Earthquakes vs C02: the future of fracking

Andrew Mourant

France has banned fracking outright, while the USA is forging ahead with shale gas extraction, delighted at having found a new source of domestic energy. But do the benefits of fracking outweigh the hazards?

A bonanza that will bring energy security? Or a destructive process fraught with environmental hazards? The debate grows more heated – and complex – as countries around the world exploit the possibilities of shale gas through hydraulic fracture, known better as fracking. 

Environmentalists see this latest dash for gas as deflecting governments from pursuing green policies: the prospect of energy security may compromise the legal imperative to deal with global emissions of CO2. And yet in America, where fracking is seen widely as a godsend allowing the country to regain self-sufficiency in energy, carbon emissions have fallen. As fracking has taken hold, coal burning, a notorious polluter, has declined. 

There may be encouragement here for other countries – China, where exploratory fracking began in 2011, could, potentially, have double America’s reserves. Currently its coal-fired power stations are major polluters. And yet France, also rich in subterranean shale, has rejected fracking. A legal ban imposed in 2011 was reasserted in July 2013 by President François Hollande amid a court challenge to overturn it by Schuepbach Energy. 

The US company held two exploration permits that were cancelled when the ban was enforced. Hollande’s objection has, ostensibly, been on environmental grounds. Schuepbach’s action has now been referred to France’s Constitutional Council, comprising judges and former French presidents. 

France has long had a singular approach to energy, pursuing self-sufficiency through nuclear power stations in response to the oil price crisis of the early 1970s. Exploiting shale through fracking might help underpin that independence. The ban has created political division. When industry minister Arnaud Montebourg suggested creating a state-backed company to examine shale exploration, he was overruled by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. 

In Germany, perhaps the developed world’s most advanced supplier of green energy, geologists believe there is scope to make fracking more ‘environmentally friendly’. They aim to change hostile public opinion, and demonstrate that fracking can be less harmful if reduced volumes of water and biological alternatives are used, as opposed to the chemicals that are currently injected deep underground. Their thinking is echoed in the USA by the Shale Gas Roundtable, based at the University of Pittsburgh. It recently called on industry as well as federal and state governments to prioritise development of biodegradable ‘green’ fracturing fluids. This would “minimise the potential harm to natural-gas workers and potential environmental damage… from surface spills or underground migration of fracturing chemicals or flowback water”. 

Experts at Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) estimate that the country may be sitting on 1.3 billion cubic metres of gas trapped in shale rocks. And, despite strong environmental objections to fracking, many Germans are alarmed at high domestic energy bills, inflated by the subsidies given to green sources of power. The Renewable Energy Sources Act of 2000 established guaranteed payments and feed-in tariffs, giving small-scale producers of green energy a fixed price for 20 years. Across Germany, co-operatives, farmers and homeowners are among the 1.3 million who cashed in. In 2012, given priority access to the national grid, they provided 22 per cent of Germany’s electricity. 

However, around 50 per cent of an average bill is now made up of taxes and levies for renewables. Critics say this ‘non-market’ system endangers the industrial base of Germany’s economy. And, perversely, there has been a polluting effect with big power producers resorting to the cheapest fuel sources such as brown coal. Last year, Germany’s CO2 emissions rose, despite renewables’ expanding market share. So what will happen? Angela Merkel’s government has already drawn up legislation laying out strict terms and conditions for shale gas explorations but this was put on hold until September’s elections. If it can be shown that cleaner, smarter ways of fracking are possible, that could yet sway public opinion. 

This summer fracking in the UK received a potential boost when the chancellor, George Osborne, announced a 30 per cent tax rate for shale gas producers – less than half the amount paid by the conventional oil and gas industry, and following the USA’s tax breaks lead. 

With coal-fired power stations being closed and new nuclear power plants behind schedule, the UK government is anxious to plug an energy gap. Renewable sources have suffered mixed fortunes, constantly at the mercy of changes in planning policy and subsidies. The domestic wind industry, already accused of being inefficient and scarring the landscape, was dealt a further blow in August when a United Nations legal tribunal ruled that the government had acted illegally by denying the public decision-making powers over approving wind farm applications. Environmental lawyers now fear that consents and permissions for further UK developments are liable to be challenged. 

Meanwhile, as fracking looks forward to tax breaks, the UK’s solar industry is in a state of flux, with companies hurrying to create large-scale installations of panels before a government subsidy is cut in March 2014. The UK only has 2.6 GW of solar power capacity, much of it small-scale domestic rooftop solar panels. With the sun at its peak this summer, Germany generated almost 24 GW. But applications for large developments in the countryside now face stricter planning guidelines – and this comes at a time when panel costs have declined sharply and solar shows signs of competing economically with non-renewable sources. 

Amid the high stakes that surround fracking, truth can become a casualty. Where it has already been carried out extensively – in western Canada and the United States (though last year it was banned in Vermont) – there have been many claims and counterclaims about the extent of environmental damage. Concerns that fracking triggers earth tremors and pollutes aquifers are well-documented. In the UK, the Geological Society has concluded that shale gas extraction is safe if best practice is “rigorously applied”. Before exploration and production, surveys should establish natural levels of micro-seismicity and the presence of methane in soils and near-surface aquifers, says the Geological Society. No one knows the full extent of UK shale gas reserves and how much can be extracted economically. “If it were to substitute for the burning of coal, there would be a potentially beneficial reduction in CO2 emissions,” says the Geological Society. However, it stresses the urgent need to demonstrate carbon capture and storage on a commercial scale, and quickly, if the UK is to remain dependent on fossil fuels. 

Questions surrounding environmental damage are complex – the subject of several studies. One was in British Colombia following 31 ‘anomalous’ seismic events, earthquakes, between April 2009 and July 2011, in an established fracking zone around the Horn River Basin. These registered between 2.2 and 3.8 on the Richter scale. The study concluded that fracking was responsible. However, there were no reports of injuries or property damage, with only one quake reported at the surface. In 2011, around 50 minor fracking-related quakes were reported at the Bowland Shale near Blackpool, England, and a similar number in Garvin County, Oklahoma. While no evidence was found of shallow aquifers being  contaminated, there have been widespread claims of fracking-related water pollution in Pennsylvania, a major centre for US shale gas exploitation. Moreover, fracking has serious implications for water sources – the process requires millions of litres. Yet this demand comes when climate change is creating uncertainty about supplies; companies will have to compete with farming, household and industrial use. 

It is another, significant, controversy in the mix. Perhaps the only certainty is that the debates – whether fracking’s benefits outweigh the possible damage to our planet – are here to stay.


About the author:

Andrew Mourant is a freelance journalist whose specialisms include international business and renewable energy


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