Sam Robinson: Does fracking have a future?

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Last week, the UK’s shale gas commissioner, Natascha Engel, resigned in protest at the Government’s restrictions on hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’.

Controversy around fracking has led the Government to adopt stringent regulations around it. Current rules operate on a ‘traffic light’ system around seismic activity from fracking. In the UK, seismic activity from fracking of between zero and 0.5 on the Richter scale triggers an ‘amber’ level, meaning that operations must proceed at a reduced intensity. Readings of 0.5 or above – a ‘red’ level – requires fracking operations to be suspended for 18 hours.

The UK’s traffic light system for fracking is considerably stricter than a number of areas in North America such as British Columbia, Alberta, and Illinois, where the ‘red light’ at which fracking operations must cease can be as high as four on the Richter scale. It is also substantially less than the limits set in California (2.7 magnitude), Oklahoma (2.5 magnitude) and Ohio (which sets a limit of one on the Richter scale). By international standards, the traffic light system in the UK is very strict.

Fracking operations in the UK resumed last October, after a seven-year hiatus. However, Cuadrilla, a fracking firm that owns sites in Lancashire, claims the UK’s regulatory system is “strangling” the emerging fracking industry. The company claims that it has only been able to drill a fraction of its well near Blackpool, while rival firm Ineos has indicated that it may abandon its plans for fracking in England.

Researchers from the British Geological Survey (BGS) have suggested that the red light could safely be raised to 1.5 on the Richter scale, which would result in vibrations similar to those caused by a heavy bin lorry and would not pose any threat to buildings or people. To further illustrate the point, the BGS notes that each year there are between earthquakes that can be felt by people across the UK, accompanied by several hundred smaller quakes.

Supporters of fracking contend that exploiting shale gas can bring significant economic and geopolitical benefits. Often, the US fracking industry is held up as an example of this; fracking in the US has in large part driven an energy boom that has resulted in the country becoming the world’s top oil producer, with the International Energy Agency projecting that, globally, the US will account for almost 75% of oil and 40% of gas growth over the next six years. In its latest report, the US Energy and Information Administration expects that the US will become an energy exporter by 2020.

There are suggestions that the UK could similarly take advantage of shale gas resources in order to bolster its energy security. Estimates from the British Geological Survey (BGS) suggest that the Bowland Basin in Lancashire could hold around 1,300 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas. This estimate, however, does not have anything to say about how much of this gas could be extracted through fracking. But the indications are that even a tenth of this reserve has the potential to meet Britain’s gas demand for about 40 years.

Opponents of fracking counter with research linking fracking operations to damaging spills or, indeed, earthquakes. They also point out that just because one cannot feel the earthquakes produced by fracking, does not mean that there are no risks.

Professor Peter Styles, one of the academics who advised the Government on its current fracking rules, warns that at activity levels of above 0.5 Richter “you potentially are seeing faults move and those faults will produce bigger earthquakes.” This is particularly the case in former coal mining areas, where fracking could stimulate geological faults that were already stressed by mining. With new research finding that fracking can induce earthquakes tens of kilometres away – much further than previously thought – it is clear that a large-scale expansion of fracking in the UK may bring with it unforeseen dangers.

Britain’s geology is also substantially different to that in North America, where the fracking industry is more developed. Among the geological requirements for fracking is a relatively simple geological structure. But the UK’s geology is highly complex, which places a large degree of uncertainty on the potential safety of and returns to fracking operations.

There is also the question of whether fracking has a role to play in the UK’s transition to a low-carbon economy as a ‘bridging fuel’. Although shale gas does emit less carbon dioxide (CO2) than coal, it is nevertheless a fossil fuel that may crowd out investment in cleaner technologies. An additional problem when it comes to fracking is methane, which can be up to 28 times more potent than CO2. Methane leaks have been a problem recently, with Cuadrilla reporting four spikes in methane above permitted levels since it resumed fracking in October last year.

That makes integrating an expanded fracking industry into the UK’s ambitions to become a net-zero country by the middle of this century at the latest fraught with difficulties; as the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) makes clear, if fracking is to be compatible with the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions targets then its emissions, particularly methane leaks, must be limited; fracking must displace, and not complement, gas imports; and, any emissions from fracking would need to be accommodated in the UK’s carbon budgets.

Given that the recent CCC report concludes that a massive expansion of renewables is feasible and could be done at “little additional cost” compared to a high-carbon power sector, a further question arises: is focusing on fracking really worth it, when an expansion of renewables could provide a plausible and simpler way of achieving our likely future net-zero emissions target?

The Government officially supports fracking in the UK, but maintains arguably impractical seismicity restrictions on its operations. This is a stalemate that needs to reach a conclusion. Given the questions that still persist over the suitability of fracking to the UK’s situation, not just politically but also geologically and environmentally, the Government may yet decide that fracking is more trouble than it’s worth.

Sam Robinson is a Research Assistant at Bright Blue. 

This content was originally published here.

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