Challenging the ‘delusion’ of cheap, safe shale gas extraction

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Will Scotland end up in the (fracking) pocket of Donald Trump and Theresa May? In the latest of our running series of articles covering the subject, Professors Alex Russell and Peter Strachan present the case against.

There are distinct similarities between the 1848-1855 gold rush and the recent US frenzied rush to tear apart its shallow shale beds regardless of cost to people and the environment. Greed drives the free world to the strangest activities which are then justified by the buying of scientific ‘objective’ evidence in support of its folly.

Prof Alex Russell
Prof Alex Russell

Both ‘rushes’ were short lived and mining communities sprang up only to disappear again with the low oil price being the culprit in the case of shale fracking around 2014. True, the US shale industry is fighting a rallying rearguard action to restart large scale production. Unfortunately the US-led shale revolution and its resultant production turf war with OPEC (basically Saudi), which drove down oil prices, has been the single biggest reason for the loss of 120,000 North Sea oil-related jobs.

An alternative and credible explanation for the sustained drop in prices is that the US decided it could live with low oil prices in the short-to-medium term and cooperated with its ally Saudi Arabia to reduce oil prices and thereby attempt to bring oil dependent Russia and Iran to their economic knees for reasons connected with issues in the Ukraine, the Crimea and in Syria. In both scenarios US action has led to UK North Sea job losses.

Incredibly, Westminster has been so transfixed by the overhyped so-called special relationship between the UK and the US that rather than saying ‘wait a minute you guys, what the hell are you doing’, they beg for a piece of the shale action. It seems that the UK government is happy to abandon the North Sea  to focus their full attention on fracking apart the onshore shale beds of England and Scotland.

Being shallow in depth, fracking involves drilling mile after mile horizontally into the shale and carrying out explosions on the way, then injecting a water driven toxic mixture of sand and chemicals to keep open the pores of the shattered shale beds that have taken nature millions of years to put in place.  The prospect of seeing pollution of our aquifer, air pollution from the leakage of methane and benzene from probably 5% of the thousands of wells based on the US experience, the problem of disposal of contaminated sludge, and thousands of journeys by heavy lorries, and earthquakes, is as unedifying as setting up home on Scotland’s Gruinard Island shortly after it was contaminated by biological warfare testing by the British military in 1942.

Prof Peter Strachan
Prof Peter Strachan

Little wonder that, from Lancashire in England to Glasgow in Scotland, communities  are fiercely disputing the wild claims and railroading tactics of the Tories and shale industry, that fracking will ensure security of gas supply and further be good for the economy and environment. Does anyone really believe that all will be well and any public health risks can be effectively regulated away in such a politically charged business vortex?

Toxic affairs

To believe that onshore gas will keep the lights on, and our homes warm for decades ahead, is surely living in a dream world.  Significant doubts remain over how much of this resource can actually be economically extracted and the US shale fiasco indicates any UK venture would be a short lived and toxic affair.

The financial viability of any reserves found are very much dependent on current and future oil and gas prices.  In addition, UK shale gas extraction will be more expensive than that produced in the US and there is a real danger that the industry will require such high levels of public subsidy that it will end up costing taxpayers and consumers dearly.

The likely short-term nature of extractable reserves and the financial viability of them has led all credible energy experts to conclude that UK onshore fracked gas will not lower electricity and heating bills!

Bringing home the bacon? 

Sustained lower international oil and gas prices are working against the economics of the UK shale industry.

Significant levels of private finance will be required to build new pipelines and storage facilities, and to buy kit including fracking rigs, haulage and other specialist equipment.  But with the ongoing financial problems experienced by the US shale and conventional oil industries resulting in the near catastrophic write down in the value of their reserves, it is likely that neither the UK nor the international banking sector would be willing to provide affordable finance to get the industry started in any big way.

A further problem in the UK is that no skilled supply chain exists, and it will require significant diversification by a range of sectors including: production; engineering; haulage; storage; and, facilities management.  This supply chain can be developed but it will take time and add to the operating costs of the industry.

One of the specially-built "Tiger ships" that is taking shale gas to Grangemouth for processing (Photo: INEOS)
One of the specially-built “Tiger ships” that is taking shale gas to Grangemouth for processing (Photo: INEOS)

Significant sums of public money will also need to be invested.   New and improved road infrastructure will be required to avoid congestion and accommodate thousands of lorry journeys. Hundreds of journeys are required to transfer the millions of gallons of water required to frack just one pad, and then to remove the byproduct of highly toxic sludge. As existing treatment facilities will not be able to cope, significant amounts of public money will be required to build new ones.

Even if the private and public finance does become available high capital and operating expenditure will reduce the amount of tax take for the Treasury.  If any profits are eventually generated they may well be channeled offshore to overseas investors, who are likely to have provided the upfront finance.

There may be some short-term job creation and the use of skilled people from the offshore oil industry, that could boast Pay as You Earn (PAYE) tax take, but these jobs will be subject to volatile gas and oil prices, and are likely to be short lived. In the current downturn in the North Sea, tens of thousands of jobs have already been lost, with many more losses expected in the next two years.  Any future onshore industry will not be immune from such employment shocks.  Finally, it is also likely that the industry would favor American frackers, and we could see a flood of unemployed shale workers come to the UK, with little net benefit to employment here.

Dishes, drinks and desires fit for the Gods

In the US, fracking has been associated with damaging environmental and public health impacts. There is every likelihood that UK fracking would adversely affect other key industries such as tourism, food and drink.  These sensory delightful and desirable sectors are highly dependent on England and Scotland’s reputations for having a beautiful natural environment free of harmful water, land and air pollution. For UK Plc fracking will undoubtedly damage the aforementioned sectors and the brands that they have cultivated over generations. For example, would Chinese and Japanese consumers be so keen to buy high quality Scots malt whiskey distilled in a fracking contaminated UK, whether or not the distillery was near a fracking play?

A fossil-fools future

Even if onshore gas extraction can eventually prove to be economically feasible, the benefits accrued by the Treasury and the few people who will share the spoils, must be balanced against the need to protect the climate and public health.  One major concern here is that opening up new fossil fuel reserves is incompatible with the need to cut global carbon emissions. Burning new fossil fuels will merely lock us in to a fossil-fools future.  It will certainly derail our low carbon transition.

Even with a world leading environmental protection agency, the US has seen significant regulatory and permitting failings.  These violations have resulted in significant environmental, safety and public health concerns. If one looks to the State of Pennsylvania for example, it provides a clear case of the very destructive effects of onshore shale gas extraction.

I’m all right Jack

In the UK we are told that all will be “ok” and that we have learnt from the US experience and can formulate appropriate regulatory oversight.  But if one takes time to reflect on UK environmental and health protection over the past 200 years, it soon becomes clear that it can take years, decades, and sometimes generations, for appropriate safeguards to be formulated and put in place.  The activities of the fracking industry are no different and it is delusory to think otherwise.

Westminster, perhaps contaminated with too close ties to the fracking fraternity, seems hell bent on forcing fracking on its disbelieving countryside communities. For a whole raft of cogently argued reasons, Scotland has so far boldly imposed a moratorium on fracking. The world will look and wonder if Scotland has the backbone to continue its principled and indeed economically sound stance. Does Scotland dare to oppose a Donald Trump- and Theresa May-type view of the (fracking) world? We certainly hope so. To do otherwise may be a cause for deep regret.

Professor Alex Russell is Chair of the Oil Industry Finance Association. Peter Strachan (follow me on Twitter @ProfStrachan) is Professor of Energy Policy, Robert Gordon University.

Editor’s Note: The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Robert Gordon University or Affiliates.

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37 COMMENTS

    • Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I always try and read every comment. Thank you.
      Best wishes for now, Peter

  1. Great to have a valuable explanation of the fracking issue, from two acknowledged experts in their field. We need more information from all sides of the shale gas row so that we are well informed. Thanks Newsnet.

    • Thank you for reading our article and taking the time to leave a comment.
      Best wishes for now, Peter

  2. The best ways for Scottish consumers to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and help to reduce our carbon footprint is to switch to electric cars and to invest in solar panels.
    Admittedly, only the upper 50% of households can afford to do this, but they are the household that consume the most petrol and diesel, and use the most electricity, so the impact will be greater.

    • The upper 50% are also less likely to try to stop the dash for gas!
      Greed of the few at the expense of the rest.
      Tory heartlands are in for a shock when they realise that the southern commuter belts are all on the list of PEDL licences up for grabs.

    • Thank you for leaving this important comment. My own vision is 100 per cent renewables across electricity, heating and transport. Clearly, we remain at the very early stages of this “great” energy transition.
      Best wishes for now, Peter

  3. Even the Saudi’s recognise that fossil fuel days are numbered and are investing in renewables.
    Oil created great wealth for a small minority of people,renewables,done on a local scale,will benefit everyone.
    For those of us living in Northern Europe,energy is not just a commodity but essential to human existence,which inevitably means public subsidies in one form or another.
    It is just a case of how much and which sector offers the best return and security for the public purse.

    • Thank you for leaving this comment about renewables and communities. I think local communities must play a key role in the “great” energy transition. This is why I have written extensively on community renewables over the years. Published my first article in the academic journal “Regional Studies” in 2003 on this important topic. I am currently researching off grid renewables in rural communities in Nigeria, with a PhD student. We are investigating how to promote social and economic development via community renewable initiatives in the oil rich Niger Delta.
      Best wishes for now, Peter

  4. A bit disappointing really – light on facts and a bit heavy on innuendo and emotion for me, certainly as far as fracking itself is concerned.

    • Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. Please see my further comments below. Hope these are more helpful.
      Best wishes for now, Peter

  5. I have a question. The shale gas being imported from the US by Ineos is being used to manufacture plastics, not to heat homes or businesses. I remember that when the country switched from coal gas to North Sea gas there was a significant investment required to allow existing appliances to use the new fuel. Will this be a requirement with shale gas? Can it be used as a direct substitute for NS gas or even mixed with it, or will it continue to be used solely in manufacturing?

    • Very good question AW! We plan to commission pieces from a range of people (in addition to those published already) and we’ll add that to the list of questions to be addressed. Thanks. Ed

    • It is the same stuff as North Sea gas, so will require no modifications.

      In geological terms, the shale is largely where the gas is produced. It then migrates when it can into sandstone traps, where it’s easily removed by conventional drilling. Sometimes the gas is unable to migrate, or hasn’t has time to (geoligical time), and remains trapped in the shale – where it can be extracted with the aid of fracking.

  6. There’s considerable overlap in the techniques used in fracking and in North Sea drilling. Multiple drill heads; chemicals used to free up more oil; liquids pumped under pressure and temperature to increase yield.
    I do understand that fracking gives yields over a vastly shorter timescale (many fracking sites will only produce for a year or so before yields fall off).
    Would the profs care to do a ‘compare and contrast’ to help illuminate the arguments?

    • Great point. You are basically correct. Professor Russell is the expert on this one though. It might be worthy of an article on its own right. This is exactly why I read all comments. Thanks for this. Best wishes for now, Peter

  7. you people need to grow out of the dark ages, and enter into reality. Fracking has NOT caused any earthquakes – there is ABSOLUTELY NO EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT THIS. If it was up to you, we’d still be riding horse back !

  8. There is something I would like to ask the authors of this eye-opening article about shale gas. My question has to do with the requirement of fresh water to perform fracking.

    After reading the basics of fracking in internet and also some of the environmental consequences in places like Wyoming, besides becoming alarmed by the potential risk of contamination of the air we breath, the soil we use to grow our food and the water we drink, I was also alarmed by the enormous amounts of water that seem to be required for the process. If I have read correctly elsewhere, between 2 and 8 million gallons of water are required just to frack a single well. That is an awful lot of water and fresh water is not simply a commodity but an absolute essential for life. Soon enough it will be more valuable than oil.

    We know that, for now, Scotland has a moratorium in fracking, which I would like to see transformed into a total ban at least for residential and near residential areas, parks and areas of ecological interest. But, sadly, the same has not been reciprocated in England, with fracking in different areas due to start soon.

    While shortage of fresh water in Scotland has not been a problem, there are a few instances in recent years when it has been a problem for England. I came across an article in the BBC in 2011 (Boris Johnson: Move Welsh and Scottish water to England) where Mr Boris Johnson advocated for the transference of water from Scotland and Wales to London. Mr Johnson was cited again in another BBC article in 2012 (Drought summit: Why not pipe the water from north to south?). A similar idea of water transfer was referred to in an article of the guardian in 2013 (“A supercanal from Scotland to London could help to solve water scarcity”)

    Scotland has been presented often enough by Unionists as a basket case, too poor to survive on its own and that it can only do so thanks to the current subsides it gets from the public purse of the rest of the UK through the Barnett formula. The insistence of the same unionists from down south to keep Scotland firmly stuck within the union has made me continuously question since 18 September 2014 what could possibly be the reason for those unionists down south to want to keep Scotland in this union at all costs. Oil industry has been badly affected by the government’s ill decisions as the authors above say, so I am wondering if it is in fact the amount of fresh water that Scotland has at its disposal what it makes it indispensable.

    I would like to ask the authors/editors, that, considering the levels of water required for fracking and the potential risks of water shortage, if in their opinion England can rely on its own pools of fresh water to feed their fracking industry needs or, in their opinion, it is only the transfer of water from Scotland/Wales what could ensure that this industry will be viable in the long term.

    I admit my total ignorance in the technical process of fracking so I apologise before hand if my question comes across as completely irrelevant or out of place.

    Thank you

  9. When I asked the Ineos Upstream executives about their views on the amount of water required in fracking, they dismissed it as if it was trivial. I don’t consider billions of gallons as trivial. It has to be injected under extremely high pressure to fracture the shale. Silica sand to keep the fractures open, and various chemicals are added. The waste water that has to be disposed of, includes many other toxic components from these deep wells, including radioactive wate.
    Even without fracking, the giant petrochemical plant at Grangemouth uses a lot more water than the city of Glasgow.

  10. Only the greedy big business would want to do this peoples health and lives mean nothing to them only their god spelt goLd means anything to them people should let them know that they will not put up with this after all if someone is threatning my life I have a right to defend myselfe in any way I can so to me this is no different they are puting my life and health at,risk I will not stand by and allow that to happen

    • Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment on our article. Remember “peaceful” protest please.
      Best wishes for now, Peter

  11. I’m very disappointed at the emotive and scare mongering language used in the article. Not very professorial. In fact it reminds me of a lot of the way unionists project anti- independence arguments. Doom, gloom and disaster, and sideline the facts.

    You get a D-, professors.

  12. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-07/documents/hf_es_erd_jun2015.pdf

    Very disappointing article. I’m amazed at the emotive language, lack of evidence and the extremely biased and questionable links to Greenpeace, environmentamerica.org, Gasland etc (Gasland ?! … a credible source ? really ?).

    As the link to the EPA report shows, there is no evidence that fracking causes contamination of water supplies (1 or 2 specific examples perhaps, but there are thousands of fracked wells across North America). With all of the media attention and Saudi resources, still no evidence or widespread problems ??

    In my opinion, this is a very poor and extremely biased piece of work. I can only assume that the authors are attempting to support the UK offshore Oil and Gas sector and prevent onshore production. Articles like this do not help the serious debate on what to do about global warming and how we seek to ensure a sustainable energy supply now and for the future.

    • Thank you and I welcome your comments and feedback.

      Government, business and the general public are only now starting to understand the impacts of shale gas developments on public health, the environment and climate.

      The scientific literature that is available has mostly been published since 2013. One recent article that comprehensively reviewed this rapidly expanding field has produced some fairly definitive answers in the following areas: Health Impact; Water Quality; and, Air Quality.

      For the sake of brevity the results are as follows: 84 per cent of the literature on health revealed public health hazards, elevated risks, or health impacts;

 69 per cent of the literature indicated positive associations or actual evidence of water contamination; and,

 87 per cent found elevated air pollutants and atmospheric concentrations of pollutants.

      You can read the article for yourself (it is publicly available): Toward an Understanding of the Environmental Health Impacts of Unconventional Natural Gas Development.

      Gaps in data do remain however. Multiple reasons including: inappropriate regulation and monitoring by government and regulatory bodies. Further, a lack of public disclosure of health, water and air data by industry. In addition, where companies have settled claims gagging orders are often in place. So further details are never made public.

      For me at least based upon the scientific evidence that we have available right now: case closed. The impacts of shale gas are bad for our health, environment and climate. So to conclude I believe a “Precautionary” approach should be adopted and my opinion piece reflects this.

      Thank you again. I am thoroughly delighted you have taken the time to post a comment. It is really important for us to have a good and thorough public debate on this important topic.

      Best wishes for now, Peter

      • Thank you again for leaving a comment and feedback. Hopefully I have now provided you with a more thorough evidence base. Thought that I should also clarify on the EPA point you make.

        First, you should take the time and read the EPA report fully including its research base, and its conclusions.

        In addition you should read a very detailed letter and report – publicly available from the EPA’s own Science Board – dated 11th August 2016 – challenging an important statement in the Executive Summary of the report.

        The Science Board states: “The Scientific Advisory Board finds that several major summary findings do not clearly, concisely, and accurately describe the findings….The SAB finds that these major findings are presented ambiguously within the Executive Summary and appear inconsistent with the observations, data, and levels of uncertainty presented and discussed in the body of the text.”

        As such the EPA’s own Science Board (26 of 29 members) – and a peer reviewer of the report – have concluded to The Honourable Gina McCarthy at the EPA, that certain Executive Summary statements should be retracted/amended. These comments have been very widely carried in the international media, with the report being condemned by many.

        Hope this brief additional information helps.

        Best wishes for now, Peter

    • Mark – The EPA has been effectively neutered by a Republican dominated congress and Senate with strong O&G interests… obscuring much of the real data on shale fracking. Then there are exemptions by law from being allowed to rule / give evidence on particular findings. So they became skilled at avoiding records that point back to the O&G industry as sources of both groundwater and air pollution. Time and again you see cases of them having pulled out of investigations that would lead to conclusive liabilities. Now Trump and FF/climate-denying collaborators plan to get rid of the EPA all together (with all those restrictive protection laws!). What this retired EPA employee Wes Wilson has to say about their practices is extraordinary, the EPA has been hamstrung for a long time… ‘Truth about Fracking’ : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7XgoekcrBw

  13. …and to top it all they polute the word ‘Whisky’ with an ‘e’ in it. *Scotch malt Whiskey” is incorrect. It is either Scotch (whisky), or it is whiskey (Irish or American). The latter tasting like it has already been fracked. Learned indeed!

  14. Brilliant comment. You made my day. Thank you. I must confess to being teetotal. Will refer your comment back to my coauthor (a Whisky drinker) and give him an appropriate scolding! Might the editor delete the “e” to avoid further annoyance to Allan and all fellow Malt Whisky drinkers? Thanks in advance. Best wishes for now, Peter

  15. Thanks to everyone who has left a comment and to the many other people who have read this short opinion piece.

    I always try and read every comment and to respond when I can.

    Thank you again,

    Peter

  16. Thanks to everyone who supported our #BanFracking Thunderclap on Sunday. Social Reach > 2.8 million people and it was Trending. My final Twitter Moments (don’t forget to click on link and share): ⚡️ “People Are Rejecting Fracking EVERYWHERE! #BanFracking” by @ProfStrachan. Thanks again!
    https://twitter.com/i/moments/818272430728900609

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