Friday, 23 August 2013

An alternative view on fracking

The environmental protests in Sussex over fracking have been in the news recently, in part due to the fact its' not the usual suspects taking up the cudgel, but the local middle classes. Though it has to be pointed out that the Green movement has joined in recently.

Friends of the Earth logo

The normal view from the environmentalists is summed up by Friends of the Earth thus:

To extract the gas, water and toxic chemicals are pumped underground under high pressure using a risky technique called fracking.
In the United States shale gas drilling has been linked to water and air pollution.
In the UK fracking triggered earthquakes at the test-drilling sites in Lancashire. Despite this, the Government has given the green light for fracking to continue.
FOE have produced the following briefing:

I was interested to see the following statement produced by Transition Dorking who take a somewhat slightly different view:

We have all learnt a new word recently – “fracking”. We have also seen that protestors, in nearby Sussex, and environmental groups are strongly opposed to fracking. We expected when we began looking into it that we too, as Transition Dorking, would be violently opposed. But we have come to a rather surprising, to us, conclusion.

Fracking is shorthand for ‘hydraulic fracturing’. It is a technology used in the oil industry for at least 5 decades, and involves pumping fluids and sand into the bottom of a gas (or oil) well. This creates small cracks or fractures in reservoir rock, generally lying 1 to 2 miles below ground, which allows gas to flow more readily increasing the production rate of the well.

We need to reduce energy consumption and dependency on fossil fuels. But, much as we might like to, we cannot switch overnight to using energy only from renewable sources such as wind or wave power. We will need to use a variety of different energy sources to manage this transition.  Energy sources have a range of environmental impacts. The ‘dirtiest’ soft coals and tar sands at one extreme release the most greenhouse gases, and sustainable wind, hydro and wave energy the least.
Shale gas produced by fracking is like other gases when burned as fuel, but the total environmental impact is high due to the energy consumed in the intensive drilling and complicated construction of the wells.  But the impact is lower than that of transporting gas in a liquid form from the Middle East; which is increasingly being used to replace declining North Sea gas supplies.

So if shale gas can be successfully, and safely, developed in the UK it could displace some much less clean energy alternatives – the imported liquid gas or coal fired power stations which will inevitably be needed in the short term while we increase wind, hydro and wave energy usage.
There is a danger that those with environmental concerns regard fracking as something that is always unacceptable. This is not a view that we can share. The issues around our use of energy are highly complex. Until we can rely wholly on renewable sources, our energy choices will always be about minimising the damage to the environment. It may well be that fracking is sometimes a less damaging choice than other options.

Personally I tend to go along with the latter providing there are stringent safeguards in place.

This is a debate that needs to be had. As much as I generally support the environmental campaigns run by Friends of the Earth and others, on this one I am not so certain.

What do you think?

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