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  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.
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.