Published on July 1st, 2014 |
by Jon Regnart
Fracking Our Land Up: The Future of Gas in the UK
The Fracking Debate
Fracking has been a contentious subject in the UK. On the one side of the debate we have the self-proclaimed economic realists. They are scared of the unpredictable Russians turning off the gas pipe, scared of being left behind in the global gas market, and, most importantly, terribly concerned about inefficient wind turbines murdering unsuspecting sparrows.
On the other side of the debate, we have environmentalists who have watched GasLand and rightly point out the problems of tremors, increased transport emissions, contaminated water supplies and air pollution causing serious illness.
Yet as the economic realists will tell you, government statistics estimate that 2.28 million people in the UK are living in fuel poverty. Moreover that number is set to increase by the end of 2014. So whilst green ideology may leave a warm feeling inside, perhaps the economic realists will keep your house warm. There are compelling arguments on both sides but the core question is this: can fracking for shale gas fit into the UK’s energy mix without causing environmental harm?
UK Gas Market and Quantities of Shale Gas
Natural gas provides 81% of all UK buildings with heat. It emits the least CO2 out of all the fossil fuels and has been incorporated into many developed nations plans to reduce CO2 emissions. As a result natural gas is the Ron Burgundy of the energy market: it’s kind of a big deal.
However due to the declining role of North Sea reserves imported gas accounted for 47% of UK supply in 2012. By 2019, EDF estimates that this number will rise to 69%. Therefore in the future the UK will be heavily reliant on foreign countries for our supply, which given the nature of the international system, is risky.
You might think that Russia plays a big part in our gas supply yet in 2012 72.7% of our imported gas came from Norway (55.4%), Netherlands (14.6%) and Belgium (2.7%). All of these countries maintain healthy relationships with the UK and, in the case of Norway, have a stable gas market. They do not have a tendency to illegally annex territories or start proxy wars so they give the UK government no reason to sever economic ties. In short, our gas supply remains safe. However whilst Russian gas does not directly flow into our economy, if Gazprom decides to switch off gas to our European neighbours it has a knock-on effect on our supply.
So because the UK may be vulnerable to external market pressures, perhaps fracking will give Britain a degree of economic independence? Well in September 2013 the House of Commons decided that shale gas, unlike in the US, will not be a ‘game-changer’. One of the biggest reasons is that in 2010 the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the British Geological Survey (BGS) estimated that the Bowland Shale could potentially yield up to 4.7 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of technically recoverable gas. This is equivalent to roughly 1.5 years of UK gas consumption.
These are admittedly conservative estimates and since 2010 the projected amounts of technically recoverable gas have increased. Nonetheless the biggest problem with any UK prediction is that they are based on data from the US and yield estimations could ultimately be proven wrong. The irony is that scientists need between 40-60 exploration wells in the UK before they can accurately predict the viability of exploiting the reserves below. Therefore the current governments gung-ho attitude towards fracking should be met with suspicion given that the scientific data isn’t solid enough to start digging underneath peoples’ homes.
Fracking and Environmental Problems
Nevertheless even if fracking could produce 300 years worth of UK energy, environmentalists point out the dangers it could have on the environment. The question here is whether environmental damage is intrinsic in the fracking process or can it be managed through competent practices.
The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering concluded in an independent report that if strong regulation and high operational standards were maintained then there would be no environmental damage. They reported that seismic activity from fracking is minimal and ground water contamination only occurred when there was poor quality water wells. However an interesting recommendation was found towards the end:
“…the carbon footprint of shale gas extraction needs further research. Further benefit would also be derived from research into the public acceptability of shale gas extraction and use in the context of the UK’s energy, climate and economic policies”
Two points can be made from this. Firstly, the full environmental effects of fracking need deeper research. The process of fracking not only releases CO2 (via transport, building and other processes) but also methane which is twenty times as potent as CO2. In April 2014, the US Environmental Protection Agency came under fire for underestimating the levels of methane. In some areas the levels of methane being released from fracking were 1,000 times more than previously recorded. In addition, as GasLand illustrates, half of the chemical cocktail injected in a single fracking process is absorbed into the ground. The other half resurfaces and is stored in pits which are not designed appropriately thus causing seepage.
Secondly, whilst there may be vast reserves under the UK and only poor fracking techniques result in environmental damage, in the context of 2014 should we be initiating fracking? Gas transition technologies such as gas absorption heat pumps, district heating and insulation, whilst all are gas-centric, ultimately aim to limit supply and slowly ween the UK off gas. Whilst gas remains a “big deal” renewable heating energy is receiving welcomed attention and remains a long-term target for the UK government.
In my view, fracking dominates our energy debate too much considering the little yields scientists think we can actually acquire. In the long term, the UK’s reliance on gas will slowly fade if the governments dedication to the Climate Change Act (2008) holds true. The Fourth Carbon Budget calls for 34% of our heating to be from renewable sources by 2030. Renewable sources already generates 20% of UK electricity so the precedent is there for incremental change.
Despite renewable technology being labelled as inefficient, the National Trust installed a marine heat pump in Plas Newydd which provides 100% of it’s heat energy and is expected to save around £40,000 a year. Whilst not every community has the sea handy to heat their homes, similar in-land technologies are being researched to give cities such as Manchester and Leeds renewable heat energy from deep underground.
Just because fracking may be possible it doesn’t mean we should do it. I’m not arguing we should cut out fossil fuels immediately because the most vulnerable in British society rely on a steady supply of gas. However, instead of trying to maintain the status quo of intensive gas use, we should be in a period of transition. At present, fracking does not sit well with that transition because the projected yields are too low. However more importantly, the environmental, social and economic factors of fracking have not been thoroughly researched within a UK context.
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