Monday, July 29, 2013

Energy Supply – Is ‘fracking’ just a short term distraction?

It is clear that fracking carries a number of risks, environmentally it will still result in large quantities of CO2 emissions and for the UK it has an extremely limited lifespan.  Perhaps the Government should consider investing the time and money that they plan to invest in fracking, into renewable energy?  

A few years ago very few had even heard of the term Fracking, let alone understand what it actually is.  Nowadays with the amount of publicity relating to our over dependence on fossil fuels (a depleting resource), together with the negative impact on the environment due to greenhouse gas emissions when fossil fuels are burnt, there has been a realisation that we need to find alternative ways of providing our energy to meet our increasing demand. 

In the UK our need to find alternative ways of creating energy is critical. In June 2013 MSN News highlighted the urgency of the problem in respect of our electrical supply: ‘The UK's ability to produce enough electricity for the nation has been declining. Ofgem predicts that the amount of spare electricity production capacity could fall to as little as 2% by 2015. This will mean more likelihood of supplies running low enough to cause blackouts’. In May 2013 The Guardian reported similar issues in respect of our gas supply: ‘Some of Britain's biggest energy suppliers were holding back gas in storage tanks at a time when the market ran into an acute shortage two months ago, triggering a doubling of wholesale prices. The revelations came after claims the UK was within six hours of running out of gas completely on 22 March and will feed rising public and political anger over soaring power bills and previous allegations of market manipulation’. Make no mistake the problem is serious, and although we can import to supplement any shortfalls, this will come at a cost, a cost that we have little control over.  If we want to keep our country ‘running’ and as numerous politicians have put it ‘ ensure that the lights do not go out’, we need to find alternative ways of creating energy and find them quickly.  

Fracking is a method of extracting natural gas and oil from shale, which is a technique that has been used for decades in the United States.  Horizontal drilling (along with traditional vertical drilling) allows for the injection of highly pressurized fracking fluids into the shale area. This creates new channels within the rock from which natural gas is extracted at higher than traditional rates. This drilling process can take up to a month, while the drilling teams delve more than a mile into the Earth’s surface. After which, the well is cased with cement to ensure groundwater protection, and the shale is hydraulically fractured with water and other fracking fluids. – Source:   The video below provides an animated demonstration of the fracking process:         

So how much shale gas could we expect to extract in the UK? The answer appears to be inconsistent depending on what you read, with estimates suggesting that shale gas could meet demand in the UK for anything between 25 and 40 years – According to the Guardian in June 2013:
‘Britain is sitting on shale gas deposits that could supply the UK for 25 years, suggests an independent report that ramps up previous estimates for the controversial energy source. New figures published on Thursday by the British Geological Survey (BGS) indicated that the amount of shale resources, mainly sitting under the north of England, will trigger a new dash for gas. BGS published a long-awaited report that suggested an area stretching from Lancashire to Yorkshire and down to Lincolnshire could hold at least 1,300 trillion cubic feet of gas.’ 
Energy Minister, Michael Fallon, has stated it would be "irresponsible" not to take advantage of this resource, which has transformed the US and could provide energy security, if not cheap prices, for Britain.  This view however is extremely short term.  The US is far larger than the UK and has a much greater capacity to produce shale gas over a longer period of time. Estimates suggest that shale gas in the US and Canada could meet demand for nearly 100 years!  In the UK, even if we were to produce 40 years worth of energy from shale gas (which is at the top end of estimates) then this will not solve our problem once this resource has been exhausted.  It is a little disconcerting that our own Energy Minister cannot look at the issue from a more sustainable and long term point of view and focus our strategy and resources on renewable energy.  No doubt the Government will argue that they are already doing this, however, it is clear that our dependence of fossil fuels is far too great and something that we cannot sustain and must address much more rapidly.  Focussing on extracting shale gas through fracking is a short term distraction which is avoiding the real issues of providing energy in a renewable and sustainable way and is just papering over the cracks.
Natural gas when burned produces half the CO2 that coal does when burned ( Therefore gas produced through fracking may reduce our need to burn coal, however it will still produce large quantities of CO2, something that does not happen with renewable technologies.  If we focus our strategy on renewable energy then this will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the UK and help us reach or 2050 emissions targets.  Why waste time and money in extracting shale gas through fracking when surely it would be better to invest this time and money in renewable energy?
There are also concerns particularly in the US about the amount of water used in the fracking process as well as the possibility of contamination of water supplies due to the chemicals used in the process.  Recently in the UK fracking has also been attributed to be the cause of a number of small earthquakes.  The British Geological Survey reported: ‘On 1 April and 27 May 2011, two earthquakes with magnitudes of 2.3 ML and 1.5 ML were detected in the Blackpool area. These earthquakes were immediately suspected to be linked to hydraulic fracture injections at the Preese Hall well, operated by Cuadrilla Resources Ltd. This well was hydraulically fractured during exploration of a shale gas reservoir in the Bowland basin. As a result of the earthquakes, operations were suspended at PH1 and Cuadrilla Resources commissioned a number of studies into the relationship between the earthquakes and their operations’

It is clear that fracking carries a number of risks, environmentally it will still result in large quantities of CO2 emissions and it has an extremely limited lifespan.  Perhaps the Government should consider investing the time and money that they plan to invest in fracking, into renewable energy?  Our reliance on fossil fuels has to be addressed urgently.  Focussing on extracting shale gas, which is still a fossil fuel, is really a way of avoiding the main issue, something which many politicians appear to be extremely good at!   

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  1. Whether it is a short term or long term contributor to our energy mix, shale gas and oil cannot be ignored.

    It has the potential to reduce domestic and commercial energy bills by reducing reliance on much more expensive gas extracted from the North Sea or imported from Norway or Russia. It doesn't rely on guaranteed future prices well above current levels as new nuclear will have to if built commercially. Nor does it require Government subsidy (paid via higher bills by everybody, even the poorest households) like wind, solar and tidal power does. Given the time spent to get the environmental controls right, it is unlikely that the lurid claims about pollution of water supplies are ever likely to materialise. And, it is likely to create jobs, generate taxes and boost growth, mostly in poorer regions of the UK.

    Even if it only last 20 years, there is every reason to go ahead and, in my view, the taxes it generates should be used to build a new fleet of nuclear plant to secure our generating capacity in to the next century. That plant would then be a state-owned, strategic asset, providing possibly up to as much as 50% of our energy needs at a broadly fixed cost going forward.

    I do sometimes worry that in our comfortable western existence, we have become blind to the danger we face in this country from the luddite tendency who would see us refuse any technological advance out of fear of change, usually hidden under some greenwash of concerns about "the environment". Gas is better than coal. Renewables cannot, yet, bridge the gap without enormous subsidy from all energy users, not just wealthier taxpayers - the poor pay too.

    A "short term distraction" from that should be welcomed by everybody.

  2. It is only logical and corect that we take forward "fracking" even for only 20 years!

    20 years breathing space allows for far greater leaps in technology to allow far more longer term viable energy sources be that wind, solar, sea or nuclear derived. At times we must look at the short term gains and boosts it will bring, taxes, employment and growth, look how our current off shore oil can also move over to "fracking" so protection of jobs.

    I am all for the environment, recycle, reuse, minimise but in timescale terms of the living planet do we really make that much of a differeance to global warming compared to natural events such as volcanoes and the cows in the field, and ultimatley global warming occurs it is the natural order of events, we just havn't been around long enough to witness the past one's!

    We involve risk in everything we do, we no doubt had these fears before we opened the oil and gas fields in the North Sea, but we have progressed and engineered out much of that risk, fracking is another energy solution and we should take it forward as we have with other energy resources.

  3. Have these estimates taken into account that the world's population doubles approximately every 15 to 20 years, which means 24 BILLION people by around 2053!!! Do we think that just pulling out more and more fossil fuels will fix the shortfall issues? It's time to limit population growth and stop shipping in products from half way around the world that could be produced here etc etc.

    This planet will be unable to sustain the human race for another 100 years.

    World War 3 will be over oil and gas I'm sure, and it's coming to a Country near you...for your children to deal with!!!

  4. This is a good piece, but unfortunately it's mostly wrong.

    Any serious look at what it would take to make a meaningful debt in Britain's enormous hunger for energy with renewables will tell you it simply can't be done with current technology.

    That's a sad fact, but a true one.

    ALL renewable tech suffers from low power density and intermittency. It's particularly problematic in the UK where, despite our often blustery climate, it isn't always windy enough to turn the turbines or sunny enough to create much power from solar PV.

    Then there are the planning obstacles to wind, ground level solar farms and hydro.

    The reality is we NEED something more reliable and that gives us more power per unit of capacity, as a back-up or support fuel for renewables.

    Green NGOs that keep trotting out the canard that we can meet our needs with solar, wind and wave either don't understand the practicalities or are lying to us all.

    The obvious low-carbon electricity source to provide stable power is nuclear, alongside renewables, but green campaigners have turned the public against that too.

    It's a conundrum.

    Natural gas, sourced here in the UK rather than imported expensively from other countries, can be part of the solution and if we can that from shale deposits then we should.

    Our goal, that we shouldn't lose sight of, is making coal obsolescent.