The Fracking Debate


The UK government has just announced tax breaks for companies fracking for shale gas. Is that a sound investment in our future energy security, or a misguided waste of public money?  Should the money have been allocated to renewables? Are fracking protesters just ‘scaremongering’? Are these tax breaks just another example of business as usual for the big fossil fuel companies?

This podcast records the fracking debate in The Rational Parliament, which explored all sides of the argument around hydraulic fracturing for shale gas.

The Rational Parliament, founded by science journalist Adam Smith, aims to have rational debates on hot topics of the day, debates that are not subject to unchallenged wild claims, debates that balance views and values alongside research evidence.  The Parliament even has a ‘rhetoric officer’, Johnny Unger who comments on the rhetorical devices used by speakers in the debate.

Members of the Rational Parliament relax before the debate

Members of the Rational Parliament relax before the debate

The first debate of the Parliament, earlier this year, was about GM food.  This, the second debate, looked at ‘fracking’ (hydraulic fracturing). Chaired by science writer, Michael Brooks, and overseen by Alice Casey (the process officer of the Parliament),  it was kicked off by Joseph Dutton, Research Associate, Global Gas Security Project, University Of Leicester.

“The development of shale gas in the US has caused a stir across the globe for both good and bad reasons. Many countries hope to develop shale, seeking to replicate the US’s employment and financial gains, along with low domestic energy prices and natural gas self-sufficiency. But there are also those that worry about the negative impacts that shale gas development might have on the environment, both locally and nationally and also globally in terms of climate change. In the UK, the opponents and proponents of UK shale gas development point to the US experience for evidence of both the benefits and threats that fracking and shale gas can bring.

Before considering the differing points of view, it is important to note that fracking has already been carried in the UK. Over 200 conventional onshore oil and gas wells have been fracked in the UK, including horizontal wells at the Wytch Farm oilfield in Dorset and Beckingham oilfield in Nottinghamshire and vertical gas wells in Lancashire, geothermal development in Cornwall, and coal bed methane projects in Scotland. However, fracking for shale gas is different to conventional gas, both geologically and from a technical and engineering standpoint.

Opponents of fracking in the UK base many of their arguments on the experiences of shale development in the US, using alleged incidents to highlight the risks and damage that may occur should development begin in the UK. However, false comparisons have been made between the two countries. For example, there are assertions that the patchy regulation of fracking in the US (including a number of legislative exemptions) will be mirrored in the UK. It is the case that all parts of the fracking process are covered by existing UK legislation, while the final decision on development rests with local planning authorities, not national government. Those arguing against development based on environmental impacts point to studies from the US detailing alleged groundwater and aquifer contamination, water usage issues, air pollution, and fugitive methane emissions.

Shale development and fracking do have impacts, as all industrial processes do; however, further study has shown impacts to be less than initially claimed, or in some cases unrelated to fracking. For example, water usage for fracking a well appears to be high, but overall that shale gas sector’s water use is lower than that of mining industries and agriculture. Nonetheless, the development of shale gas in areas that are already subject to water shortages is clearly an issue. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s estimates of fugitive emissions from fracking are now lower than initially thought, while re-examination of apparent cases of water contamination from fracking has now determined the cause as sub-standard well completion or naturally occurring methane in water, not the process of fracking itself. Claims of fractures extending up from fracking zones to aquifers and creating pathways for pollutants have also been disproved based on broad analysis of fracking across the US.

Induced seismicity has been a contentious issue in the UK following seismic events at Cuadrilla Resource’s site in Lancashire. Although the causality has not been denied, coal mining, geothermal wells and reinjection of gas and waste water have been shown to cause more seismic events than fracking, while the geology of each well site determines the likelihood of such events. Waste reinjection is now regarded as the primary cause of seismic events in the US, rather than fracking.

Thus, while no one would claim that shale gas production using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing is risk free, as noted at the onset, those risks are of a magnitude associated with any industrial process. The real problem is the fact that shale gas drilling requires a large number of wells to be drilled to sustain production and the cumulative impact of the large scale development of this industrial process is only now becoming evident in the US and it is still not appreciated in the UK debate.

Misinformation and inaccuracies are equally present in the pro-shale gas camp. Despite differences in the UK onshore supply chain, regulation, planning, and availability of space compared with the US, there are assertions from some that development here will occur unimpeded, and will have the same economic and employment benefits. Obviously, any development would create jobs, but the number of wells that will be drilled, the labour requirements, and the volume of gas that will be produced are all unknown (and unknowable at present); therefore forecasts of UK employment, revenue and gas production growth must be treated with caution. Furthermore, the total number of wells in the UK would be far lower than the US due to smaller resources, less space for development, and improved drilling techniques. There is currently one partially fracked well in the UK; by contrast in the US on average 25,000 wells are drilled a year to be fracked. Any UK development would be much smaller than in the US, in both gas production and total number of wells – as such, both the cumulative positive and negative impacts locally and nationally would be smaller than in the US.

A fundamental point of justification for the government’s support for domestic shale development is the alleged impact it will have on domestic gas prices. In the US, the wholesale price of gas fell by 85% from 2008 to 2012, bringing down domestic and industrial energy bills. Despite the fall in the US, there is little evidence to suggest a similar situation would arise in the UK due to the two countries having very different gas market structures. The US gas price fell because of a large increase in gas supplies into a relatively isolated market with limited export capacity at a time of reduced demand. The UK Net Balancing Point (NBP) hub is a more fluid and interconnected market with gas from the UK, Norway, continental Europe and LNG all being traded there. The interconnected nature of the UK means production and LNG imports are exported to Europe if price signals determine, and shale gas would also be susceptible to such movements and would be competing on price with other gas supplies.

Any commercial UK shale production is unlikely before 2020, but debates are being framed as if production is imminent. There are many obstacles for the industry to overcome before development can occur, with obtaining a “social licence” to operate the largest. The full potential of UK shale cannot be fully analysed and understood until exploratory drilling occurs, but with such strong opposition this is proving to be a struggle in itself. Thus, while we can say that the concerns are about the negative environmental impacts of shale gas are real, but manageable; we can also say that level of possible future production in the UK is impossible to predict until there has been a meaningful exploration programme and even then the costs may be higher and the benefits more limited than those experienced in the US. A UK shale gas revolution is unlikely and significant domestic production is very unlikely before the end of the decade. In fact, with the battle lines so firmly drawn, the UK may decide not to develop its shale gas resources and may favour alternative low carbon sources of power generation and continue to import conventional gas from abroad.”

Joseph Dutton is an associate on the Global Gas Security Project at the University of Leicester, analysing the global evolution of gas markets and the implications for UK gas supply and energy security. He previously worked for upstream oil and gas consultants Douglas-Westwood, focusing primarily on onshore oil and gas operations and oilfield service industries. He has written a number of publications on global shale gas development, UK and European gas markets, and energy geopolitics, and he holds an MA in International Relations.

The Rational Parliament was founded by Adam Smith.  If you are interested in attending the next RatParl, either as an MRP (member of the rational parliament) or an observer in the gallery, just sign up at the ratparl website, and follow them on twitter at @ratparl.

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