Shale gas and fracking is “one of the least sustainable ways to produce electricity,” finds study

A significant study into the effectiveness of shale gas has found that its rewards may not be worth the effort, and controversy, after all. 

The UK Government believes shale gas has the potential to provide us with “greater energy security, growth and jobs”, and it has been “encouraging safe and environmentally sound exploration to determine this potential”. However, researchers from The University of Manchester found that for shale gas to be considered as sustainable as the best options, such as wind and solar PV, huge improvements would be needed.

The study, published in Science of The Total Environment, considered environmental, economic and social sustainability of shale gas in the UK and compared it to other electricity generating options including coal, nuclear, natural gas, liquefied natural gas (LNG), solar photovoltaics (PV), wind, hydro and biomass. Examples of the indicators included climate change impacts, environmental pollution, costs of electricity, creation of jobs and public perceptions.

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Shale gas ranked between the fourth and eighth relative to other electricity options and the researchers recommend a 329-fold reduction in environmental impacts, and a 16-fold increase in employment. In fact, the team found that an electricity mix with less rather than more shale gas is more sustainable.

One of the most significant concerns which docked points from shale gas involved the controversy around fracking – the process by which shale gas is extracted from underground. Read on to find out more about what is fracking and why it’s so controversial in the UK. 

What is fracking?

Fracking – or “hydraulic fracturing”, to give it its full name – is the process by which natural gas can be extracted from shale rock underground.

A mixture of water, sand and chemicals are directed at the shale rock at high pressure, which then releases the natural gas from inside the rock layer. The gas is then extracted from the well and added to the energy supply. The chemicals in the water are said to make up somewhere between 0.5 and 2% of the solution used.

It’s called fracking because each gas-containing rock is “fractured” by the high pressure water mixture.

The technique for fracking has been known about for over 50 years, but previously it was considered too expensive to be cost-effective. With natural gas and oil resources dwindling, the cost is no longer a bar to entry and suddenly fracking seems an effective solution.

Where is fracking taking place at the moment?

Fracking has grown to become commonplace in the United States over the last decade or so. In 2015, the UK government voted in favour of fracking for shale gas below UK national parks and other sites by a majority of 298 to 261. This was broadly down party lines, with 296 Conservative MPs voting in favour and 192 Labour MPs voting against.

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Shale gas drilling is largely in an “exploratory phase” in Britain, but its potential is widely acknowledged – mainly in the north of England. Over 100 licences have been granted to fracking firms in the UK, but planning permission has to be granted by local councils, and with fracking remaining a controversial subject, that’s not necessarily easy to acquire. The devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all oppose fracking.

Why is fracking controversial?

When test fracking operations were underway near Blackpool, two earthquakes hit the area, ranked at 1.5 and 2.2 magnitude. A study concluded it was “highly probable” that the fracking set off the tremors. On top of that, environmentalists have big issues with fracking: chiefly that vast quantities of water have to be transported to fracking sites, and that there are additional concerns about the chemicals used for fracking polluting nearby groundwater.

Professor Richard Davies from the Durham Energy Institute told the BBC that more problems are likely to emerge with larger operations. “What’s going on in America is on a completely different scale to what has been done historically; 25,000 wells are being drilled in America every year to be fracked,” he said.

“Old fracking was done on a small scale in the UK, but in America the scale has been ramped up. If you scale up a process, the chances that there is a problem goes up.”

More recently, researchers from Princeton University discovered the first evidence of the harm fracking can have on human health. In particular, babies born to mothers living within a kilometre of active “fracking” wells are 25% more likely to weigh less at birth. 

The research was carried out by Janet Currie and colleagues who studied records of more than 1.1 million births in Pennsylvania from 2004 to 2013. They compared the birthweights of babies born to mothers living within 1, 2 or 3 kilometre of fracking wells, both before and after the wells were active. They also looked at the birthweights of siblings born at different distances to wells, both close enough to be exposed to fracking in utero, and not.

Although health concerns around fracking have been mooted for some time, this represented the first direct correlation between the practice and wellbeing. 

In response to some of these concerns, France has taken a stand against fracking. In December, Emmanuel Macron and his parliament passed into law a ban on producing oil and gas by 2040. No new permits will be granted and no existing licences will be renewed beyond this date. The change coincides with when Macron plans to stop the sale of diesel and petrol cars, too – the same date the UK plans to do the same.

Macron is keen for France to become a world leader in renewables. His country is already 99% dependent on hydrocarbon imports and he’s spoken out about reducing reliance on fossil fuels on a number of occasions.

On top of that, of course, fracking for the last pockets of natural gas at a time when Britain has promised to wean itself off fossil fuels is not viewed as the most sensible long-term strategy.

So why is fracking on the table?

Chiefly because it’s the best way of getting the hard-to-reach gas we know about, and because the United States’ use of fracking is said to have offered gas security to the country for around 100 years. While gas is still classified as a fossil fuel, it is considerably better for the planet than coal, with around half the CO2 emissions.

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In the UK, it’s estimated there could me as much as 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas under 11 counties in England – around 500 years of gas for the country. As for the pollution risks, proponents of the industry argue that past incidents have been down to bad practice, rather than fracking being risky.

Prime minister David Cameron is a strong proponent of fracking, and is on record as saying: “Why has it taken so long in the UK and Europe, compared with the US? We can ponder that, or alternatively we can just do what this government is doing, which is to roll up the sleeves, simplify the process, make the permissions easier, getting on with getting some wells moving.”

How does fracking fit with Britain’s climate change commitments?

That’s a very good question. As mentioned earlier, natural gas does have roughly half the CO2 emissions of coal, so in that respect it’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not a particularly convincing argument.

Friends of the Earth’s Craig Bennett told the BBC that Britain needs to ensure its support for COP21 is followed through with action, rather than just words and that the government must “end Britain’s scandalous support for fossil fuels, including fracking”.

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Images: Public domain, Zongo, Simon Fraser University

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