Do not be distracted by the UK government’s modest pause for consultation, its scientific report on the Blackpool earthquakes caused by gas fracking gives the go-ahead for drilling. “We see no reason why [it] should not be allowed to proceed,” concluded the experts. “We are pleased the experts have come to a clear conclusion that it is safe to allow us to resume,” echoed Mark Miller, chief executive of Cuadrilla, the company drilling the holes.
The deeper question is whether gas driven from shattered underground strata will rock the UK’s energy scene as violently as it has in the US. There gas prices have plummeted, in direct contrast to the huge hikes seen in UK home energy bills.
The short answer is no. The report fails to put to bed all concerns over seismic safety. But more importantly the crowded island we inhabit is very different to the wide open spaces of America, even if the gas fracker’s heroic guesses on how much gas may be under our feet turn out to be correct.
The scientists rightly point out that tremors resulting from subterannean meddling are nothing new. Half of all the UK’s earthquakes in the last 100 years were caused by coal mining. They also rightly highlight that the biggest tremblors likely to result from gas fracking – about magnitude three – might crack the plaster in a house unlucky enough to be overhead, but it will not rend Lancashire asunder.
The report did not consider all potential problems, however. “The government also needs to pay attention to the earthquake risks of disposing of flow-back water by injection underground after fracking,” said Stuart Haszeldine, a geologist at the University of Edinburgh. That is significant, because getting rid of the vast quantities of dirty water produced by fracking by squirting it underground is precisely the reason why magnitude three and greater earthquakes in the US have more than quadrupled since 2008.
Will these tremors damage the wells and allow gas and fracking chemicals to contaminate drinking water? Probably not, say the scientists, if the drilling is performed perfectly. But drilling perfection is hard to achieve, as BP found on the Deepwater rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
Even if the gas could be sprung from the ground safely, how much is down there? Cuadrilla reckons a reserve of 200 trillion cubic feet. If correct, that would send Blackpool from the periphery of the UK tourist industry to the centre of the global gas market. This small patch of Lancashire would be the biggest single reserve in the world. The figure is 40 times the estimate the British Geological Survey made for an area 15 times larger than Cuadrilla’s licence area. Geologists say reliable estimates need hundreds of wells: Cuadrilla have two.
Nonetheless, there is gas there, and some cheap gas would definitely warm the hearts of homeowners who have seen their bills blow up in recent years. The good news is that the wholesale price of gas in the US is half of that in Europe. The bad news, according to Deutsche Bank, is that European shale gas will cost twice as much to produce.
The earthquakes may have shaken public awareness, but this is the true shock: that the downwards jolt to gas prices promised by shale fracking appears built on weak foundations. “Those waiting for a shale gas ‘revolution’ outside the US will likely be disappointed, in terms of both price and the speed at which high-volume production can be achieved,” concluded Deutsche Bank’s analysts. The International Energy Agency expects negligible production before 2020 in Europe.
The bankers also warned of the opposition of local residents and environmental groups in the UK, where population density is over seven times that in the US. “The impact to the landscape and quality of life of drilling operations will likely be felt more acutely … This may make it difficult and time-consuming to acquire local planning permission,” they wrote. Developers of wind farms and incinerators would scare prospective gas frackers with their despatches from the planning wars.
Lastly, all of the above ignores the fundamental reason energy policy has emerged from its policy wonk cave: climate change. Gas is lower carbon than coal, but it is not low carbon. The government believes we can dash for gas once more – while we wait for new nuclear power, and carbon capture and storage technology to bury our pollution – and still fulfil our our legally binding cuts in carbon emissions. That may be possible, at the expense of pipelining bill payer’s cash into gas companies, to compensate them for shutting their power stations early.
Unlike fracking, the alternative put forward by green campaigners does not involve moving the Earth, but would instead require a seismic shift in policy. “We should be developing the huge potential of clean British energy from the sun, wind and waves, not more dirty and dangerous fossil fuels, ” said Friends of the Earth’s head Andy Atkins.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010