,000 people harmed or killed by fracking.
The medics’ letter asserts there needs to be more extensive research into the impacts of fracking, free from industry’s attempts to quash evidence. Likewise in Britain, there are serious questions about whether the industry has funded or is linked to every study that suggests fracking is safe.
In tandem with health, accounts describe that is disastrous for local ecosystems and agriculture. Farmers assert it has killed their livestock and vegetation, including in Pennsylvania, North Dakota and Alberta. The unconventional fossil fuel has also been linked to destroying forests, decimating aquatic life and threatening animals like the antelope of Wyoming.
Increasing fracking has led to claims it intensely industrialises areas in ‘gaslands’, places immense strain on transport and other infrastructure, leads to work-related deaths, and expands other dangerous industries like mining the carcinogenic silica.
In 2011, UK fracking operations were halted due to earthquakes, which took Cuadrilla weeks to admit their industry likely caused.
In the area between Alabama, Colorado and Ohio, where fracking is most prolific, insurers note how forty years ago the area averaged 21 earthquakes per year. It rose for the decade before 2011 to 134, that year. Insurers now question whether earthquake insurance will protect against ‘man-made-earthquakes’. Consequently, a mayor in Ohio has brought earthquake insurance; in Oklahoma earthquake insurance is a boom industry.
The earthquake insurance business in Oklahoma is now booming.
In stark disagreement, the campaign to frack Britain contradicts these dangers, or argues the industry will achieve higher standards. But to contextualise the case to frack it is relevant to dig into who stands to gain from the unconventional boom of shale, and even who is gaining already.
Who stands to gain from fracking Britain?
Cuadrilla is the lynchpin company in plans to expand fracking across the UK, along with Dart Energy, IGas, Celtique Energy, Egdon Resources and eCorp Oil & Gas. Centrica (formerly British Gas) has bought some licences and Total is the only oil major involved in UK fracking. UK-based companies like Shell have substantial interests in US fracking, although currently they say UK fracking is not viable.
The Conservative government has profited already in donations from fracking interests, revealed by media investigations this year and in 2012. These articles give examples of some of the investors with their money on fracking.
In the mix with donations, there is an often blurred line between the fracking industry and Conservative-led government. Lord Browne is a key example: he is both chairman of Cuadrilla and a senior adviser to the UK government. Senior Conservative advisers Lynton Crosby and Ben Moxham are two other examples. Now advising Cameron, Crosby has fracking interests; Moxham worked for Lord Browne at BP and is now Cameron’s energy adviser.
This revolving door spins for state institutions too: news recently broke about Sir Phillip Davies, head of the Environmental Agency. He was Cameron’s former adviser and worked for a company producing environmental reports for Cuadrilla. This diagram further maps the fracking-government relations, including Lord Howell George Osborne’s father in-law, both peer and fracking lobbyist.
The New Internationalist assert the extent that PR companies are gaining from a frack Britain campaign. In the US, Hill and Knowlton made some of the $80 million spent by the US industry in one campaign. Cuadrilla are employing Bell Pottinger, a firm whose top executives were caught on camera boasting their access to top Tories.
Fracking PR is big business: US Hill and Knowlton profited from a $80 billion shale gas campaign.
Unlike the US, where landowners own mineral rights, British Lord of the Manor rights passed down through the aristocracy gives them the rights to land even if they do not own it. This led to a swathe of reports about how aristocratic landowners were registering these rights to cash-in on fracking. But there is contention this will apply, as under the 1998 Petroleum Act any fossil fuel ‘found in strata’ belongs to the Queen.
What is clear is that large-scale aristocratic landowners can rent out the areas in which the frack rig is placed. For instance, Simon Greenwood has leased parts of Sussex to enable fracking at Balcombe, in a deal said to make him thousands of pounds.
Whether Britain fracks or not also plays into a wider global debate. Whereas fracking has mainly proliferated across US and Canada, it has been banned or suspended in New York State, Quebec and France. With growing resistance to stop it globally, it is arguable that international fracking interests such as Rupert Murdoch will want fracking to go ahead in the UK to justify its expansion elsewhere.
Some academics and research institutions receive money and sponsorship from the fracking industry. Cuadrilla sponsor academic research including Joe Howe from University of Central Lancashire. They paid him to write a paper about their socio-political impact. Further south, oil company major Shell fund the Shell Geo-Science Laboratory at Oxford University.
There are many more research societies and institutions sponsored by the industry, not least those pushing the case to frack.
The case to Frack Britain
The government has argued fracking will benefit the whole country and that it can be done safely. A House of Commons paper states: “The health, safety and environmental risks can be managed effectively in the UK, by implementing and enforcing best operational practice.”
This relies on evidence from a paper co-authored by the Royal Academy and Royal Society of Engineering. Questions about these conclusions arise though from the latter’s direct links and sponsorship from the fracking industry.
The Royal Academy of Engineering is headed by Sir John Parker, whose has fracking interests in South Africa. Its previous chairman was Lord Browne of Cuadrilla. Additionally, it partners with US fracker Exxon-Mobile and independent researchers Corporate Watch site how it receives hundreds of thousands of pounds from frackers.
The aforementioned parliamentary paper asserts fracking has lower emissions than coal, making it a possible ‘bridge to a low carbon future’. The science here is from the Department of Climate Change (DECC). Likewise, their objectivity and integrity could be considered dubious. Recent revelations show that Lord Browne oversees appointments at the DECC. Additionally, the government’s September 2013 paper relies on data from the British Geological Survey. They receive money from fracking companies: Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon, BG Group and Schlumberger.
Adding to the doubt, the Geological Survey report states how no accurate measurements of the available gas can be made before drilling takes place, in effect any conclusions on the climatic impact are educated guesses.
If sponsoring science can be said to undermine it, this erodes the government’s case about earthquakes too. Again they rely on a British Geological Survey to down-plays the risks. A Parliamentary paper tells: “Cuadrilla funded a geo-mechanical study by the BGS which was given to DECC to consider.”
Another report that could be viewed as failing an objectivity test is a new report on water contamination. The DECC co-commissioned the British Geological Survey partnering the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). A body that is guided by an innovation board including senior research executives for Schlumberger Ltd and Shell Global Solutions: two fracking companies. Shell also sponsors NERC research.
With a multitude of independent reports about the severe dangers of fracking, verses reports supported, connected or paid for the industry is seems vital to ask how else we could create energy.
Alternatives to fracking
The IPCC assertion that fossil fuel business as usual has to stop to avert climate change dovetails with broader ecological argument against fracking - not least its threats to water, ecosystems and human health. A nuclear pathway can be discounted due to its long-term legacy and risks, as shown in Fukushima and Chernobyl. The options left are renewables and energy efficiency.
The global march of renewables
Portugal, for the first 3 months of 2013, produced 70% of its electric power from renewables. Similarly impressive amounts are demonstrated in Germany, which has recently set new laws to reduce fossil fuels and nuclear use.
These examples represent the crest of an eco-energy wave; from Chile’s solar power to Iceland, which acquires most of its heating from geo-thermal. In Australia it is cheaper to produce energy from wind than coal or gas. Even in Britain, half a million houses now have solar energy.
These examples show how different countries can benefit from one or more abundant energy sources. Britain has a range of options: including expanding it already growing wind farms. But possibly, one of the most exciting energy prospects is tidal.
Britain has a range of renewable options, not least expanding wind farms and tidal.
Turning the tide on climate change
Britain has one of the largest global tidal ranges: energy that is predictable and abundant. SeaGen, the single tidal turbine (pictured above), produces enough energy to supply 1,500 homes.
A Renewables UK report suggests that by 2020, tidal power could generate a significant proportion of Britain’s energy needs. They suggest that what is needed is for the government and media to talk-up the industry to encourage investment; in doing what it is doing for fracking.
Another comparison is that both tidal and fracking are industries in their infancies in Britain. Earlier this year I spoke to Lubo Jankovic, professor of Zero Carbon Design at Birmingham City University. He explained how even if successful, fracking will not be fully operational for 10-20 years. There is a huge controversy about just how long shale gas would last, whereas tidal will never run out.
Energy efficiency and local energy
In tandem with tidal and increasing Britain’s other renewables, two other key areas to develop are increasing energy efficiency and local energy schemes.
In an interview earlier this year, researcher Danny Chivers explained how there are 20 million poorly insulated homes in Britain: considerably increasing Britain’s energy needs. He told me how the government’s schemes are only insulating 400,000 per year, meaning it will take half a century for the country to stop wasting vast quantities of energy.
Chivers has mapped out a two energy futures diagram, which shows how with existing technologies the world could meet its energy needs via renewables.
Local energy production also provides a solution, both to create energy needed for communities and to break the hold of the big energy companies whose priorities are profits not people. In Germany “municipal utilities allow communities to focus on energy efficiency, renewables, and distributed cogeneration without the need for nuclear and coal power.” On Scottish islands, community wind farms mean profits from selling energy into the grid are leading to investment in the communities. In a similar renewable vein, a not-for-profit solar cooperative is growing in Brixton, London.
Grow Heathrow, a transition community, shows further local innovations to meet sustainable energy needs. On site they have created plans for a biodigester and gasifying wood burner. Biodigesters may provide a way for communities, streets or tower blocks to turn their organic waste into natural gas. The gasifying woodburner is a way for efficiently heating water from wood.
Any transition to an ecological future would take investment, in terms of human energy, time and expertise. Currently, this investment is being pushed into fossil fuels, including through pension pots. It seems illogical that many workers are putting money to financially secure their retirements, whilst their investments are actively working to endanger the planet they will retire into.
Looking to the future, there are alternatives to fracking that do not threaten air, water and soil; these will take a considerable amount of humanpower to realise. But the real test will be to challenge powers-that-be who are driving us towards a fracked future.
There are alternatives to fracking that do not threaten air, water and soil.