Science Interviews


Wed, 11th Sep 2013

Should the UK explore fracking?

Aled Jones, Anglia Ruskin University, and Justin Hayward, CIR Strategy

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Get the Frack Out of Here...

Kate -   So, we now know what fracking is, but why has there been such a debate about it?  To find out, I met up with Aled Jones, Director of Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University and Justin Hayward,DirectorDrilling warning sign of CIR Strategy Consultancy.  Aled began by explaining why the UK is currently so keen to explore fracking.


Aled -   So, lots of different reasons and global trends that could play into the reason we or the government is very enthusiastic, the main one being, energy security and rising prices globally of energy.  So, in their mind, the way of doing that is to try and find more locally sourced fossil fuels.


Justin -   Yeah, I agree there is the problem of rising prices of energy globally.  From a perspective of business, this is another opportunity for entrepreneurs and industrialists to go out and extract mineral resources which... they can do that for profit, whilst also helping the energy security problem.  And also, to put downward pressure on the prices of energy for consumers.


Kate -   So, weíre looking to fill that energy up at the moment.  Aled, you mentioned Ďin their mindí it's a really good ideas - that implies you've got some reservations.  What are the potential problems with fracking?  Why are we seeing so many protests?


Aled -   So, I think there's a number of different issues and there are a number of reasons for people protesting.  The reason people go out on the streets in places like Balcombe is a blight on their landscape.  Now, they're not huge sciences but the UK is not used to having oil drilling, gas drilling sites around where people live.  So, itís very unusual.  People are much more used to seeing that in the US.  However, there are then additional pressures around local communities in particular.  So, water availability and potential water contamination and potentially earthquakes, although they may be minor.  So, there's all those environmental problems that could be fairly significant especially in places like Sussex where there is already water stress, so no question about it,y ou can do other things.  You can stop farming.  You can get people to be much more efficient.  But there's an issue around gas as part of that solution and whether actually that does do anything with prices as well.  So, there's the economic argument which doesnít really stack up when you look at the UK, how big it is and how much gas weíre going to have.


Kate -   Justin, you mentioned that itís all about economics and businesses getting this new opportunity.  Is this just a case of big business coming into contact with sort of rural areas that it isnít used to in the UK?


Justin -   If you look back 3 decades or so, there were lots of mines being mined for coal.  So, we do have a history of activity on the land.  Onshore wind has been pushed strongly by some quarters, particularly the government and as Aled alluded to, that's potentially more of a blight on the environment than fracking would be because again, as he mentioned, the footprint of a fracking site is relatively small.  You start with a slightly higher tower for literally a few weeks and then it comes down to something that's quite often included by the trees or around the site.


Kate -   Aled mentioned these other concerns Ė earthquakes, water contamination - that people have.  Do those play a part or is your reckoning that these protests are just based on what we can see?


Justin -   Again, in our conferences, weíve people like Lord Oxburgh whoís an eminent geophysicist and from Durham University, Professor Richard Davies.  Both of whom are experts on the fracking.  As I understand it from their presentations that they've given, the risks of water contamination and earth tremors in particular are very low.  There can be other problems which are sort of much further down the track to do with Ďhow do you decommission these many sites which you will have used to exploit fracking?í  So, it could be comparable with tin mining in Cornwall.  Did it blight the environment or not in that area and this could be a similar to a result.   But actually, if you look at the case of coal, there are some quarry sites for example the Eden project which have done wonderful things with sites which are formally then mines.  I think overall, the environmental regulations are sorts of things that local people worry about - those people that are accused of nimbyism.  Those regulations are much tighter than they used to be.


Kate -   Aled, do you want to come back on that?  Are there regulations going to keep everything in check?


Aled -   So, we do have much stronger regulations than in the US.  So, President Bush changed the regulation so fracking was takwn out of it.  In the UK, itís true the regulations are much stronger.  However, any minor accident and we know the oil and gas industry donít have a brilliant track record of never having accidents.  So, if you look at somewhere like Sussex, any accident will take out their groundwater.  So, that has a huge devastating local economic impact.  So, the possibility of an accident is always going to be there.  It doesnít matter how far you minimise it.  The companies arenít going to spend enough to get rid of that because it will just make it totally uneconomic.  It doesnít matter how many tax incentives the UK government put in place.  The other issue is then the climate change issue as well.  So, the fact that we already have enough carbon in fossil fuels, that if we burned it all, then climate change all the targets, we just can't meet them.  So, the climate change bill in the UK, the stuff we already have, we can burn all of that already because of the climate change.  So, why are we looking for more gas?  Why are we not investing in the clean energy that we can use under the current regulations?  So, either we change the regulations and say we donít care about climate change or we are taking stuff out of the ground, incentivising private companies to make a short term profit, which wonít help the UK national security because they will sell to the highest bidder, in return for a devastating climate.


Kate -   Aled, you work for a sustainability institute.  Can these cleaner energy alternatives realistically fill that energy gap?


Aled -   If they receive the same amount of investment and focus as fossil fuel, and the sort of tax incentives that they're getting then yes, it requires a whole change in our national grid infrastructure to be able to cope with different availability.  But there's absolutely no reason why we wouldn't be able to have huge offshore wind, large scale tidal, Severn barrage, lots of different sorts of technologies.  But we need all of them and we need to be focusing on that sort of investment, having a short term gap in the amount of gas in the UK is at best, 20 years and that's been the best estimates from the gas industry.  Itís probably much lower than that.  So, itís not even giving us a long time to do something else.  We should be focusing on that now.


Justin -   Well, if the opportunity in fracking is small then of course, it really has a triggered effect on global climate change and I would then believe that entrepreneurs and industrialists should be allowed to go ahead and extract and develop the resources, the small resources that are available.  If itís a relatively large amount of gas and there are indications as they said that we could have 2 decadeís worth, I think there are figures that show that it may be several decades worth, then this is all useful in helping us address energy security issues.  And indeed, to give consumers the choice to buy local lower cost energy.  There's an immutable law of economics which is that, although it is suggested the total decrease in prices even if you have large amounts of shale gas extracted viably is small, supply and demand of economic suggests that there's a downward pressure on the prices.


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Perhaps the UK should start slowly.  Authorize a couple of initial drill holes, but not start hundreds or thousands of holes across the country...  just yet.

Indications that well contamination is real, at least in a few cases.  Perhaps over the next decade more technology will be developed to improve techniques, safety, and decrease gas losses.  Also predicting which types of wells are most likely to become problematic. CliffordK, Mon, 16th Sep 2013

If (and sadly I have no faith that they will do it) the current UK governement put in place the level of regulation that will reassure the public and genuinely protect the environment, then Fracking is unlikely to lead to the economic boom that the advocates of fracking predict.

One of the prime potential sources of pollution that the article overlooks is the water used for the fracturing process and returned to the surface (as compared to the risk of groundwater contamination).  This is highly contaminated.  It can of course be treated to an appropriate standard (whether to go into a sewer if there is one nearby or to be discharged directly into a stream or river.  If this is done in a traditional lagoon system (rather than an enclosed tank) should there be an extreme weather event and the site flood (even over a very short time) there is a significant risk - as has just been demonstrated in Colorado.

It is also remarkable that the more obvious middleground - coal bed methane extraction - seems to have been overlooked. CBM does not necessarily need to be fracked as seams can be directionally drilled.  It can extract from seams too narrow to work by traditional underground methods.  The seatearths assocaited with the coal tend to be highly impermeable so tend to confine both gas and water to particular horizons.  Ok it still results in the fossil fuel dilemma, but significantly reduces the risks to the environment of extraction.

I am also slightly alarmed that the sustainabillity expert seemed to indicate that a Severn Barrage would be a good thing.  Whilst it could generate lots of power it would destroy an internationally important habitat.

Mazurka, Thu, 19th Sep 2013

If any energy technology is potentially less dangerous than mining and burning coal, less prone to political blackmail than imported oil or gas, and less ridiculous than windmills, it should be explored without delay.

The government will of course ensure that the retail cost of energy continues to rise (the green vote is crucial to maintaing a parliamentary majority, however insane it may be), and all the profits will go to overseas companies that pay no UK taxes. To do otherwise would reek of socialism (if the public purse were to benefit), cronyinsm (if UK private capital was involved) or competence, and no politician wants to be accused of any of those things.   

I'm not convinced about "pollutants". What comes out of the ground is either inorganic rock sludge that can be turned into building materials or industrial feedstock, or organic combustibles that can be burned in any way that produces useful heat.  alancalverd, Thu, 19th Sep 2013

Eh?  You can turn drill core into building material or industrial feedstock?  Really??? I had not heard of that - any references?

It is not necesarily what comes into the ground to frack the well,  it is what is returned to the surface after being put into the ground to cause the fractures and get the proppant into the fractures.  OK, fluid recovery rates are only around 1/3 of what is put down, but that can still be anywhere between 1000 & 4000 metres cube per fracking episode.  OK, per individual well this is not a huge amount, but if the industry develops as hoped, this adds up very quickly. Mazurka, Thu, 19th Sep 2013

Rock is rock. If it contains heavy metals, it may be worthwhile extracting them. "Just hard silicates" still makes useful ballast for concrete. Clay, slate and other alluvial gunge makes bricks. Waste not, want not. alancalverd, Thu, 19th Sep 2013

It would seem to me that the fracking fluid should be able to be re-used from one well to the next.  Perhaps centrifuge it to get the particulates out, (then add the desired particulates) then blow it down the next hole.  Especially if one is drilling several holes in the same region.

Are there concerns of cross-contaminating deep brackish water? CliffordK, Thu, 19th Sep 2013

No, all rock is not equal - physical properties vary considerably and this means some rock is suitable for use as an aggregate in concrete and others are not.  Equally with clays and "alluvial gunge" the properties vary considerably - particularly the size distribution and Atterberg limits - a glacial diamict is almost completley useless for making bricks as the cost of seperating clay from gravel would not be economic.

In any case, a 1000m deep 300mm diameter well will produce less than 280m3 of rock so depending on the type of rock, this will could be up to about 750 tonnes.  A small "production" blast at a quarry will release  around  10,000 tonnes...

It is simply not economic to haul a few tonnes of waste material to a suitable plant (concrete batching / prodcuts, brickworks etc.).  in any case often the core is retained  to help geologists characterise the rocks and better understand the formations being drilled.

I agree with Cliffordk that where possible fracking fluids should be reused and I understand that this is increasingly happening in the US, but, this returns to my original point, this Industry will only do something if it is either cheaper/ more convienient  than the alternative or it is required to by regulation.  The bottome line is that regulation tends to cost the industry money.    If the costs exceed the revenue generated, it simpy won't happen.  Whislt it remains the case that UK / EU legislation to protect the environment is a lot tighter than that in the US, some of the risks assocaited with Fracking are so poorly understood / characterised that the regulation has not yet caught up.      Mazurka, Fri, 20th Sep 2013

Well, either 750 tonnes is significant or it isn't. I'd vote for insignificant. And if the fluids are chemically active, there's almost certainly some value in recovering them. Even car washes recycle their water nowadays.

My favourite story of antipollution regulations came from a friend's papermill. The river authority granted a licence to extract and discharge as much as they wanted from and to the river, provided that the discharge was upstream of the intake, and both were within the riparian frontage of the plant.  alancalverd, Fri, 20th Sep 2013

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