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Science Alert: Experts Respond

Fracking to resume in the UK – experts respond

Posted in Science Alert: Experts Respond on December 14th, 2012.

The UK Government has given the go-ahead for hydraulic fracking activity in the country to tap valuable sources of shale gas.

A drilling company Cuadrilla, was previously stopped from fracking after two small earthquakes occurred near Blackpool in the region of where fracking was happening. (See additional scientific commentary on thew Blackpool tremors).

Conditions have been imposed to minimise the risk of seismic activity and fracking activity will be subject to existing laws and regulations governing environmental protection and health and safety.

Our colleagues at the UK Science Media Centre gathered reaction from scientists and engineers:

Professor Robert Mair FREng FRS, Chair of the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering review, said:

“We are pleased to see the Government recognise the importance of the joint Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering report on the geological and environmental risks of shale gas extraction in the UK. We welcomed the opportunity to discuss our recommendations with the Department for Energy and Climate Change, the Health and Safety Executive and Environment Agency recently and commend their commitment to implementing the recommendations set out in our report. Our report concluded that the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing can be managed effectively in the UK as long as operational best practices are implemented and robustly enforced through regulation. It is now up to the Government, regulatory bodies and operators to ensure that these responsibilities are met.

“Safeguarding well integrity is at the heart of ensuring that risks associated with hydraulic fracturing can be managed effectively. Our report highlighted the need for continued monitoring by independent experts to ensure that each well is designed, constructed and operated in a safe and responsible manner. We strongly encourage both the Government and the operators to implement a properly independent examination and onsite inspection programme so that the public can have confidence in the process.

“The decision by Ed Davey to commission a study of the possible impacts of shale gas extraction on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change should be welcomed. There are few reliable estimates of the carbon footprint of shale gas extraction and potential methane leakages during the extraction process have been highlighted as a concern, as methane is a potent greenhouse gas. The findings of this study will be important in deciding the future of large scale extraction of shale gas in the UK.”

Andy Furlong, director of policy at the Institution of Chemical Engineers, said:

“Shale gas represents an enormous opportunity for the UK. The health, safety and environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracking can be managed effectively as long as the activity is fully risk-assessed and operational best practice is implemented through appropriate regulation.

“Fracking is an established technology that has been used in the oil and gas sector for decades. Chemical and process engineers have extensive knowledge of the exploration and production of natural gas. Furthermore, the UK has 60 years’ experience of regulating the oil and gas industries, offshore and onshore.”

Professor Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester, said:

“Shale gas is the same as natural gas – it is a high carbon fuel, with around 75% of its mass made of carbon. For the UK and other wealthy nations shale gas cannot be a transition fuel to a low-carbon future. Anyone who says differently does not understand our explicit international commitments under the Copenhagen Accord, the Cancun Agreements – or, alternatively, is bad at maths.

“The UK’s commitment to make our fair contribution to reduce emissions in line with keeping global warming below a 2°C rise gives a very clear global carbon budget, and hence a UK budget: in other words, how much carbon we can put into the atmosphere over this century. Here the maths is unambiguous – we have insufficient budget for the carbon we are already emitting and by the time shale gas is produced in any quantity (five to ten years) there will be no emissions space left for it. The maths is that simple, even if the conclusion is not what we want to hear.

“Another fundamental mistake made by many experts on shale gas is that they assume it is lower carbon than coal, but this is valid only if we don’t burn the coal! In a world that is hungry for energy, any UK shale gas used here will mean we import less gas and coal – gas and coal that will simply be burnt elsewhere. The climate does not care from which country the carbon comes from – so burn shale gas here and UK emissions may go down but global emissions will go up. Shale gas is another high carbon fossil fuel – it just adds to the problem – in the absence of a stringent limit on total carbon emissions it will not substitute for coal.

“Finally, even if the technology of ‘carbon capture and storage’ can be made to work with gas – the level of emissions reductions will not be enough to meet our international carbon commitments. In the UK and globally we are now reaping the reward of a decade of hypocrisy and self-delusion on climate change. We pretend we are doing something ourselves, whilst blaming others for rising emissions. The truth is out – it is a tragedy of the commons par excellence – we are all to blame and we have left it too late for a technical fix. We are heading towards a global temperature rise of 4C to 6C this century; if we want to get off this trajectory shale gas needs to stay in the ground and we, in the wealthy world, need to consume much less energy – now!”

Professor Michael Bradshaw from the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), said:

“Only an exploratory drilling programme can provide the information needed to arrive at a better assessment of the reserve base, but the US experience suggests that even that will provide limited understanding.

“It is only by extensive drilling that commercial levels of production can be guaranteed. Any further decisions must assess the commercial viability of shale gas in the UK, against the regulatory costs and tax regime, the environmental impacts (both direct in relation to the drilling activity and indirect in terms of greenhouse gas emissions) and the wider societal acceptance of the industry. In short, shale gas will remain a conditional resource in the UK for some-time to come.”

Prof Quentin Fisher, Professor of Petroleum Geoengineering at the University of Leeds, said: 

“This is a sensible decision given the overwhelming evidence that hydraulic fracturing is safe.

“However, no one should get too excited about potential revenues from UK shale gas exploitation. A massive amount of uncertainty still exists regarding the volume of shale gas in the UK and whether it can be produced economically. Around 10-20 wells are needed before gas volumes and flow rates can be reliably estimated. Even if large volumes of gas are proved to exist, they may be too expensive to exploit on a large scale in the near future given the poorly developed supply chain for unconventional gas production in Europe and the large amount of cheap gas being supplied from elsewhere.

“A key challenge will now be overcoming opposition from local communities who are feed a constant steam of scare stories by environmental activists whose underling objection is the burning of fossil fuels and not the safety of fracking itself.

Prof Andrew Aplin, Professor of Petroleum Geoscience in the School of Civil Engineering and Geoscience at Newcastle University, said:

“This decision is in line with the substantial body of evidence that gas can be safely and cleanly produced from shales, given an appropriate and transparent regulatory framework.

“Gas will be an important transition fuel as we strive for a lower carbon economy and it is noteworthy that the US has actually reduced its CO2 emissions in the last two years as a result of switching some of its power generation from coal to gas.

“The UK is heavily dependent on gas for its energy and without new sources we will be importing up to 80% of our gas needs by 2020. All energy production has a visual and environmental impact, whether shale gas, wind turbines or major solar projects. With careful planning, the visual impact of shale gas production is probably less than that of wind turbines, per unit of energy generated.”

Prof Peter Styles, Professorial Research Fellow at Keele University and co-author of the scientific report to DECC into the Blackpool earthquakes published in April 2012, said:

“As part of the expert group (Styles, Green, Baptie) which examined all of the data and evidence concerning the minor seismicity which occurred last year near Blackpool, I welcome the decision to proceed with carefully monitored exploratory hydraulic fracturing as we recommended to Government in April.

“We have recommended protocols and modus operandi for the industry which will monitor the operations and use these data to control the process in a measured way in order to understand the behaviour of shale rocks in the context of UK Geology. The resources which are potentially available are large and we should be cognisant of our need for a cleaner, more secure source of energy than coal at a time when we are net importers of gas and heavily dependent on it (50% is imported) for our domestic heating and cooking (70% of which comes from gas) and electricity generation (about 50%).

“During this recent spell of very cold but very still air the welcome contribution from renewable sources such as wind has been minor (0.5 GW out of about 50 GW). We must under EU regulations on Flue Gas Desulphurisation close around 10% of our generating capacity by 2015 as six coal-fired power stations are taken offline and we have had no shipments of LNG since October as they have all been bought by Japan and Korea. Even if we did obtain LNG shipments, we have only limited (12 days) of storage as compared to France and Germany who have ten times this amount.

“We must also avoid the hypocritical position of refusing to face up to our responsibilities of producing our own indigenous supplies (and also bearing the responsibility for disposing of the CO2 generated from them) while happily importing and using gas from countries where political frameworks and regulatory legislation are illusory at best – and where the actual transport of that gas through the pipeline has a higher carbon footprint than actually burning it!”

Prof John Loughhead from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) said:

“The full adoption of the recommendations made in the review by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering on safe practice, and its own independent review of seismic risk mitigation, shows that DECC has taken the best technical advice to establish safe regulation and processes.

“There is no doubt that it is possible to recover shale gas safely, and in an environmentally acceptable way.

“The ability to exploit shale gas could dramatically increase accessible UK reserves of the cleanest fossil fuel and is an economic opportunity that cannot be ignored. If successful, it is likely to eventually displace coal from the UK’s energy supply, and make more gas available to do the same elsewhere in the world, which has major environmental benefits.

“No-one can say what the impact might be on gas prices in the UK, but we shall not see serious production for at least 10 years even if the reserves are both proven and economically recoverable.

“Over the next 25 years it is technically unrealistic to expect current renewable energy technologies to replace coal, so shale gas would not displace their further deployment.”

Dr Christopher Green, Director of G Frac Technologies Ltd and co-author of the scientific report to DECC into the Blackpool earthquakes published in April 2012, said:

“A decision on continuation of shale gas was urgently needed, if we are to secure a sustainable energy future for the UK.

“This is a welcome boost in an area where the UK could see benefits on several fronts: defining an industry best practice for ‘legislator-operator regulation’ that addresses the need to minimise risk and conducts safe shale gas operations; developing a resource that could help as part of the future energy mix to UK energy security; and developing local personnel and expertise that will be of benefit not only to the local economy but also might be exported world-wide, to help other nations develop their own shale gas resources.”

Prof Jim Watson, Director of the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex, said:

“The view of Ministers that shale gas will significantly boost UK energy security is questionable for two reasons.

“First, the UK is already in a comparatively strong security position, with access to a diversity of domestic and international sources of gas via pipelines and ships. Rather than relying on shale gas, a priority to strengthen gas security should be more attention to the low amount of gas storage we have.

“Second, even if UK shale gas resources turn out to be large and low cost – and that is a big if – this will not necessarily bring down prices to UK consumers. It is unlikely that UK shale gas will be anywhere near as cheap as it is in the US, and any price difference between UK gas and continental European gas will quickly disappear as a result of demand from other countries.”

Dr Nick Riley, Head of Science Policy (Europe) at the British Geological Survey, said:

“Drilling and testing for shale gas will allow Britain to assess whether we have an economic resource and how it can be accessed with minimum impact to the environment.

“Gas is the greenest of the fossil fuels and may have a role in reducing carbon emissions in countries which are dependent on coal for electricity generation, but shale gas also has high emissions from all the energy used in drilling and fracking. If gas power generation is connected with carbon capture and storage the convenience of home grown gas can be combined with very low emissions to help keep Britain within its emissions targets.”

Prof Stuart Haszeldine, Professor of Carbon Capture and Storage at the University of Edinburgh, said:

“The UK undoubtedly has some shale gas resource and, if the relevant environmental regulations and monitoring are enforced, this can be a lower carbon source of fossil energy than imported gas.

“Fracking is well established in the subsurface industry, and monitoring should greatly reduce the risk of earth tremor. High quality well casing and sealing of drilling fluids and gas production from surrounding aquifers is equally important, as is control of fugitive emissions. However, I expect the rollout of shale gas in the UK to be a lot slower than the Treasury hope for, and not to control the price of domestic gas supplies.”

 

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