The Basics of Fracking

Below, a local Climate Change Group member who used to be employed in the UK’s former National Coal Board, has written this up-dated review of fracking. It’s very informative.

“When I worked for the National Coal board in the 70s, we knew about fracking; it was what happened in coal seams sometimes when the geology was a bit dodgy. It often gave off methane, which was a highly explosive gas, and you had to drain that off immediately or ‘Stop the Pit’ i.e. cease all work.

In those days, coal was the backbone of our energy production.  It still generates 40% of our electricity today, although most of it comes from abroad; and today, of course, we also know methane as a hefty greenhouse gas, over twenty times more effective than Carbon Dioxide as a warming agent.

These days, too, we’ve all heard of ‘deliberate’ fracking, or as it’s officially called, hydraulic fracturing.  It’s a technique that started in the oil industry.  The first oil wells were wonderful; you drilled a hole and out it blew. But when those easy ones ran dry, once oil stopped coming out of the ground under its own pressure, it had to be forced out by pumping fluids down.  To begin with, companies just looked for other easy access fields, but as they ran down and the more difficult ones became worth exploiting as oil prices rose, the techniques got cleverer, more expensive, and more dangerous.  The spin-off, however, was that you could also use these techniques to get gas as well as oil out of the ground.  It’s really taken off in America, where there are parts of North Dakota, for example, with a fracking well for every square mile of land.

Fracking basically involves three steps: you drill a well, often very deep –maybe two miles deep. When you get to the layer of shale or sandstone that contains the oil or gas you’re after, the well curves and runs horizontally through the seam. You line the well with steel and cement casings to protect against seepage; then you pump a mixture of water (80%) and proppant – a mixture of sand, ceramics (19%) and chemicals (1%) under high pressure down the hole. The shale cracks open a bit, releasing oil or gas which goes back up the well, and the proppant stops the gaps from closing.

There have been a lot of concerns voiced about this process.  First, fracking is deliberately causing tiny earthquakes, and earthquakes have a habit of setting off other earthquakes.  But before we start writing the banners, bear in mind that a fracking tremor is at much the same level as the vibration caused by a lorry passing by outside.  Any damage will be small, and any subsidence almost non-existent.

Second, there is the danger of leakage of contaminants.  Over its life, a typical North Dakota well will use about 2 million gallons of water, over 1,800 tonnes of proppant and 350 barrels (13,300 gallons) of chemicals (a big well could use six times as much ).  20% of this gunge gets recycled, but 80% has to be disposed off, often deep underground again.  When this stuff is under such great pressure, there’s also a risk of well-casing failures, and if these occur in the first half mile from the surface there is a definite chance that the contaminants will eventually seep up into the aquifers from which we draw our water.  We don’t, of course know how long that may take; the chances are that the well will be long gone and the company that did it long out of business before the pollution emerges and those left have to cope with it.

It’s not just the wells either; the gas or oil has to be transported through hundreds of miles of pipelines, and even well-built pipelines leak and rupture.  On the whole, however, human beings show no sign of leaving the world alone; and industrial processes, that have made our lives on the whole massively better, carry an element of risk that most of us seem prepared to tolerate.

Third, there’s a lot of doubt even in the USA about the economics of fracking.  There is a much higher drop-off rate than in conventional gas wells; and of course you drill the easy ones first, so to maintain the level of production you have to drill more often and in increasingly difficult – and expensive – conditions.  In June 2011, the New York Times leaked an email from an analyst inside the industry suggesting that ‘the shale plays are just giant Ponzi schemes [‘get rich quick’ investment scams] and the economics just do not work’.   Given that we’re being sold fracking in the UK on the basis of it being a source of cheap energy, this might just be a bit embarrassing when the prices rocket.

So why is the government so keen on fracking?  First, because the stocks are within our borders, so we’re not dependent upon Polish coal, Arabian oil or – most iffy of all – Russian gas.  Second, the technology is established, so the initial research and development costs and uncertainties involved in some renewable energy projects, for example, don’t need to be incurred.  Third, ‘unconventional’ gas is not as environmentally damaging as coal and not as expensive as oil.  Fourth, demand for energy is still rising – and as the economy turns around will rise even faster; so we’ve got to do something quickly.

But the biggest problem with fracking is none of these.  It is that the end product is still a fossil fuel.  The International Energy Authority has warned that reliance on gas to the extent the industry envisages would inflict a 3.5-degree Celsius increase in global average temperature on the world and risk irreversible global warming.  Will we heed that warning?  As long as governments look no further than the next election, we won’t; we’ll just argue about whether it’s a justified analysis or not.  George Osborne has gone on record as saying “We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business”.  So we keep our country in business at the expense of the planet.  How utterly irresponsible our current leaders have become.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *