Good news! Fracking doesn’t cause earthquakes. Or, to be more precise, hydraulic fracturing for gas is not a significant cause of felt seismic activity. Or, to be even more precise, it does cause earthquakes, but it’s not one of the biggest man-made causes of large (that is, noticeable at the surface) earthquakes. A new study shows that fracking can reactivate dormant faults, but if frackers use 3D seismic imaging, then according to Richard Davies, director of the Durham Energy Institute and study leader, they ‘can avoid faults that are critically stressed and already near breaking point”.
But, the good news is that fracking is safe. Apart from the risk of well casing leaks, which can contaminate water supplies. But this only happens rarely. To quote Robert Jackson, Professor of environmental sciences at Duke University in the US, – “Some people might say 5% but one study suggested as many as half of all wells have sustained casing pressure, suggesting there is something wrong.” So not all that rarely, but if a well is fracked near you there’s a good chance, probably better than evens, that it won’t contaminate your local aquifer..
We’re not sure whether the new study looked at the risk of relatively minor seismic activity damaging well casings, as happened in Cuadrilla’s well in Lancashire. Unfortunately, the study isn’t publicly available, which is particularly unfortunate as Davies has received a lot of funding from the fossil fuel industry, and so any lack of transparency is likely to encourage uncharitable speculation. Professor Jackson at Duke thinks that transparency is key to successfully developing the shale gas industry.
So, a couple of minor risks there, or one minor risk and one major risk, but these need to be put in the context of the potential benefits.
Unfortunately, fracking won’t reduce UK consumers’ gas bills, as it has in the US. This is because US shale gas has, until recently, been produced for domestic use only, whereas gas fracked in the UK would be sold on the international markets, and would be far too small in quantity to affect European wholesale gas prices. Furthermore, most of the main fracking companies in the US are currently losing money, so there does appear to be a small risk that we’ll devastate our countryside and water supplies without anyone even making a profit out of it. But hey, it’s their money. Apart from the generous tax breaks being given to them by Osborne, but let’s not nit-pick.
Some gas companies will probably make some money.
And, most importantly, gas is lower carbon than coal.
Unfortunately (sorry, that word again), whilst burning gas produces less in the way of emissions than burning coal, fracking gas seems to release a lot of ‘fugitive’ methane into the atmosphere, which is a Greenhouse gas is 25 times as potent as CO2. So on a life-cycle analysis, fracked gas may actually be higher carbon than coal – indeed, the field research into this problem indicates exactly that.
Proponents of fracking tend to respond to these concerns by claiming that the UK’s regulatory regime for gas extraction is far stricter than that in the US, and would root out the problems of drilling over seismic faults, damaged well casings, contaminated water supplies, toxic radioactive waste water and fugitive methane emissions. To be fair, the US regulations do seem to amount to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, and you’d hope that we could do better than that. But actually, we haven’t.
We don’t have a fully developed regulatory regime for fracking yet. We have one for off-shore drilling run by the Health and Safety Executive, with inspectors based in Scotland, but they have no funding or expertise for random onshore inspections, and have yet to inspect any of Cuadrilla’s well casings. It’s even been alleged that they can’t inspect wells in Lancashire as they don’t have enough petrol money to drive down there. That, Ms Morrisette, is ironic.
So, there is a possibility that the government could institute a strict regulatory regime which would demand 3D seismic imaging to avoid faults, frequent inspections, including of well casings which the Royal Society’s fracking study concluded should be the ‘highest priority’, close monitoring of fugitive emissions, and, most importantly, mandatory measures to prevent them. But there’s not much possibility of gas frackers making money under that regime.
Fracking has so many unresolved issues, it seems highly unlikely that it could occur in the UK without creating more than one serious pollution problem. As Richard Davies of the Durham Energy Institute says –
“Compared with everything else, seismicity is fairly unimportant in fracking.”