Monday, May 05, 2014

What the fracking industry does not want to talk about

According to the British Geological Survey, fracking could release considerable fossil fuel resources contained in shale rock formations around the UK. Fracking is controversial, and even the government accepts that it will not reduce the price of gas, but much of the debate around fracking has centred on local pollution, which the industry seems happy to discuss.

It argues that the risks are manageable and can be worked around with appropriate regulation.  However, there is an undeniable issue which the fracking industry does not seem to want to talk about: climate change.

We have already discovered more than enough oil and gas to push temperatures way through any notional safe limit.  According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative, “Only 20% of the total reserves can be burned unabated, leaving up to 80% of assets technically unburnable”.

Climate change, resulting from the emission of carbon dioxide and accidental escape of methane, is the inevitable consequence of exploiting unconventional gas resources.
All burning of natural gas produces carbon dioxide and though it is true that gas burns with lower emission than coal, for the total global warming potential the leakage of unburnt methane, a much stronger short-term greenhouse gas, has to be taken into account.  There has been insufficient monitoring of methane leakage from fracked wells and the whole gas distribution chain but a paper published last year, “Measurements of methane emissions at natural gas production sites in the United States” (David T. Allen, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1304880110) shows that it is quite wrong to regard shale gas a some kind of ‘clean’ substitute for other fossil fuels.
As the dangers of climate change become apparent to legislators, the exploitation of fossil fuels is likely to be prohibited, leaving the currently hyped carbon bubble as a stranded asset.  Why then is fracking being pursued?  The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee wrote in the March 2014 the ‘Green Finance’ report: “...the transition to a low-carbon economy will require investors to take account of the reality of a carbon-constrained world. This shift is happening, but there are obstacles to overcome—stock markets are currently over-valuing companies that produce and use carbon”. 

A case which illustrates this issue can be found here in the East Midlands: There is a geological basin called the Gainsborough Trough that contains a great thickness of shale, the same formation as is found in Lancashire. It is likely to contain gas that might be released by fracking.  A small company, Egdon Resources, holds the Petroleum Exploration and Development Licence (PEDL) for part of this area.  Last year the price of its shares was around 10 pence.

In January 2014 the French company Total announced they would buy into the work that Egdon were planning. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, came went to Gainsborough to welcome the plan. Egdon’s shares went up to about 30 pence. Those of Egdon’s directors with substantial holdings of their company’s shares became very rich people almost overnight, though not a single cubic foot of gas had been produced.  It can be argued that it is, currently, possible to make a lot of money in the industry, not by producing gas from the shale, but by convincing investors that there is money to be made in the future. 

Total only committed to spending €20 million. For a company whose sales in 2012 topped €200 billion, that sounds like the sort of cash that might be found down the back of the boardroom sofa and the brand recognition from the Prime Minister is likely to have been useful with fracking banned in their native France.

Some of Lincolnshire’s largest nature reserves lie in the area with fracking potential but Paul Learoyd, Chief Executive of Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, said "I do not envisage any circumstances where Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust would permit fracking or any other fossil fuel extraction on land under its control."

Some of the communities earmarked to host these kinds of projects have begun to form their own solutions. Residents of Balcombe, the Sussex village which has been the focus of mass anti-fracking protests, have formed a co-operative solar energy project. With a view to capacity increasing, REPOWER Balcombe aims to start by supplying 7.5% of the village's power demand.

Despite recent arguments that fracking will lessen Europe's energy reliance on Russia, it seems unlikely that much gas will ever be produced from UK shale by fracking.  If gas is produced then catastrophic climate change will become ever more certain.  However, Christiana Figueres, head of the UNFCCC, believes that we will see a “low-carbon world”.  She told  New Scientist in March: "carbon neutrality is going to be so standardized that you will look at anything that is not carbon neutral and go, ‘where the hell did that monster come from?’ It's exciting."

This article was first published in Transition Free Press.


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