UK gas fracking boom 'may be dirtier than coal'

Drilling equipment

Methane emissions have been found to escape during the fracturing process to extract shale gas

As well as local outrage over 'fracking' drilling there is new evidence its greenhouse gas footprint may be higher than that of coal. Tom Levitt reports from the centre of this potential gas boom near Blackpool

In the flat lying geology of the Fylde coast the latest site of the UK’s burgeoning shale gas boom needs little direction. The 32 metre-high drilling rig, less than one mile away from the village of Singleton, stands out in the mostly low-lying arable farmland.

A little more than 2,800m beneath the surface is the target of this activity - natural gas held within deep-lying shale rock formations. To release it the energy companies involved must inject thousands of litres of water and chemical additives down the bore wells at high pressure to blast open cracks.

But this extraction technique, known as hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ by some, is being met with strong opposition because of concerns about water pollution in the US and new evidence its greenhouse gas footprint could be even higher than coal.

With enough shale gas reserves in Europe alone to meet the UK’s annual gas needs for 160 years, successful extraction could also have serious implications on the UK’s impetus towards renewable energy.

What’s more local residents in the Fylde have largely been left in the dark about this local development with the energy minister Charles Hendry accused of rushing to green light the gas fracturing company involved. Even the local MP only found out about what was happening just before Christmas, more than four months after drilling at the first site had started.

US shale frenzy

Although onshore gas extraction is not new, the attempt to target previously untouched reserves by creating fractures deep underground and releasing sufficient flows of gas to make it commercial is, as yet, unproven in either the UK or Europe. In the US, the past three decades has seen a ‘shale frenzy’ with thousands of gas wells being drilled but the gas flow has come at a cost. By 2009, the reserves were producing 16 per cent of the US’s gas needs and are projected by the US Energy Information Administration to jump to 45 per cent by 2035. But the rush of speculators looking for gas has been followed by claims aquifers are being contaminated by poorly designed wells, leaking gas and concerns over the disposal of chemical fluids after fracturing. US environment officials are now investigating these claims and the state of New York and city of Pittsburgh have, in the meantime, banned any shale gas extraction.

None of these concerns has stopped the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) talking of the opportunity for ‘stable domestic supplies’, with the British Geological Survey (BGS) recently estimating the UK could be meeting 10 per cent of its current gas needs from shale. On the Fylde coast, residents are angry about being left in the dark. ‘No-one has spoken to the residents. That has upset people. They [the shale gas company] just appeared out of the blue,’ says Maxine Chew, local councillor for the village of Singleton, which now sits right in the middle of what could become a major region of energy production and the country's first commercial shale gas reserve.

The company behind the UK's shale gas push is Cuadrilla Resources Holdings Ltd, made up of a group of US shale gas experts, who switched attention to Europe after the ‘shale frenzy’ and a resulting shortage of land in the States. They originally targeted Spain, hence the name Cuadrilla, Spanish for ‘small group of people’, but saw a greater chance of success in the UK and the Bowland Shale formation in Lancashire. They settled on sites near Blackpool initially because of a history of onshore gas extraction in the area, with British Gas having at one time explored the area.

Although by their own admission a small player in global energy company terms, they have some significant backers with Lord Brown, former CEO of BP, on the board of directors. When the Ecologist visited their Grange Hill site, near Singleton and about five miles from Blackpool, they were close to reaching the shale gas reserve having drilled more than 6,000 feet – the aim is to reach 9,000 feet. Plans have since been temporarily setback after a small magnitude 2.3 earthquake struck around one mile away from the company’s first drilling site, in nearby Preese Hall. They had recently begun fracturing at this site leading to concerns that it may have caused seismic activity.


Cuadrilla admit they cannot say for certain how the fractures they create will spread. The British Geological Survey says fracturing can cause small earthquakes. ‘Any process that injects pressurised water into rocks at depth will cause the rock to fracture and possibly earthquakes,’ says head of seismology Dr Brian Baptie. However, the BGS estimate this earthquake took place ‘significantly deeper’ than where drilling is taking place, making any link between the two unlikely.

Despite the media attention so far on Europe’s first ‘fracturing’ shale gas well, the real boom has not even begun. Once fracturing is re-started, if Cuadrilla can prove a commercially viable gas flow from their sites, it could herald a billion-pound shale industry in the region and, almost certainly, the involvement of bigger players such as Shell or BP. Cuadrilla say they lack the necessary funds to bring the site to commercial scale.

Jonathan Craig, fellow of the Geological Society’s Petroleum Group, says he thinks the development of shale gas in the UK is ‘mirroring’ what happened in the US. ‘A small number of very small companies, niche companies, went into the market to test the potential and having established that particular plays looked as if they were going to be productive, the bigger companies came in and provided the funding to develop that.’ Unlike the US though, the Crown rather than individual landowners own the gas and other minerals beneath their land. While planning permission has been granted for Cuadrilla by the landowners, there is a possibility, alluded to by energy minister Charles Hendry recently, that a government drive on unconventional gas could see compulsory court orders to allow drilling to take place in areas opposed to it.

Local concerns

Local environmental campaigners have not been impressed by what they say was a deliberate attempt by the company to keep a low profile when they first started drilling in August 2010. The Green Party and others say local residents were unaware of the controversy behind fractures created by the drilling techniques in the US. This includes concerns that as much as 70 per cent of the water and chemical mix used to create the fractures can stay underground, with a risk of leakage into aquifers. Local Green Party candidate Philip Mitchell also accuses the company of secretly testing water supplies. However, Cuadrilla say they are merely obtaining baseline figures for water samples and have no requirement to inform residents. Speaking at their Grange Hill site near Singleton, CEO Mark Miller, pointing out the cement casing they are putting in around the pipes, says he is ‘confident’ leaks through faulty bore wells, as described in the US, will not happen on their sites.

The Environment Agency say they will ensure that appropriate regulatory controls, aimed at ‘preventing pollution and encouraging high standards of environmental practice’, are applied. Meanwhile, energy minister Charles Hendry told MPs recently that he had confidence in the safety steps being taken by Cuadrilla. He indicated that they did not plan to bring in any tougher regulations saying, ‘we have to strike a balance between regulation and not getting in the way of a legitimate business.’

The local councillor, Maxine Chew, says they have no choice but to ‘trust’ the company and admits local people are wary about the scale of future development and the prospect of many more wells and frequent drilling. However she says most, like her, remain more concerned about a nearby nuclear manufacturing and decommissioning site and plans for a third nuclear power station at nearby Heysham. A local campaign group recently won legal aid to challenge government approval for the new power stations without considering evidence that they cause an increase in cancer cases in children living nearby. ‘We are going to have to make some concessions to operate these facilities but that has not got to be at the cost of the environment or safety, which is what I feel about nuclear,’ says Maxine.

By coincidence, the local MP Mark Menzies also has a junior role with the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) as a Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to the energy minister. He admits the company had initially avoided any local engagement and he had been unaware of what was going on. As such he had been very sceptical about the sudden emergence of a unconventional gas industry in his constituency. 'If only half of what appeared in the US was on the table I would have a problem but that is the difference between the UK and USA. The minute you take your eye off the environmental ball and protecting people you may not then be doing the right thing. So far all the evidence and information I have received has been fine,’ he says.

In another coincidence, away from the Fylde coast, some of the best shale gas reserves may be in the Weald Basin, which lies within the Wealden constituency of energy minister Charles Hendry. He himself is a vocal supporter of a shale gas boom, saying the UK should not rely upon ‘unstable and volatile regions’ for our gas supplies and insisted to the Ecologist recently that he ‘certainly would not object to it in my own constituency’.

Renewables lose out

As well as promoting shale gas as a contributor to the UK’s energy security, Cuadrilla and the shale gas industry have also highlighted its ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with estimates that burning natural gas produces, on average, 45 per cent less carbon emissions than coal. However, as well as new evidence contradicting these lower greenhouse gas emission claims, there has also been warnings that an unconventional gas boom threatens to derail the UK’s renewable impetus.

A Chatham House report last year said the ‘shale gas revolution’ had already compounded investor uncertainty in renewables and that ‘the serious possibility of cheap, relatively clean gas may threaten investment in more expensive lower carbon technologies’. The world-renowned Tyndall Centre, in a separate report, called for a moratorium until analysis of potential contamination of ground and surface water had been properly investigated. It also agreed that shale gas risked handicapping the UK’s long-term carbon reduction targets.

Report author Professor Kevin Anderson told the Ecologist, ‘As we repeatedly note, in the absence of meaningful global caps on emissions and in an energy hungry world (with growing energy demand outstripping renewables penetration) additional fossil fuels leads to additional emissions’.

Cuadrilla admit a lot of other energy speculators were closely awaiting the success or otherwise of its shale gas extraction but, CEO Mark Miller, says he still believes, ‘nothing we do will change the energy mix’. He said he believed it could help in a ‘transitional period’, with gas currently making up 40 per cent of the UK’s energy needs and 80 per cent likely to be imported by 2020. Local MP Mark Menzies agreed: ‘We need to move to decarbonise the economy and focus on the next generation of renewables and the UK needs to make sure it leads the world in that. But no matter how you cut there will still be a role for gas in the immediate future. As the North Sea gas reserves become depleted domestic supplies can be a safe alternative to importing.’

Friends of the Earth say the case for shale gas being a transitional fuel was ‘unconvincing’ and that, in any case, there was no shortage of conventional gas. ‘We should not be glutting the market and squeezing and pricing out renewables,’ says head of campaigns Mike Childs.

Worse than coal

As well as concerns about its impact on growth in the renewable sector, claims that shale gas has a low greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint are also now in doubt. Research published this week in the journal, Climatic Change, has found its footprint is ‘significantly larger’ than that from conventional gas and possibly larger than that of coal because of methane emitted during extraction.

Although it has a shorter lifespan in the atmosphere, methane is 20 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and therefore, has a significantly more damaging impact on global warming in the short-term. Natural gas is composed largely of methane and in shale production, as much as 8 per cent of the gas may escape into the atmosphere over the lifetime of a well. The study estimates these emissions are between 30-50 per cent higher than those from conventional gas production, with particularly large amounts of methane escaping during the controversial fracturing process. A large amount of the water and chemical fluids pumped down the well during this process returns to the surface as flow-back and is accompanied by large quantities of methane. More methane is also emitted during the so-called drill out phase when gas is released for production.

Overall, researchers estimate around 2 per cent of the total production of gas from an unconventional shale-gas well is emitted as methane during the set-up of the well. Once emissions during processing and distribution are added in, they estimate between 3.6 and 7.9 per cent of the total gas in a well is emitted to the atmosphere as methane.

‘The footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years. Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20 per cent greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years,’ says the study, led by Professor Robert Howarth from Cornell University.

Cuadrilla have indicated that they expect to convert gas produced from their wells in Lancashire into electricity – something the researchers in the study say could led to less overall emissions. However, even taking this into account, the study concludes the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas ‘approaches or exceeds’ coal. DECC admit methane emissions, particularly during fracturing, may increase the carbon footprint of shale but still argue it will be less than coal.

‘Providing fugitive [leaks or unintended emissions] emissions of methane can be managed adequately, shale gas can be expected to have a carbon intensity greater than that of natural gas from conventional fields, but significantly lower than that of coal,’ says DECC.

Useful links

Study: Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations


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