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expert reaction to new report on fracking by the Environmental Audit Committee

The House of Commons cross-party Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has issued a new report on shale fracking in the UK. In it, they recommend that fracking be put on hold because of health risks and conflicts with climate change targets.

 

Prof. Zoe Shipton, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Strathclyde, said:

“The focus on gas replacing coal for electricity generation in this report misses the point that about 83% of UK homes are heated by gas, and that gas is a key feedstock for the petrochemicals industry. Every time we sit down in a gas centrally heated house, to eat a meal cooked on a gas cooker, eating food packaged and transported in plastic we are consuming hydrocarbons (not to mention the fertilisers used to grow the food, and hydrocarbons involved in transporting that food).

“While there is an urgent need to address the challenge of climate change, even in the greenest of ‘going green’ scenarios, the UK will be dependent on gas for many years. Friends of the Earth’s scenario on DECC’s 2050 energy pathways calculator includes the use of nearly 1000TWhr/yr in 2050:

http://2050-calculator-tool.decc.gov.uk/pathways/10h4nn4431w23y110244111004424440343304202304430420441/primary_energy_chart

“Several independent studies, including that by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, have concluded that we have the technological capability to extract onshore unconventional hydrocarbons with relatively little environmental and public health impact.

“While it is possible for shale to be developed with reduced impact, no industry is ever without risk. A future UK shale industry would not be using all of the same equipment or operational practices as have been used parts of the US. For instance, flowback fluids would be required to be stored in closed containers, not in open pits that can degas methane and which are a source of contaminants harmful to human and animal health.

“A future industry in the UK would be developed under more stringent environmental and public health regulations than some other parts of the world where our current gas and petrochemical supply comes from.”

 

Professor David Manning, President of the Geological Society of London, said:

“All fossil fuel production involves risk to the environment, and that is managed. We remain confident that the risks associated with shale gas exploration and production in the UK can be managed given sufficient care and attention, as are the risks associated with other domestic production of fossil fuels.

“High quality research into our understanding of potential risks of shale gas extraction is underway across the UK’s universities and the British Geological Survey. Only by continuing such research in situ can uncertainties about fracking operations be reduced.

“This does not mean that natural gas (conventional or unconventional) can be extracted and used with impunity. We agree with the chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee (May 2011) that shale gas extraction at scale would increase the urgency of bringing carbon capture and storage technology to the market and making it work for gas as well as coal.”

 

Prof. Andrew Aplin, Department of Earth Sciences at Durham University, said:

“Some poor industrial practice in the US has led to understandable concerns over the production of shale gas in the UK. However, geological and environmental risks associated with shale gas production can be minimised within a tight regulatory framework.

“This report highlights how the mix of local opposition and global concerns on climate change will inhibit the development of a shale gas industry in the UK.

“The development of new fossil fuel resources such as shale gas is broadly incompatible with the UK’s stated commitment to major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. However, any moratorium on shale gas exploration must go hand-in-hand with an equally strong commitment to reducing imports of coal, oil and gas. Given that fossil fuels dominate current energy consumption, this also implies a massive increase in nuclear and renewables, which will be both challenging and expensive.

“Whatever the UK does to reduce its carbon footprint is of little consequence if there is no global agreement on emissions. There has been little progress over many years, so all eyes are on Paris next December, at the UN Climate Change Conference.”

 

Dr Nick Riley, Director of Carboniferous Ltd, said:

“If these MPs were serious about climate change targets they would ask for a immediate closure of the UK’s coal fired power plants and their conversion to gas, thus halving emissions. This would also reduce limestone quarrying of our AONB and national parks which supply limestone for scrubbing sulphur oxide out of the flue gas from the coal burning boilers.

“UK will need gas for many decades to come. More of it will need to be imported if we do not produce our own gas; importing gas, especially LNG, has higher emissions than home produced gas.

“The pace of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is painfully slow. The UK needs to accelerate its CCS demonstration programme, especially for gas. Gas uses half the subsurface volume for CO2 storage – effectively doubling geological CO2 storage capacity. The committee should recommend that CCS is accelerated, especially the planned demonstration project at Peterhead (CO2 capture & storage from a gas fired plant).

“So, if we do not have gas as the major fuel in our mix, how much would nuclear and renewables need to take up the slack? How would renewables impact on our landscape (not just their installation & surface footprint, but also the raw materials that would be needed to be extracted to build that infrastructure)? Do these MPs know the full life cycle emissions of renewables, e.g. photo voltaics at our latitude and cloudiness? Do they realise that fraccing will be required to produce geothermal energy?

“Underground technologies such as energy storage will be required in a renewables dominated energy system. If they do not have confidence that we can fracc safely then they should have no confidence in geothermal, CCS or underground energy storage either!

“There is no scientific evidence that fraccs have contaminated groundwater. The permitting of plans to fracc by Cuadrilla in NW England – issued by the Environment Agency, which has the most stringent regulations for conducting fraccing in the world – shows that the EA are confident that fraccing can be done safely. UK exploration wells offer a wonderful opportunity to do research and monitor this technology, not only to rigorously establish the facts about fraccing in UK geology, but also investigate whether we can actually produce significant gas.”

 

Professor Paul Ekins, Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, said:

“For fracking and large-scale UK shale gas production to be consistent with the low-carbon transition on which the UK is engaged, and with environmental protection more generally, a number of key conditions would need to be met.

“These include: clear provisions for any potential shale gas to substitute for coal rather than low-carbon energy sources; a regulatory system that commands public confidence to prevent unacceptable local environmental impacts; an understanding of the likely extent of, and how to reduce, fugitive emissions; and a recognition by the nascent industry that the window of opportunity for unabated shale gas combustion is limited, if the global target to limit climate change is to be achieved.

“None of these conditions is currently met. While we are not against shale gas exploration in principle, we therefore support the Environmental Audit Committee’s call for a moratorium on fracking until they are.”

 

Prof. Stuart Haszeldine, Professor of Geology at the University of Edinburgh, said:

“Shale hydrocarbons are becoming a textbook example of how to develop England backwards. Government has imposed development from the top, to help companies, against the wishes of residents, and whilst unresolved conflicts and uncertainty remain with scientific and health evidence, and where extra methane leaks will reverse UK progress on climate emissions. Shale hydrocarbons are decisions first, asking permission later or never. Even though it’s possible that drilling, fracking, production, and borehole sealing can be achieved safely, residents need to feel included – not excluded.

“The funding for new research tests into deep shale rock geology is welcome. But in a country which prides itself on using evidence to inform decisions, it’s strange that licensing and permissions and lightweight tax have been granted before the science has started. This is still highly experimental in England and Wales, there is very little experience in this style of fracking with large water volumes.

“By contrast in Scotland, the Government is taking a slower approach, informed by review and discussion. And developers are promising much greater benefits, 4% of pre tax value, for any community which decides to tiptoe in to investigations.”

 

Prof. Quentin Fisher, Professor of Petroleum Geoengineering at the University of Leeds, said:

“It is sensible that there is an open debate on the carbon emissions that result from energy production. However, it is disappointing to see a Government committee putting the ill-informed views of anti-fracking groups ahead of evidence-based scientific studies.

“In particular, the report totally overstates the dangers of shale gas extraction such as groundwater pollution, health risk and geological integrity. Gas will be a significant part of the UKs energy mix for the foreseeable future and it is preferable that we are as self-sufficient as possible. Hopefully, MPs will reject the findings of this report and allow UK citizens to receive the economic and social benefits that shale gas extraction could bring.”

 

Prof. Richard Davies, Newcastle University, said:

“Based upon our published research in 2012, the ReFINE consortium recommended that there should be a minimum vertical separation distance of 600 metres between shales being fracked and drinking water aquifers. So we welcome this recommendation.

“Our research also indicates that up to 53% of the 2150 oil and gas wells drilled onshore to date in the UK have an unclear ownership and the condition of many of these wells is not monitored. So there remain important environmental issues that have yet to be tackled.”

 

Prof. Jim Watson, Research Director of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), said:

“The EAC report is right to emphasise the need to implement effective environmental regulations so that any shale gas exploration and production in the UK is monitored effectively. In my view, this should include monitoring of sites before any exploration activities so that the impact of shale gas development can be analysed effectively. Public trust in those regulations is absolutely essential if shale is to play any significant role in the UK. This may not require a blanket moratorium, but it may mean delays to licensed shale gas activities to allow such monitoring to be carried out.

“The potential for shale development, and its potential impacts on energy prices the economy, have been exaggerated by some supporters. It is unlikely that shale will have an impact until the 2020s. As the committee points out, any shale development must be compatible with the UK’s climate change targets.
“Whilst it is very important that the UK continues to meet these targets, there remains scope for a significant, though diminishing, role for gas over the medium term. As the Committee rightly points out, this role could be larger if carbon capture and storage technologies are successfully developed. UK shale could make a contribution to UK gas demand, but it is likely that existing sources from the North Sea and abroad will supply the majority of our gas needs for the foreseeable future.”

 

Neil Hirst, Senior Policy Fellow at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, said:

“I agree that we need a careful strategy not to become too dependent on gas. However, the committee overlook the fact that renewables are intermittent. We will need considerable gas supplies for a long time to come to provide flexibility for reliable electricity. Shale gas could contribute to this need with no negative impact on carbon emissions and possibly with significant economic benefits.”

 

Prof. Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change and Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Manchester, said:

“Numerous reports have conveniently sidestepped how the UK government’s enthusiasm for shale gas is incompatible with its international commitments on avoiding “dangerous climate change”. It is therefore refreshing to witness the integrity of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) in putting science and maths ahead of short-term political goals.

“Shale gas comprises 75% carbon, so when combusted it emits large quantities of carbon dioxide. Even if carbon capture and storage technologies can be economically scaled up, the emissions from a gas-fired power station would still be five to fifteen times higher than those from either renewables or nuclear generated electricity.

“Away from the microphone I know of no scientist who considers the UK’s proposals for shale gas can be reconciled with the carbon budgets for a good chance of maintaining the global temperature rise below the 2°C characterisation of dangerous climate change.

“With fourteen of the fifteen warmest years on record having occurred since 2000, with oceans now both warming rapidly and acidifying, and with unequivocal scientific evidence that burning fossil fuels is the principal cause of these unprecedented changes – the Environmental Audit Committee’s conclusions are a beacon of light in a sea of expedient halve truths.”

 

Dr Chris Green, petroleum engineer, fracking specialist and Director of G Frac Technologies Ltd, said:

“After the initial Preese Hall frac incident various enquires/investigation have been carried out by both frac experts and the best available UK/international academics, which have resulted in numerous reports and recommendations on what should be required by legislators in order for permission to be granted for further shale frac operations.
“As far as I am aware all of the recommendations and subsequent requests/clarifications that have been imposed on the operator (at both national and local level) have been followed and numerous environmental/risk management consultants have been working for shale operators throughout this period to ensure that sufficient procedures and data have been provided to fulfil the various permit applications.

“Now this report by the MPs of the Environmental Audit Committee is seeking a moratorium on all frac operations, based on no new UK frac information.

“As a UK-based expert actually performing fracs in unconventional reservoirs world-wide, such as shale, I can state that we now know exactly the same as we did when the initial incident happened in 2011. Therefore, in the last 3.5 years we have not obtained any additional information that would allow us to move forward with properly engineering an effective hydraulic frac treatment – it should be remembered that whilst following a suitable system is necessary, in the end frac engineers need data to engineer safe, sustainable frac operations.

“It is stated that development will take 10-15 years, but a more realistic timescale would be 3-5 years based on what we have seen recently in the new US shale plays.

“With regard to the discussion about gas prices I don’t think that most experts believe that it will lower prices, but people do feel that it offers the potential to stabilise prices, if it can be produced in sufficient quantities.

“It is not possible to say how good the shale is, or how much gas can be produced, so the moratorium would merely prevent us from being able to properly assess the potential resource – what’s the point?

“I think that for any ‘reasoned’ discussion on this topic we urgently require further hydraulic fracture test treatments and only then using this data, we can make reasoned, informed judgements on UK shale gas in general and then the potential way forward for the UK energy supply.”

 

Declared interests

G Frac: “is a UK-based applied research organisation that provides services to ensure sustainable production of hydraulically fractured reservoirs by oil and gas operators. We do not promote shale but we do promote hydraulic fracturing where analysis and technology indicate that it will give sufficient production and then G frac helps operators ensure that operations are conducted in a safe, sustainable manner, using what we have termed the eFrac® process. Chris Green has no contracts with any UK shale gas operator.”

Prof Watson: “is a member of the international advisory panel of the Sustainable Gas Institute, based at Imperial. This is an unpaid position. It is funded by BG Group.”

The ReFINE consortium: “is led by Newcastle and Durham Universities and is funded by NERC, Shell and Chevron, but adheres to strict ethical standards and our research is independent of any stakeholder including the funding organisations.”

Nick Riley: “I provide geological expertise to the oil & gas industry regarding exploration in Carboniferous rocks.”

Andrew Aplin receives funding from the petroleum industry for his group’s research on the geology of unconventional resources.

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