Science Interviews


Wed, 11th Sep 2013

The environmental hazards of fracking

Tony Juniper, University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership

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

Kate - So, Mike there just now was saying that renewables arent currently a realistic option because their output is so variable.  Were joined here in the studio by Dr. Tony Juniper whos an independent environmental campaigner.  Fracking protestTony, what would you say in response to that?


Tony -   Were nowhere near the point when intermittency is an issue for renewables in this country.  If you look at Denmark, they're already well over 20% of their power is coming from wind.  That country is one of the most competitive and strongest economies in the world.  Its not causing a problem there and it wouldn't cause a problem here.  If we got behind renewables in a way whereby, we were sending clear signals to the industry, driving investment into that sector, building up jobs, competitiveness for the UK, as some other countries are already doing.  We will face issues of course around renewables and intermittency if we get up to a higher level than 20%, 30%.  But then again, there are other renewable technologies that can supply us with power in ways that are much more secure in the sense of being predictable tidal power for example, biomass energy, and also bear in mind that offshore wind in particular.  Its very rarely that this country has no wind anywhere around its coast.  Bear in mind also that we already have energy storage technologies.  That are the natural partners of things like offshore wind.  If we were serious about electric cars for example, battery technology would be storing power overnight when people are sleeping, the winds blowing offshore, cars are being charged up.  That's contributing to energy security and reducing our reliance on imported oil.  At the same time, as putting this country in a highly competitive position in terms of its access to future markets based on high technology.


Kate -   We heard from Aled a little bit earlier in the show and he was saying, it is possible.  We have got the technology.  We had a story a couple of weeks ago about new batteries for solar power, but its just about the infrastructure that we currently have and how that wed have to change that.  Monetarily, is that an option?


Tony -   Of course, it is.  It is a question of how we do it and how we plan for it.  Our infrastructure across the country in many sectors especially in energy, its ancient, its creaking, and its falling apart in many respects.  Were retiring old generating plants in the form of coal stations.  Well be changing parts of our grid.  Well be therefore on the cusp of a major opportunity to modernise the country in ways that are not only going to be able to make us more secure in terms of our energy, but will create many, many tens of thousands of jobs.  And help to put us at the front edge of this industrial revolution which is going to be coming in the early part of the 21st century.  The world is going to be waking up to these green issues.  And actually, were putting ourselves out of that game.  Were driving investment away and were creating real uncertainty about where the future of energy lies in this country.


Kate -   I mean, wherever the future of the energy lies, were currently looking at the moment at fracking this dash of a gas that is going to roll out across England.  What is the environmental problems?  Why are people protesting so much against fracking in particular?


Tony -   So, some of them have been mentioned by previous contributors.  One of course is the landscape impacts.  It is worth bearing in mind, the impacts to some of the stuff in the United States I was recently in West Texas and saw the very dense road map works that come with gas fracking because not only do you need the main well that fractures the rocks.  You need a network of subsidiary wells to be able to get the gas from the areas where the rock has been cracked.  And that can require up to 8 wellheads per square mile.  I dont think people have really understood the implications as yet, but I think once this starts to be done in this country, if we get to that point, I think there will be very serious public pushback.  If I was an investor in this technology right now, Id be thinking very carefully about whether I really think this is going to happen.  There's already been a mention of the risks of water pollution.  Those risks can be managed, but there is always a risk there.  We have quite complex geology in this country, very sensitive aquatic habitats.  We rely a lot on ground water.  But the big thing for me is around the climate change contribution.  We are signed up to national legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.  But I think if we do go hell for leather for shale gas, we would basically be tearing up the climate change targets that are already enshrined in national law and I think that would be a disaster.


Kate -   Were going to be looking into some of your concerns there, water contamination around with some experts a bit later on the show.  But surely, as with alternatives, were talking about visual impact here.  Wind turbines are an eyesore that we hear people complaining all the time about them being in your back garden.


Tony -   I disagree.  Wind turbines are very beautiful and the opinion polls, one after the other, shows us that we have widespread public support, something like 80% of the people in this country support the expansion of renewables including wind.  I think they're very beautiful.  There is a vocal minority that's managed to whip up quite a lot of support in parliament to the point where the wind industry now has very mixed signals coming from government.  Its an interesting juxta-position of circumstances where we have people in government telling us we need to be regenerating, manufacturing, and building our industry here.  One of the growth industries where we have a real edge, not least because this country is described as the Saudi Arabia of wind.  Were trying to stifle that industry because of some, what I would regard, as minority concerns about visual impact.


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I've seen the evidence from both sides of the fracking issue vis-a-vis the environmental concerns, from the Natural Gas industry who obviously have a stake in continuing their industry, we get words like "The science behind this technology does not allow for environmental damage."  From the environmentalists we get, "There are no 100% guarantees that you won't make a mistake."  Both sides are earnest and both may be true.  From my point of view we should treat fracking like we do strip mining, where revenue should be set aside to make the land whole.  We have to ensure that money is actually set aside in escrow for environmental amelioration, not just a line item in accounting. Also I believe that an independent environmental survey needs to be done to give everyone the state of the environment before fracking, to create a baseline.  Then when the fracking is in operation, environmental inspections could occur randomly to ascertain whether any negative changes have taken place as compared to the baseline as a result of fracking operations.  Expectant_Philosopher, Mon, 14th Oct 2013

What a good idea. We'd first have to get enough MPs on our side and if that fails we'd need very many supporters of making an environmental base-line before we start fracking. A newspaper is another polular way, if you could get one with enough readers, to support you. But what could all these supporters actually do about the situation? Write to their MPs? (Now we're back to method 1). The need for abundant energy is a very powerful force and the present government probably wants it yesterday so they wouldn't want to "waste time and money" as they'd say, measuring the environment. This is a difficult problem.  woolyhead, Tue, 22nd Oct 2013

One obvious problem is that, even if none leaks (fat chance) you still burn fossil fuel, generate CO2 and increase the greenhouse effect. Bored chemist, Tue, 22nd Oct 2013


The nonchalant approach to fracking, from the Government on down is quite awe inspiring. I imagine that this kind of attitude comes from our having developed a kind of ingrained trust that the Government has every bodys best interests at heart.  Maybe, given such a situation, the best thing to do might be to set out the facts and let people decide on what they think for themselves. To begin with, the same logistics govern fracking as in the normal drilling process. Shale wells start strong and fade fast and a well that might be prolific in the beginning will fade out to next to nothing in just a couple of years.  The good sites get targeted first and the less likely ones later. Fracking is also  more expensive than ordinary drilling for oil or natural gas. Horizontal shale drilling might cost anything from 3.5 million dollars in limestone formations to 9 million dollars  in harder rock formations. The cost of normal vertical drilling would be between  $400,000 to $600,000. The life span of normal oil wells is also spectacularly longer .
Much of the additional cost is due to the additives that are used in shale drilling:-
1)To begin with approximately 5 million gallons (17.5 million litres) of fresh water -salt water wont do- are needed for each well that is drilled.
2) Mixed into this freshwater are around 50,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid (to dissolve the lime stone).
3) Then 1000 gallons of antibacterial solution are needed to kill the organisms that might eat into the pipes.
4)Next, a surfactant is added to reduce the frictional coefficient of the water and a solution to inhibit scaling.
5) Depending on the make-up of the soil  fungicides maybe added to kill any life forms that might start to grow in the fracked fissures
6) Finally 2 million pounds of sand are mixed with the water to prop the fractures open.
7) Sometime diesel fuel is used (illegally) as an additional additive.

So far so good, it doesnt sound too frightening until you learn that none of that fresh water can ever be used again. True! About 80% of the water used in fracking is supposed to come back to the surface (often it doesnt) but it then has to be put ideally in steel containers, or non contaminating ponds where it will be sequestered for the next few thousands of years! (Yes 100 times worse than nuclear and not many people have caught on!).  It is frightening to think that I watched numerous videos where, these shale oil companies talked about water being treated and less water being used and how the hazards were insignificant. Yet we are so used to water washing things that it is a bit difficult to grasp the fact that the water being used in these wells is gone for ever, OR even more scary is left behind to contaminate the water that still remains. No-one knows exactly what happens to the water that does not come back to the surface, but the thousands of recorded cases of prime farm land turning to wilderness are too numerous to ignore. Another thing that occured to me, is that a cubic foot of natural gas weighs only 22 gms, so each litre of water weighs the equivalent of 45 cubic feet of natural gas, the point I am trying to make is that it is almost weight for weight here, an equal weight of water for an equivalent weight of natural gas.  It is really an all out war that they are waging, while all of us are just sitting back and wondering if its a good thing or not !  The shale oil industry is also employing spin doctors to protect their interests. Not surprisingly, these are the same firms that were hired by the tobacco industry.  We have to make up our minds, sure we are in a bind as far as energy is concerned BUT can we afford to let the Government make decisions like this for us ?
Did you hear how the guy in the"Does fracking contaminate ground water' episode talks about fracking fluid coming back up !! Nothing about sequestering it !!! McQueen, Wed, 23rd Oct 2013

" but it then has to be put ideally in steel containers, or non contaminating ponds where it will be sequestered for the next few thousands of years!"
For a start, what does it get contaminated with, and for a finish, why not just leave the tops off the drums so the water can evaporate and be recycled as rain?
"Another thing that occured to me, is that a cubic foot of natural gas weighs only 22 gms,"
Not at that depth it doesn't.

Don't get me wrong, I think fracking sucks from practically every point of view, but I think you need to keep the comments accurate and well founded or you risk tainting the objections.
I don't want to see petrochemical companies saying "The anti fracking people said silly things like 'it is almost weight for weight here, an equal weight of water for an equivalent weight of natural gas'. you can't trust them!"

50000 gallons of hydrochloric acid sounds really nasty -until you remember that it reacts with the limestone and is neutralised (but with yet more CO2 production).

"1000 gallons of antibacterial solution" doesn't tell me anything, it could be boring household bleach in which case I really don't care.
Or it could be pentachlorophenol- in which case I think they should be jailed.

"Sometime diesel fuel is used (illegally) as an additional additive."
So, it came out of the ground, putting it back isn't the big issue here- it's a distraction.

"Finally 2 million pounds of sand are mixed with the water to prop the fractures open. "
That's about a thousand tons or a bit of beach thirty metres by thirty and a metre deep.
Who cares?
Wiki tells me that " As of 2006, about 7.5 billion cubic meters of concrete are made each year" and a good part of that is sand.
Another thousand cubic metres of sand isn't the issue.
It's not good news- it would be better to avoid it.

But the real issues are the leaks and the CO2 emissions.
Bored chemist, Thu, 24th Oct 2013

It seems to be a valid objection , fracking is an emotive issue. I have tried to set out the facts in as  unbiased a manner as possible and have attempted to  consult numerous sources, some of which are listed below, before coming to any sort of conclusion. This is what fracking water looks like, the clear looking water on the right is still contaminated.

The clear water on the right might behave like this if methane gets into the ground water!

  It is difficult to imagine 17.5 million litres of water, per well,  being contaminated in this way, what is going to happen to the environment ? The emphasis is on the fact that water used for fracking  is literally gone for ever, because it doesnt make economic sense to try and clean it completely. Few people are aware of this fact, water used for fracking, cant be used again. At the most it can be cursorily cleaned and used again for fracking, this is called processed water.  Natural evaporation, provided seepage can be avoided is going to take longer than anyone would like, I am not sure how long it would take to evaporate several million gallons of contaminated water, thousands of years ?  Even after evaporation, it is still going to leave behind a lot of toxic chemicals as it evaporates. Look at the chemicals that are mixed into fracking fluid (see last link),lead, uranium, ethylene glycol, mercury, radium, methanol, hydrochloric acid, formaldehyde to name just a few.  The Scientific American article points this out, saying that even if fracking fluids are boiled, the toxic residues will be difficult to get rid off.

p.s:"Another thing that occured to me, is that a cubic foot of natural gas weighs only 22 gms,"
Not at that depth it doesn't.
What does it weigh when it gets to the surface ?
McQueen, Thu, 24th Oct 2013

Reusing the water in the next well would certainly seem to be the best plan.

Many oil wells also displace the oil with briny water.  The bottom of an oil well may potentially be a good place to dispose of unwanted waste water. 

Oil tankers often need ballast, and could potentially be used to transport the water from a gas rich area to an oil rich area.

Any way to reduce the load of artificial chemicals added to the fracking fluid? CliffordK, Thu, 24th Oct 2013

Reusing the water in the next well would certainly seem to be the best plan.
Many oil wells also displace the oil with briny water.  The bottom of an oil well may potentially be a good place to dispose of unwanted waste water.
Could be and the whole point of the post was to set out the facts and allow individual consciences to make up their minds one way or the other, after weighing things up as you seem to be attempting to do. However, take note, Pittsburgh, put an unconditional ban on fracking in 2010 after the water supply to the city was contaminated. Citizens were able to neither bathe nor drink the water and three years on the water is still contaminated. Now oil companies are bullying the US Government to let them into New York. In the UK although protests seem to be more vocal, the Government seems to be going ahead, riding roughshod over public sentiment, look at Suffolk!
McQueen, Fri, 25th Oct 2013

I am tempted to say the same thing about your hold of the facts.
1. You seem to be confusing the fracturing of formations on conventional wells with the fracking carried out on shale gas wells. Both employ the application of high pressures downhole, but the precise methodology is different in each case.
2. When fracking, in shale gas reservoirs, the lithology is - wait for it - shale. (The clue is in the name.) Not limestone. Limestone is commonly fractured and hydrochloric acid is indeed used, however, as noted before this is different from the fracking that has generated concern. This conventional fracturing has been going on for decades without significant issues or complaints. (If you are aware of any I would be interested to hear of them.)
3. A significant proportion of wells drilled today into conventional reservoirs are directional wells. You seem unaware of this.
4. You have soil at, say 3,000' TVD? You seem to think so.

As CliffordK pointed out an arguments central theme becomes degraded if the ancillary facts are wrong or questionable. Ophiolite, Fri, 25th Oct 2013

And, once again.
"Few people are aware of this fact, water used for fracking, cant be used again."
Why not?
There is nothing in that brew that can't be dealt with- for a price. It's a matter of enforcing proper standards.
Those standards would presumably bankrupt the process which is why, in the US, they lobbied for, and won,  exemption from the standards.

Surely the best argument against fracking is this: if you enforce the law then you can't do it.

"look at Suffolk! "
I did.
Part of my job involves looking a things like planning permission and let's be absolutely clear about this
There was no planning permission ever sought or granted for fracking at Balcombe.
If you don't believe me check out the planning application. It's on line just like all (almost) planning applications are.
If they had applied for such permission (they didn't) then the public would have been asked for their opinions and any local politician who wanted to keep his job at the next election would have blocked it. Bored chemist, Fri, 25th Oct 2013

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