Could fracking save the UK energy sector?

19th April 2012

Will Riley, energy expert at Guinness Asset Managers, says that fracking is still in the ‘foothills' of development in the UK, but has become a powerful force in the US: "Development in the UK is still at a relatively early stage, but it transformed the US natural gas industry from a sunset industry 10 years ago. It has had a material impact on the oil and gas supply and energy security in the US," he says.

Previously only used for natural gas, fracking is increasingly used for oil as well. "Supporters claim fracking will herald an age of cheaper gas – in the US, shale gas accounts for a quarter of the country's gas industry and fracking has helped cut gas prices by 25% in the four years to 2012 – and liken it to keyhole surgery, its operations virtually invisible above ground, unlike destructive mining and intrusive wind power."

However, it is extremely controversial. Environmental groups and journalists say that fracking threatens to pollute the water supply, cause water shortages and create ground tremors. 

In this piece Robert Newman of the Guardian says: 

"If a political cell were to threaten to poison our drinking water by setting off depth charges near subterranean faultlines, and then further threatened to pump in radioactive isotopes, should such a cell be asked to help compile the government report into their activities? It is indeed a bizarre report that the Department of Energy and Climate Change has put out, a bit like an inquiry into Syria focusing on the effect of the pollen count on the dictatorship."

In this video, environmental consultant, Paul Mobbs suggests that the promises now made over fracking bear an eerie resemblance to those made for nuclear and other environmentally damaging technologies: 

Wiley believes that some of the environmental concerns are valid: "The fears that it will permeate into the water table are overblown. It is difficult to see, physically and geologically, how that could happen. The concern over wasting water is probably the most real, but the industry is tidying up its act and learning how to be more efficient." The earth tremors are a reality, he suggests, but are no worse than those produced by the coal industry. He believes that the risks of a serious tremor are very small.

The Guardian article brought a surprising number of fracking supporters out of hiding. Gosport27 said: "Wow what a nice scare story, unfortunately… though we are running out of other options and there is no other viable energy solutions for large scale power production on the horizon as of yet. Let's face it wind farms, nuclear plants and conventional power stations all face varying objections by many people as well." However, there are plenty who oppose the development as well. Wellkissmyneck said: "More lemming-like, head-in-the-sand activity from a government whose ruling principle is short term financial gain for the few at the expense of our most precious resource: the land we live in. This is insane."

Professor Peter Styles of Keele University has proposed a number of ways in which the process can be made safer:

"We propose a much more cautious hydrofracture process where less fluid is injected and the fluid is depressurised immediately after the fracture forms and is not held at pressure in the well for long periods as this can lead to fluid percolating along natural fractures and perhaps stimulating adjacent faults. This then allows the fracture to settle onto the sand/proppant which has been emplaced which is what creates the permeable pathways for gas to be extracted.

"We especially recommend detailed microseismic monitoring before, during and after the hydrofrac which will allow the fracture to be mapped and perhaps tuned and that this will allow a threshold level to be set at which they must stop working and assess carefully. This has been set at only 0.5 magnitude which is very low but we believe that we should be cautious in the next early stages although we may be able to relax this after experience is gained. The monitoring should assist in the fracking operations as well as watching for quakes."

Fracking has the power to transform the energy market in the UK, but it needs to be handled with care. In particular, the oil and gas industry will be keen to avoid another GM foods fiasco.


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