To frack or not to frack
Can America’s shale-gas revolution be repeated in Europe? The furore over earthquakes and chemicals has obscured more important issues.
Frack Off! Don’t poison my babies!” Wielded by a protester at Barton Moss on the outskirts of Manchester, the sign encapsulates growing public discontent over hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking. This natural-gas extraction technology, already well established in the United States, has sparked an outcry across Europe from campaigners who believe it causes earthquakes, pollutes drinking water and scars the countryside.
At Barton Moss, the energy company IGas is drilling exploratory boreholes to discover whether porous shale rock formations beneath the site contain gas. To tap any resources there, the company would drill down to the shale – perhaps several kilometres deep – and then horizontally into the rock, before pumping in water and chemicals at high pressure to shatter the rock, freeing the gas so that it can escape to the surface.
Fracking has had a dramatic impact in the U.S., with estimated recoverable shale gas resources of 10 to 45 trillion m³. Domestic gas prices have plummeted and the industry already supports around one million jobs, contributing an estimated $76 billion to GDP. Most important, the exploitation of this new resource has put America on the road to energy independence.
Advocates say that a similar revolution could occur in Europe. The region has somewhere between 2 and 18 trillion m³ of technically recoverable shale gas, although further exploratory drilling will be needed to reduce that geological uncertainty and assess whether the reserves are economically viable. In Poland, for example, early estimates put recoverable shale-gas resource at 5.3 trillion m³, though drilling companies have now revised that downwards by 90%. In contrast, drilling company Cuadrilla announced in March that the UK – which lifted a one-year moratorium on fracking in December 2012 – may have much greater shale gas reserves than initially believed, perhaps more than 9 trillion m³ – enough to meet the country’s needs for almost a century.
Yet many countries have strongly opposed fracking. France and Bulgaria have imposed a complete ban on the process, citing environmental concerns. “A lot of other countries are looking to see what the UK does,” says Liam Herringshaw, a member of the ReFINE research consortium at Durham University, UK, which launched in November 2013 to investigate concerns about fracking.
Those concerns include the possibility that fracking could cause earthquakes or contaminate groundwater with the cocktail of chemicals, including lubricants and antimicrobial agents, contained in fracking fluid. “About half of the injected fracking fluid comes back to the surface, but there’s a lot of uncertainty about where the rest goes,” says Herringshaw.
Water returning from deep underground can also bear radioactive isotopes drawn from the rocks. “You wouldn’t want to drink it,” concedes Zoe Shipton, a geologist at the University of Strathclyde, who co-authored a 2012 report on shale gas for the UK’s Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. But all these chemicals occur in trace quantities and are easily cleaned from the water using conventional treatment methods, she says.
Shipton suggests that the furore over earthquakes and chemicals has obscured more important issues. “The main things that have been raised are not the same as the main things that are actually problematic,” she says.
One genuine risk is that methane can leak from the well. The boreholes are lined with steel and concrete to ensure than no gas can seep out into surrounding rock layers as it rises through the pipe. Last year, however, U.S. researchers found traces of methane in 80% of the shallow drinking-water wells close to fracking sites that they tested. They concluded that the methane was probably leaking into the water from faulty well casings, a problem that they say is relatively simple to fix. If methane escapes to the atmosphere, it is also a powerful greenhouse gas. A recent U.S. survey found that older wells tended to be very leaky, although newer wells with emissions-control measures captured 99% of the methane.
“Hydraulic fracturing has been used for more than 60 years,” notes Johann Plank, an expert at the Technische Universität München (TUM). “More than a million operations have been made with no serious incidents. Fracking is clearly less risky than drilling, which also takes place in the exploitation of traditional fossil resources.” Perhaps the biggest worry is that burning shale gas in power stations will contribute to climate change. In the U.S., increased shale gas use has helped lower carbon-dioxide emissions by replacing dirtier coal, “but the coal doesn’t disappear,” says Shipton. Instead, it is exported and burned elsewhere – including the EU.
Drilling in someone’s back yard
Although the fracking debate has focused mainly on safety, politicians must also consider broader questions about whether the American model can be transplanted to Europe, says Arnoud van Waes, a technology assessment researcher at the Rathenau Institute in The Hague who co-authored a 2013 policy report on shale gas with researchers at the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e). Fracking brings heavy vehicles and noise pollution. Most European countries have a higher population density than fracking sites in North America, so “you’re more likely to be drilling in someone’s back yard,” says van Waes. Public opinion is far from convinced. “In Germany, fracking has had negative media coverage from the start,” says TUM’s Johann Plank.
The economic conditions are also very different. Unlike most European countries, the U.S. already had a well-established onshore drilling industry, so fracking operations could be set up quickly and cheaply. Another factor is that American landowners, unlike Europeans, typically own the mineral rights on their property, giving them a huge incentive to allow exploration.
Nor is shale gas necessarily cheaper than conventional gas. The shale boom did depress gas prices in the U.S., but that was a consequence of the richest reserves being tapped first, producing a sudden glut that was difficult to export. “It’s a clear effect of having a surplus on the market,” says van Waes. “The economic advantages in the long term are still quite unclear.”
A 2013 report from the Post Carbon Institute in Santa Rosa, California, also suggests that the U.S. shale gas revolution could be short-lived. It pointed out that production costs were beginning to outstrip gas prices, and that wells were often played out in just a few years.
For all these reasons, fracking may be adopted slowly in Europe, if at all. “It’s really down to economics, politics and social acceptance,” says Shipton. On the political front, fracking would make Europe less dependent on Russian gas exports, giving it more leverage in international affairs.
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