As conventional fossil fuel sources dry up, the industry has been developing ways of extracting gas that is trapped inside the rock formations such as shale gas, coalbed methane and tight gas. Together they are known as unconventional gas because of the new techniques needed to access them.
The most controversial of these techniques is hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, made infamous by the 2010 film ‘Gasland’ which linked ‘flaming faucets’ in Pennsylvania to rampant gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. Fracking involves drilling deep in the earth and pumping a mixture of water and toxic chemicals under high pressure into the bore hole to open up fractures and ease the flow of gas for extraction.
The energy industry promotes unconventional gas as a clean source of indigenous energy, and a crucial ‘bridging fuel’. However, opponents around the world point to the toxic cocktail of carcinogenic and gender-bending chemicals commonly found in fracking fluid, and the ongoing burning debate about whether the carbon footprint of unconventional gas is higher than coal. Even if local environmental and health impacts could be mitigated, burning the gas will make it all but impossible to meet global climate targets.
Shale gas gets all the headlines, but the less well-known coalbed methane (CBM) extraction is making an equally unwelcome impact in the USA and Australia. Worryingly, the CBM industry in the UK is considerably more advanced than shale, with commercial extraction potentially only a few years off. Unlike shale gas, coalbed methane doesn’t always involve fracking, however extracting this kind of gas has its own distinct risks as well as those very similar to shale.
Coalbed methane is extracted by de-pressurising the seams through drilling vertically and horizontally and pumping out water to release gas. Drilling chemicals and toxins naturally occurring in the coal can leach into the air, water and soil causing health and environmental problems. Vast quantities of water that has been in contact with coal for centuries must be disposed of. As with shale gas, fugitive methane emissions from coalbed methane drilling mean its climate impact could be as much as coal. Coal seams are shallower than shale deposits, which means pollutant pathways are shorter, therefore the harmful impacts of CBM extraction could be seen sooner.
As if this weren’t enough, where seams are less permeable, or as gas flow starts to decline, coalbed methane wells can be fracked to increase productivity. In Australia, one of the world’s top producers of CBM up to 40% of wells end up being fracked.
Communities living near gas fields in Australia link extraction activities to a host of health problems including headaches, persistent rashes, nausea, joint and muscle pain and spontaneous nosebleeds. Farmers are playing a key role in the widespread ‘Lock the Gate’ coalition because of the impact de-pressuring has on their water supplies – in fact the industry has admitted that its impossible for them to extract the gas without major impacts on ground water levels.
Scotland has some shale reserves, but the most immediate threat is from coalbed methane. Australian gas company Dart Energy’s global flagship coalbed methane project is at Airth, near Falkirk.
This is the most advanced unconventional gas project in the UK, and if it goes ahead could open the door on a great many more developments both here in Scotland and south of the border. The project already has test 16 wells drilled, and a live planning application for a further 22 wells to enable commercial extraction will be decided at a public inquiry later this year. Full field development could see over a hundred wells in less than 300 km2.
What makes the prospect of developments like these so alarming is that most of the unconventional gas resource in Scotland is located in the most heavily populated parts of Scotland – right across the central belt, with pockets in southern Scotland too.
However, companies looking to drill for unconventional gas in Scotland will find it’s no easy ride. Dart Energy’s plans for coalbed methane at Airth have triggered fierce community opposition, face a lengthy public inquiry, frozen finances from the banks, the prospect of Balcombe-style protests, and a less-than-enthusiastic Government (unlike the one south of the border).
The government in New South Wales recently introduced a ban on any coalbed methane extraction within 2km of residential areas – a measure that forced operators including Dart Energy to give up working there. The Scottish Government’s new planning proposals include a similar requirement for buffer zones, although as yet they fail to specify a distance.
It’s hard to see what unconventional gas has to offer to Scotland, a country with 25% of Europe’s renewable energy potential, and the world’s most ambitious climate legislation.
Scotland has a chance to show that it can match its tough climate rhetoric with action, and be a world leader by resisting the dash for unconventional gas and focussing wholeheartedly on making the most of our abundant, safe, renewable energy resources.
Mary Church is Head of Campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland
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