Environmental and societal issues in fracking

What exactly are the problems raised with the environmental and social side of fracking?
11 October 2022

Interview with 

Jasmine Cooper, Imperial College London


Shale gas sign


Jasmin Cooper is a research associate at the Sustainable Gas Institute at Imperial College London and is here to divulge a little more detail on the environmental and social consequences of fracking...

Chris - With us now is Jasmine Cooper. Jasmine's a research associate at the Sustainable Gas Institute at Imperial College and is going to shed a bit more light on some of the environmental, but also the social consequences of fracking. Jasmine, first of all, we haven't considered yet the question, of when we burn this gas, does it amount to the same outcome, which is it's still a climate change gas? Will it still lead to greenhouse gas emission changes in the atmosphere, whether it comes out of fracking or comes out of the North Sea from our existing gas fields?

Jasmine - Yeah, Chris, that's a good question. Absolutely. As Andy said, shale gas is exactly the same as the natural gas we get from the North Sea. So when you burn it, you will get CO2 emitted. You also get methane emissions from the different stages of producing it as well.

Chris - And when we go through the process, as Michael just said, we've gotta drill a lot of holes, Andy said, and you then shove stuff down under pressure into the ground in order to prop those small holes open. There's a lot of stuff going in, there's a lot of environmental impact there that is very visible. It's on land, it's near people's homes. Let sort of drill down, excuse the pun, into each of those elements in turn. The environmental contamination in terms of what we put into the ground. Tell us about that. How much of a risk is that judged to be?

Jasmine - Well it depends a lot on whether or not you'll get any seepage from the hydraulic fracturing into any local aquifers or any water bodies. We've had such little drilling activity, it is really difficult to actually try to put a number on whether or not there'll be any risk of water contamination.

Chris - Experiences in other countries? America?

Jasmine - There is some experience of maybe some migration of chemicals that was used in the fracturing fluid as well as some migration of methane into some local water bodies as well. So potentially yes, but it really depends on whether or not you have any water bodies near where you're drilling. So it goes down to a lot of surveying your area really.

Chris - Well one of our listeners got in touch and said, well how does this all get policed in terms of is self-reporting or is there a regulator? Is there an oversight body? What sort of mechanism is in place to keep tabs on this and also to predict in the way you're saying that this might all might not happen.

Jasmine - Well, in the UK it's quite different to the US because things are regulated quite differently there. A lot of it's on the federal scale and different states have different regulations. In the UK there's a lot more regulations and regulatory bodies. So big organisations like the oil and gas authority, BASE, and environment agencies. So they'd be able to regulate and police different environmental aspects.

Chris - But you're saying that because we've not done very much of it, we have not very much experience of it, which makes it a bit of a chicken and egg. Do we have to do it, find out what can go wrong <laugh> to work at what to police? Or is there already a framework for if we do go down this path, this is how we're gonna keep tabs on it?

Jasmine - Unfortunately yes because each shale gas well in each area that you do drill in, it'll be very different to one another. It's not like an IKEA set, we can just follow the instructions <laugh>. So unfortunately you will have to learn as you go along. You can look at the US because they do have the massive scale of shale gas exploration there. So you can look to see if there's any lessons you can learn from them and what to do and what to not do.

Chris - Okay. And in terms of that pollution argument, how significant do we judge that to be? Because that is something that people are extremely vocal about with groundwater contamination, spread of what gets put down into the wells and so on. How much of a threat do we regard that as?

Jasmine - Based on what's happened in the US it's not necessarily contamination from the hydraulic fracturing and then migrations, that would be the biggest threat would be more of the flow back fluid that's produced.

Chris - So what you put down the well is coming back out?

Jasmine - What comes back up, yeah. Because in addition to the chemicals that's in the fracturing fluid, you also get any chemicals and minerals that are within the rock that would've dissolved.

Chris - That they washed out.

Jasmine - Yeah, what is washed out comes back up

Chris - And what can happen to it?

Jasmine - In the UK it was proposed that any flow back fluid that was produced would be sent to wastewater treatment plants to get treated. But there are some issues because of quite a few of the chemicals that get used in the fracturing fluid. So lots of like surfactants that are used to control the viscosity but also chemicals that can come up from the rock. There's some radioactive materials that can also come up. They're not things wastewater treatment plants are designed to treat?

Chris - Not normally, no.

Jasmine - No, just concerns about how they're gonna handle that.

Chris - What sort of volumes are we talking about? Just briefly? I mean what amount of material might the wastewater comprise? Are we talking thousands of gallons, millions of gallons, litres? How many?

Jasmine - Well it depends on the scale but you're looking at hundreds of thousands of cubic metres.

Chris - So huge. This is a significant issue. Yeah, fair enough. Let's consider the sort of social aspects because we've looked at the sort of geological and the environmental and why people therefore might object to them. What about the whole social thing? How receptive are people really to this? Are people saying 'yeah, okay I can see there's an energy crisis, we need to do our bit, it's fine'. Are people saying 'absolutely not over my dead body?'

Jasmine - I think it's an interesting time because obviously we're in a bit of an energy crisis so that might shift people more towards being more accepting of it. But from an environmental side and also from a community side, if you live near a site where they're going to drill, you may not like the idea of earthquakes that you didn't sign up for when you first moved to where you live. And also the increase in traffic and just the general industrialization of what are normally quite rural communities.

Chris - Mm. The Prime Minister was talking to BBC Radio Lancashire recently. They were pressing her on the question of this whole issue of what they are dubbing 'local consent'. Have a listen to this…

<News Clip>

News Reader - Let's talk about local consent right now. What does local consent look like?

Chris - Prime Minister?

Liz Truss - The, the energy secretary will be laying out, uh, in more detail exactly what that looks like. But it does mean making sure there is local support for, for, for going ahead. And I can assure you it sounds like you don't, I can assure -

News Reader -
It sounds like you don't know…

<News Clip Ends>

Chris - …What is local consent, Jasmine <laugh>.

Jasmine - So local consent would be having the support and backing of the local communities so that they are on board with the development of shale gas activity in their area and are actively in favour of the development. And there's no local opposition from both the local community but also the local authorities.

Chris - Because I think other members of the conservative party have said, 'well, people who live near, say, the new nuclear power station that's been endorsed on the southeast coast in England should get free electricity.' So is this a sweetener? Are we saying 'okay, people can get free gas <laugh> if you live near a fracking site?' I mean where's this going to end?

Jasmine - I'm not entirely sure because it depends on where you're drilling the gas and what the gas infrastructure is like. So potentially they could get highly subsidised gas if that's something the operator wants to do. But at the same time I think it's quite tricky to try to incentivize our communities by saying give you free energy because to a certain extent that's a bit like trying to bribe them.

Chris - Yeah, it almost sounds like coercion, doesn't it? I mean, are you comfortable with the question of fracking and if, if you were living in this area, would you say, look, knowing what I know, I'm an expert in this area, I'm quite comfortable with it going ahead, please do. Or, or would you actually object?

Jasmine - From a scientific perspective, I find it really interesting, but if I had to live near a site where they're going to drill shale gas, I might be a bit anxious.

Chris - Nuclear power station?

Jasmine - Less anxious.

Chris - Less anxious. That's interesting though, because a lot of people say they would much rather live near a coal fired power station than a nuclear power station. But weight for weight what the coal fired station chucks up the chimney is more radioactive, because of what's coming out of the ground or being burned by the thousands of tonne load. Jasmine, thanks very much. That's Jasmine Cooper. She's from Imperial College.


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