For shale signs - Factors for and against fracking

Materials World magazine
1 Nov 2012

Is the UK braced for seismic change? The experts debated the merits of fracking at a recent Law Society event in London, UK  


The audience imagined a heavy lorry driving past Chancery Lane. That is the maximum amount of seismicity caused by fracking, according to Professor Robert Mair, Head of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Cambridge, UK. 

As far as he was concerned, seismicity is a minor side of the fracking equation. ‘Hundreds of wells are carried out in the USA, and the incidence of seismicity is minimal,’ he said. Surprisingly, there was very little backlash from environmentalists and sceptics present in what has been quite a contentious issue from Sussex, UK, to the USA. While reservations over groundwater contamination and community upheaval were expressed, the event was relatively frack-friendly. 

There appeared to be a consensus among the three speakers that maintaining well integrity was a pressing issue. While the UK already has a robust regulatory system, there are risks inherent in scaling up. Mair highlighted the need to ensure diligent monitoring of methane in groundwater, seismicity and methane leakage before, during and after fracking. 

Professor Alan Riley, of City University London Law School explained, ‘All European states are likely to struggle with scalability. If we’re going to scale [up], we’ll need a much more robust and thorough surveillance system. He advocated a more industryled approach to safety, cautioning against the more prescriptive US system. 

Given the UK’s extensive gas pipeline network and the lucrative potential of fracking, the intensive drilling of shale gas pads seems inevitable. However, as Riley noted, with the possibility of 500 wells in a single shale play, the regulatory system will be stretched. 

Riley was worried that the human aspect could be neglected as well bores drive. He mentioned that the notice period for local objections to proposed fracking was relatively short. He also believes there should be statutory community payments, and that a shale gas trust should be set up to provide the public with more information. 

The third speaker, David Baldock, Executive Director at the Institute for European Environmental Policy in London, saw aesthetic parallels between the offshore wind industry and shale gas fracking. ‘One point hasn’t emerged [yet],’ he said. ‘Shale gas pads aren’t fantastically pretty and can be quite numerous on the landscape.’ 

He also noted the transformative effect fracking could have on the UK’s energy mix, citing the US as a prime example. With US gas prices at least half those in the UK and emissions targets looming, a short-term solution to coal dependence is attractive to many governments. ‘If shale gas is exploited on a significant scale, it could lower gas prices,’ he added. 

Poland is one country looking to exploit large reserves and reduce dependence on Russian gas. While most of the measures are down to each individual state (France has a moratorium on fracking), there is protective EU legislation in place to preserve water quality and maintenance in a catchment. ‘The whole panoply provides a stronger foundation than you get in the US,’ said Baldock. ‘They’re all underpinned by a strong layer of EU policy.’ 

However, while the law is well regulated, he highlighted several shortcomings, such as the high 500,000m3 permissible daily extraction rate, the absence of specific provisions for fracking in the industrial emissions directive and inadequate safeguards for sewage works. It must be remembered that the industry is callow. ‘We’ve scarcely moved to commercial implementation,’ he added. ‘We’re still really at the exploratory stage.’ 

Nevertheless, the audience had reservations about the practice. One listener asked whether shallow drilling increases the risk of crack propagation when well drilling is completed. In response to this, Professor Mair (who contributed to the Royal Society’s UK hydraulic fracturing report) said, ‘Most of the shallow formations are deep down, so this isn’t an issue. In other parts of the world, however, this could be an issue. [But] we’re talking about wells that are 1km underground.’ 

Mair was also resolute in response to a query about the thirsty nature of fracking, ‘There’s no question that large quantities of water are needed for fracking,’ he said, ‘[but] over a 10-year period, the amount of water required is equal to one month’s water usage on a regular golf course.’ 

Concerns were raised about the stunted progress of renewable energy resources if UK gas usage continues unabated. While Riley argued that shale gas could give Government more time and money to develop renewable energy sources, others felt it would hinder greener energy sources. As Baldock noted, ‘Investors are unclear as to how safe an investment is with renewables, and we already have problems with confidence.’ 

For further reading, read Shale gas in Sussex, Materials World, May 2012 p35-37 and Drilling through the spin, December 2011 p16-19.