Why does most media coverage of fracking play down the core issue?

A front page article in today’s – 1st December 2012 – edition of The Independent, supported by information from government emails obtained by Greenpeace under Freedom of Information, has thrust the issue of fracking for land based shale gas  into the headlines.

The accelerator for this focus is the UK Government’s ramping up of the widescale arrival on the UK mainland of this form of extraction of fossil fuels.

LibDem Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, is shortly to free fracking from the moratorium imposed on its use after a couple of underground explosions involved in the process caused a small earthquake near Blackpool in 2011 when the Cuadrilla company was conducting exploration drillings in the Trough of Bowland.

Chancellor George Osborne is reported as about to announce in the Autumn budget statement this week, the establishment of a new Office for Shale Gas, designed to shift its production quickly through up the gears.

The revelation in the article is that The Independent has seen Energy Department maps showing the extent of the UK mainland where shale gas is present for exploration and potential extraction.

The newspaper claims that these maps show that up to 64% of the UK countryside – including Scotland’s central belt – ‘could potentially be exploited’.

While this is theoretically correct – in that the areas shown on the maps add up to that percentage of the UK landmass, the shock-horror statistic [which, of course, will not be realised] has taken the flak to the virtual exclusion of engagement with the serious concerns involved here.

Broadcast media responses to the article and the controversy it has stirred up  – along with the content of the article itself – have again ignored the key issue around this highly contentious process.

The focus has been exclusively on the capacity of the process to cause modest earth tremors.

This is of course a risk bus almost off the scale of rock when compared to the elephant in the room – water.

There are three water-based issues in fracking and each single one of them is in the major league of risk.

  • Fracking needs around 3 million gallons of water a pop. This water is not reusable. What does this scale of water usage do to our water supplies when we are looking at growing shortages with global warming? A report issued in June this year [2012] by Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates, shows that the volume of water required annually to develop new shale oil and gas wells in the state could supply up to 79,000 Colorado households for a year, based on average residential use.
  • This water is used, mixed with sand and chemicals – which are often toxic. The amalgam fluid is forced into the fractures created in the gas bearing shale by the small explosions the process creates very deep in the earth. Much of the sand remains below the surface but the rest of the then toxic fluid waste is returned to the surface where it is piped into open pits – said to be for later disposal off site. One has only to imagine the size of the open pits needed for this volume of toxic fluid waste – one batch for each fracking. One has then only to imagine how, where and if this volume of waste will eventually be disposed of.
  • In the meantime this fluid waste is open to access by wildlife, to draining into rivers and to leaching into the aquifers that provide our drinking water. In April this year, Tom Myers, a hydrologist from Reno in Nevada published in the online journal Ground Water, research results showing that chemically treated drilling fluid can migrate through thousands of feet of rock and endanger water supplies. Its speed of penetration is much faster than thought. Myers claims these fluids can reach shallow drinking-water aquifers in as little as three years.

Each of these issues could hardly be  more serious – and each is generally ignored or sidelined in media coverage of the process.

Why?

In September this year, three of the UK’s major environmental bodies  – the Green Party, RSPB and Friends of the earth, each wrote to warn Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, of the risks to water supplies and to wildlife of this inadequately researched procedure.

Tellingly, they wrote in the wake of a court being told by Lancashire County Council’s Head of Planning that Cuadrilla had breached the conditions of the fracking permissions it had been granted for its operations in Lancashire. This is an industry in a hurry, prepared to breach planning conditions in the interests of the fast dollar.

Allied to governments equally  impatient and results-driven, fracking is an environmental disaster of the gravest kind, already on a timeline.

The Scottish Government has gone bulling into fracking already, with permissions granted in the areas listed here by Frack Off Scotland – whose name betrays which side of this debate it is on.

France and the Czech Republic have an ongoing moratorium on fracking for shale gas.

Note: ‘Fracking’ is properly ‘hydraulic fracturing’ – the axis of the process born from the development of flexible direction drill heads. The method of fracking today dates only from 1998, at the Barnet Shale in Texas. Generally, a deep vertical drill comes first, up to 10,000 ft down – before the drill head is turned to drill horizontally for up to three miles into the shale rock. A series of small explosions are then triggered at intervals along the horizontal drill, fracturing the shale. The water – laced with silica sand and chemicals designed to increase the viscosity of the water, is then forced at high pressure into the newly formed fractures. This simultaneously deepens the fractures [by the pressure injection]  and prevents them from closing [by the proppant in the water]. The shale gas is then released from the fractures and is harvested. The fluid waste is returned to the surface and stored in open pits for later ‘disposal’ – off site.

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43 Responses to Why does most media coverage of fracking play down the core issue?

  1. I am very sceptical of the anti-fracking groups; the popular image of flames coming from taps was entirely fabricated for propaganda purposes, amongst other fraudulent activities. Yes there is waste produced, and it’s toxic, but no more so than the tailings from conventional drilling, all of which is readily dealt with by industry. The UK economy needs cheap energy to recover and grow; the US recovery has been entirely off the back of lower energy prices caused by shale gas production.

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  2. BP Research set up a large team to work on hydraulic fracturing nearly thirty years ago and I’ve no doubt the other majors have been in about it that long too.
    The North Sea was at the forefront of this technology to enhance or stimulate production of oil and gas. The platform-based wellheads and production equipment requiring long distance horizontal wells made the technique(s) particularly attractive.

    There’s nothing all that new about this. What IS new is that the US is driving hard to be free of undue dependence on coal and, especially, imported oil, hence the rapid exploitation of their own shale gas reserves.

    I’ve no doubt the UK will be following suit so my advice is don’t buy shares in nuclear.

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  3. “Fracking needs around 3 million gallons of water a pop. This water is not reusable.” This statement is dead wrong.

    Whoever wrote this is very fortunate that the people who produce the energy that he or she counts on to survive take their jobs more seriously than he or she takes his or hers.

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    • So quote your contra facts then nand explain the practice from which your stance is born. Empty criticism has no validity.
      The volumes of water required are given in research articles and this figure is used also by The Guardian, which has been the leading newspaper in doing and publishing its own research on this issue.
      We accept that it would have been more accurate to say that this water is ‘not reused’, rather than ‘not reusable’.
      In fact in America at the moment there is pressure on the shale oil and gas companies to try to do just that [ http://www.pagreenlease.org/docsections/section-4-storage-and-disposal-issues/4-2-disposal-of-treated-and-industrial-fluids/ ] but it is not normal practice.
      For information – the Marcellus Shale, around which the initiative described above centres, is a superlarge shale potentially affecting the water supply to New York. Understandably, this is why the treatment and disposal of on site fluids and the possible proscription of below ground pressure injection into the fractures is a major issue.
      The hydrographer’s research article on aquifer penetration, quoted from the professional journal ‘Ground Water’, is linked above to be read; and the information from Boulder, Colorado is from 2012, so we are talking current practice – and the USA is a long way ahead of the UK on shale oil and gas exploitation.

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    • Not only have you failed to supply any alternative ‘facts’ on required water volumes – but our checking of up to date production processes shows that the figure we knew to be a conservative one was very conservative indeed – 33% short of the FOUR million gallons a pop for fracking. And this figure too is deliberately conservatively quoted.

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    • The issue is not about preventing it but about being open with the public about its specific downsides so that this damaging wastes can be properly and safely dealt with – and under public scrutiny.
      When this issue is not made public in any real way, its handling is conveniently left to the pragmatism of the development companies and the politicians.

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  4. Just looked at the weather forecast for the coming week for middle Scotland – virtually no wind – so no electricity from wind turbines – just when our needs are greatest AND as temperatures will be below zero at ground level it’s going to be very seriously cold on the hills making it necessary for take electricity from the grid to heat turbine blades, gearboxes etc in case the poor things catch cold.
    We can’t continue with this ridiculous waste of money on turbines on the off chance that at some point in a day or week they may be of some use.
    Lets get fracking !

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    • Looks like there’s going to be a decent breeze out here on Tiree though. The point being that no-one is suggesting you can run on (a) only wind or (b) only in one region – the implementation of renewables needs to be coupled with infrastructure investment to enable the grid to be balanced at the continential level, bringing solar power from Spain together with wind power from Britain and Denmark, and other sources as the come on stream.

      The elephant in the room that you refuse to address is, even if we could safely and cheaply extract all the gas we might ever want, how are you going to deal with the CO2 emissions it produces in the long term?

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      • You are a dreamer – bringing in hugely expensive solar electricity from Spain – for pete’s sake get real ! And how am I going to deal with the CO2 production from efficient gas burning power stations – I will have a backbone supply from clean Nuclear Power Stations – and for all the whinging, whining and moaning that protesters post – that will probably be the way it ends up.
        As for the disposal of Nuclear waste – there is enough experience out there to say where there are safe underground sites and to be honest, if it was in my area, I would have no problem with that.

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        • Wait, you complain about the expense of renewables and your solution is NUCLEAR?! New nuclear is horrendously expensive, the subsidies offered to wind pale in comparison.

          And the cost of solar is dropping rapidly. The smart grids necessary to balance load in these circumstances are well advanced in principle.

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          • Again you miss the point I made above – on occasions wind energy may be of use but at incredible cost for it’s totally unpredictability. Nuclear Power Stations are there for up to 60 years producing a constant supply 24/7. The present subsidy for wind farms is in excess of 1 billion per annum guaranteed for 20 years – nice one – for that money we can have 4 Nuclear Power Stations producing every hour of every day for 3 times longer than any wind turbine will survive.

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          • That’s strange, because all the figures I’ve seen suggest that onshore wind in particular is cheaper than new nuclear, based on lifetime costs.

            It appears that your claims for the lifespan of nuclear stations is overestimated and that for wind turbines underestimated – as is the fact that the expensive bit with wind turbines is not the bit that wears out, you can put new blades and turbines onto old poles and foundations. Older nuclear power stations have lasted between 30 and 40 years, for the most part, with a few outliers at either end. Expected lifespan for most wind turbines is 30 years – and there would be no incentive to switch them off even if subsidies are removed, as the marginal cost of operation once installed is very low, much lowers than either nuclear or fossil fuels.

            Wind energy is not unpredictable. It is variable. Smart meters and a smart grid over a large area can mitigate this issue. Wind energy can be predicted very reliably several hours ahead, and it would be perfectly possible to business and domestic customers to have appliances, much as we have storage heaters currently, that come on when there is excess capacity and go off when there is not, balancing supply and demand using flexible pricing.

            It won’t be business as usual, some adaptation will be required, but not a vast amount and nothing particularly detrimental.

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          • Malcolm, my impression of nuclear power plants is that while the designers fully intended them to fester away for up to sixty years providing constant power 24/7, reality is somewhat different, with some (or maybe even all?) of them falling embarrassingly silent for extended periods while the experts scratch their heads and mutter ‘that shouldn’t have happened’ and then spend squillions getting the things fixed so that they’re safe to start producing power again without irradiating us all into the next world.

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          • In common with every other source of power, nuclear power stations need to shut down for maintenance on a planned schedule. In common with every other source of power, nuclear power stations need to shut down for repairs in the event of mechanical failure. UK civil nuclear power has caused no deaths and no significant releases of contamination or radiation in 58 years of generation.

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  5. Fracking is a generic term being bandied about when talking about the recovery of gas from geolical strata.

    Assisted or forced recovery of gas is a widely varying technique and when considered in relation to existing North Sea field, the techniques of tertiary recovery are in many ways a variation of the same principle.

    There is a legacy from mining which of course like fracking could be as disparate as open cast to deep mine. The legacies left behind can be as varied as surface instability through collapsed mineworking or pollutant laden mine water or bings or improperly restored land post open cast mining.

    These legacies of course do not mean that mining should be prohibited. But equally the same logic applies to fracking, whatever fracking in all it’s shapes and forms actually is.

    Careful assesment of risks versus rewards is what environmental protection is all about. All human activity has consequences it is nonsense for folks to simply say that fracking is wrong.

    Maybe if we could just do it in someone else’s backyard ( ours really if truth be told ) then we could all get on with driving cars, using the refrigerator, the computer, and all of the other things that developed mankind does at present, since between us all it seems that we don’t want nuclear, biomass, coal fired, gas fired, biomass, waste to energy, wind or even hydro sources of power.

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  6. And with Westminster now on course to construct a new fleet of nuclear reactors the question of long term waste disposal of highly radioactive waste raises again it’s head.

    Westminster has long had pland for a high level waste repository in Scotland.

    The sparsely spread population, the hard rock areas, and the fact that deep level storage is more politically attractive in Scotland than down south make it a good option. Somerone has got to store the material for the next ten thousand years or so – and where better than in Scotland.

    The question therefore is that since fracking is flavour of the month for discussion, as is the observation that the wind doesn’t blow all the time as the engineers know only too well, is what folks think of the small matter of nuclear waste disposal, and the Westminster decision to implement a levy on all electricty bills to subsidise new nuclear generation.

    Personally, I would prefer wave, tide, wind, hydro, ground source, solar and other such sources combined with biomass, coal carbon capture and gas as our sources of power.

    Fukishima’s costs both environmental and economic give an indication to why many are opposed to nuclear.

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  7. When safe disposal of high level nuclear waste was first discussed, many years ago now, the Atomic Energy Authority (I think) identified Ben Trilleachan, above the western shore of the head of Loch Etive, as having the right geology for an underground repository. It all went quiet after that, but I doubt whether this location has been forgotten.

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    • Your reference to ” safe disposal ” at Ben Trileachan is most intersting.

      Is this post or pre fracking, and much more importantly, why do you consider Scotalnd to be a ” safe” repository for nuclear waste?

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  8. Robert Wakeham. Rather than consider Scotland as a safe place for nuclear dumping why don’t you consider Norway as a safe repository.

    I am assured that they will agree with your sentiment. Don’t you agree?

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  9. Now that we can land a spaceship on Mars, surely we could consider using that planet as a dump for nuclear waste. The glow in the night sky could be most attractive.

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  10. The employment possibilities are fantastic – lets get on with it – hopefully as I write, the Chancellor is announcing the move towards fracking and away from useless expensive wind turbines.

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      • Just to let you know, Malcolm, that before the start of the ‘dash for gas’ and the current fracking frenzy, the amount of gas being burned worldwide to generate energy was causing disquiet amongst some people.
        They argued that gas was the feedstock for so many really useful products from fertiliser to clothing – amongst a myriad of things – that we shouldn’t squander it to feed our profligate thirst for energy.
        Maybe, by the time that the depletion of gas reserves shoves the price skyward, we’ll have discovered many more clean ways of converting coal into those useful products, and to energy – but it’s a big maybe.

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      • Robert – that reminds me of a description I heard a long time ago – from a power systems engineer – of the use of North Sea gas as an electricity generating fuel: “Thermodynamic Heresy”. He was referring to the value of gas not just as a material feedstock but also a highly clean, efficient and controllable heating fuel for both domestic and industrial use.

        Generating electricity with gas, even by the most efficient (non-CHP) means, throws away getting on for half of the energy as low-temperature waste heat.

        Turns out he was right – the 1990s ‘dash for gas’ used up our North Sea stocks in less than a generation…

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        • I’m pretty sure any new-build gas power stations will be combined-cycle as the hardware is available off the shelf. I’m not holding my breath about any epiphany on the part of the government as regards district heating; that would require telling developers to do something other than build the cheapest nastiest housing they can get away with. Retro-fitting district heating would be very expensive, even in urban housing.

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  11. Surely we have a duty to take present day knowledge and technology forward as far as we can, so that following generations can advance it even further. It may be that radical new methods of producing energy are just round the corner but for the present we have to use what we have.

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  12. Not that I think that this isn’t a serious issue, or that dealing with large amounts of contaminated water isn’t costly(it is, oil&gas companies have been dealing with drilling mud and water for decades), but the water industry in England and Wales loses 745 million gallons of water a day in leaks. Perspective is required.

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