University of Keele geophysicist Peter Styles expects that within the right safeguards, hydraulic fracturing can improve the security of energy supply and reduce methane emissions. He also thinks that many fears about fracking can be allayed by looking at the scientific evidence.
“If we bring our gas from the Stockman field in Siberia, then we potentially bring it 5,000km through leaky pipelines,” he told the Northern Ireland Energy Forum. “As those pipelines leak, they leak methane. Now, methane over a 20-year timescale is more than 70 times worse than CO2.” He therefore calculates that transporting that gas by pipeline carries a larger carbon footprint than consuming it at the end of the pipeline.
Styles co-authored an April 2012 report on seismicity induced by hydraulic fracturing, commissioned by the UK Government. A ‘red-yellow-green’ warning system, proposed in the report, was adopted by the UK Government. Under this system, the operator would suspend operations and immediately ‘flow back’ if the magnitude of a single confirmed event is 0.5 or above on the Richter scale. The operation should be abandoned if the magnitude reaches 1.5.
A cement casing is used to separate UK wells from potential underground water sources. Sand is used as a ‘propping agent’ to keep the fractures open and he thinks that it is unlikely that other additives will be permitted in the UK and Ireland.
Gasland, a 2010 anti-fracking documentary made in the USA, achieved fame among environmentalists by featuring a man in Pennsylvania setting his tap water on fire as it contained gas. The claim, though, is misleading as gas already comes out of the taps in those areas e.g. from coal deposits or marsh gas. “It’s quite easy,” he added, “to generate a lot of heat and light about fracturing without understanding what actually is going on, and I think that’s what’s happened.”
New Brunswick’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Eilish Cleary, analysed the potential health consequences of hydraulic fracturing in a report to the provincial government (October 2012). She has also discussed her findings with Fermanagh residents during a subsequent visit to Ireland.
“If the decision is taken to develop this industry, it will require a thoughtful approach, careful planning and an upfront investment of resources to mitigate the health risks involved,” she has said.
Cleary emphasises the importance of sharing factual information and openly discussing the risks and benefits with local people. The health risks cover water and air pollution, health and safety of employees, and the general disruption to communities caused by rapid economic and social change.
There were “no direct health gains” but potentially some indirect gains from additional revenue and employment. It was hard to identify “even one jurisdiction” that had handled this process well.
Cleary explained: “On one hand, there are many people with a strong and deep attachment to their land and environment and, on the other, a major industry whose top priority is not the preservation of the environment, communities and the health of people.
And in between are governments who are under intense fiscal pressure in a democratic system which favours short-term thinking.”
Looking at the Northern Ireland context, energy analyst Leo Drollas says that the province should go ahead with fracking if commercially viable reserves are discovered. Drollas is Director and Chief Economist at the Centre for Global Energy Studies, based in London. He is a former Head of Energy Studies and Econometric Analysis at BP.
In terms of natural resources, Northern Ireland is “fuel-poor” and “if you’ve got a resource, you mustn’t allow it to be in the ground.” He acknowledges that the environmental cost of production needs to be “minimised” with the ground returned to its natural state when operations end. Predictions that US shale gas will cut energy prices in Europe may be too optimistic, according to Drollas, as rising domestic demand will limit the level of exports into the global market.
The general consensus among energy analysts is that the US shale gas revolution will cut energy prices in Europe. America would run a surplus and have large quantities of LNG available for export.
Drollas, though, dissents: “My contention is that as supply keeps on rising, demand catches up with it and then the imports don’t decline to zero.”
As a result, LNG exports from the USA probably will not happen at the expected rate and less LNG will come into Europe than would be expected.
“The evidence against the industry is so strong that I feel confident in predicting that fracking for shale gas will never become a viable industry in Northern Ireland,” Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland Director James Orr contends.
The most compelling argument is the move from generating almost all electricity from fossil fuels to generating most of it from renewables: “Fossil fuels simply have to be phased out if we are to deal with the climate crisis.”
Orr cites the “chronic lack” of evidence put forward by the fracking industry and “quite ludicrous” claims by Tamboran e.g. critics are “anti-jobs”, fracking will not affect biodiversity, no proven record of contamination, cheap gas for Fermanagh.
“Global market dynamics means that demand soaks up existing supplies,” he says of prices, “never mind the obvious market imperative that we are tied into a European gas market and prices will not be impacted by relatively short-term and small supplies from here.”
He also questions the effectiveness of Northern Ireland’s regulatory system. Sixty per cent of applications for mineral extraction are retrospective – with no planning permission sought in advance. Orr states: “It is reasonable to assume that if we cannot regulate conventional risks, then it is difficult to comprehend how we could manage such a controversial and potentially dangerous activity such as fracking.”