Fri, Aug 23, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Plenty of questions over the introduction of fracking in the UK

Advocates say it is a safe solution to our energy problems, but environmentalists think it is a disaster waiting to happen. The UK is searching for a balance between industry and the environment

By John Vidal  /  The Guardian

Will the countryside be further industrialized? Locally, yes. The industry states that around 1,000 fracking sites in Britain may be in operation by 2020, each of which will probably be around the size of four or five football pitches. It claims that these few hectares of drilling pads will be able to produce more energy than the entire British wind industry.

However, are these figures correct? Analysis by the British bird charity the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) of government figures suggests that the north of England alone has the potential for as many as 5,000 sites and up to 100,000 wells, in which case the impact of fracking on the countryside would be immense. Fracking needs an infrastructure and streams of heavy lorries to bring in sand, water and drilling gear, and to take out waste water, and — where there is no pipeline accessible — the gas itself.

Narrow roads and bridges may need to be reinforced, depots and buildings will have to be erected, and there will be inevitable extra traffic and air pollution. The sites will work 24/7, so there will be light and possibly constant noise pollution in the vicinity of the wells.

Also, in the wake of the controversy and protests, any fracking site is likely to need high fences, and to be permanently guarded. The visual intrusion of these sites can be lessened with tree planting and landscaping, but this will take time to blend in and is unlikely to be enough to hide the camps, noise and traffic.

Could it increase UK energy security? This is what British Prime Minister David Cameron and the industry hopes. Although the latest estimates suggest that there are about 37 billion cubic meters of shale gas underneath Britain, this massive figure is meaningless until it is known how much is accessible, what the environmental cost could be to extract it and how long the supplies may last.

Many of the formations thought to contain the gas have not been properly analyzed, and the oil and gas industry has a record of overstating its case for political and financial reasons. Lord Browne, chair of Cuadrilla and former head of British Petroleum, argues it is “right” for Britain, but British Green Party Member of Parliament Caroline Lucas, who was arrested on Monday during an anti-fracking protest outside Cuadrilla’s drilling site in the village of Balcombe, on England’s south coast, says it risks locking Britain into an expensive, fossil-fuel future — “increasing our exposure to volatile gas prices and forcing controversial fracking developments onto communities before the full impact is understood.”

Will it lead to lower carbon emissions? The jury is out. Five years ago, some environmental groups argued that shale gas was “an important transition fuel” that might temporarily feed British energy needs while the country makes the switch to renewables. Today they argue that concentrating resources on extracting fossil fuel from the ground instead of investing in renewable energy threatens to undermine the legal commitment to avoiding dangerous levels of climate change.

They see no evidence that the extraction of the gas is doing anything other than increasing the amount of fossil fuels being burned. In the US, emissions have reduced since shale gas was exploited, but this is because the cheaper gas is replacing coal, which is now being exported around the world. There is now a growing debate about whether shale gas really is less carbon-intensive than coal because the fracking process releases methane gas, which is a powerful contributor to climate change.

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