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Energy firms will not be selling shale gas to customers cheaply

By Somerset Standard  |  Posted: November 01, 2012

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In response to the letter "Fracking will help cut bills", we feel utterly saddened that this reportage of Tom Preece's talk on fracking has perpetuated such nonsense.

We attended that talk, and Mr Preece most certainly did not say that gas coming out of a water pipe was due to use of an elderly oil pump – he said it was most likely due to poor fracking practice. And what he did tell us is that the only thing protecting our water supply from pollution is a layer of cement!

The risks associated with extreme energy extraction are not manageable because eventually all wells leak!

Duncan Campbell could ask himself what possible personal gain us "eco-activists" will get from trying to prevent fracking compared to those who are promoting it. These energy companies are not intending to provide people with cheap heat – they are in the business of making insanely large profits at the expense of others' health and wellbeing, as has already happened in the US.

Nor is fracking "a low-carbon option" – burning any kind of hydrocarbon, whether oil or gas, only adds to the growing climate chaos that people all around our precious planet are already experiencing; we urge readers to research fracking for themselves and to think about the future for the sake of our children and children's children. A starting place might be www.frackfreesomerset.org.

Actually there are many alternative options for generating energy without contributing to climate change – and other European countries, such as Denmark and Germany, are already pursuing this strategy, whilst simultaneously creating jobs within the green energy sector. If our present government had any sense, they would do the same.

As a footnote: we hope that Frome Town Council's success in declaring Frome "a frack-free-zone" will inspire councils the world over!

ALEX HART and HELEN MOORE

Frome Anti-fracking

I am writing to express my concern at the actions of Frome Town Council in declaring a "frack-free" zone, which appears to be based on biased propaganda rather than any consideration of the facts that relate to the debate surrounding shale gas extraction and hydraulic fracturing.

Shale gas extraction should not be described as a form of "extreme energy", using "a lot of energy in order to get just a bit more energy back". In fact, fracking a well takes only a few hours. A recent life-cycle emissions analysis by the European Commission has indicated locally-produced shale gas has no worse a climate change impact than LNG transported from the Middle East, not to mention the economic and geo-political impacts of producing our own gas, rather than buying from foreign regimes with dubious human-rights records.

The biggest objection raised against fracking is the issue of groundwater contamination, usually spurred by the dramatic images of flaming taps available on YouTube, where water loaded with methane can be set on fire. However, these videos usually fail to mention that methane contamination is in fact a common and natural occurrence in many parts of the US, and was so long before shale gas extraction came into the picture.

In fact, the US Environmental Protection Agency has documented only two proven incidences where shale gas extraction has caused water contamination: at Dimock, Pennsylvania, and Pavillion, Wyoming. At Dimock, the faulty well was identified, remedied, and contamination levels have now returned below acceptable minima. At Pavillion, the cause of the contamination is still uncertain, as different US agencies have attributed different causes, so investigations are still ongoing. The US Groundwater Protection Council has examined water contamination incidence rates due to onshore oil and gas wells, finding an incident rate less than 0.01 per cent.

The council's view is, apparently, that "the American experience points towards relatively small gains in energy at huge long and short term environmental cost". In fact, the experience in the USA has provided significant gains on both the local and national level.

On the local scale, once moribund rural areas are booming: the influx of workers has seen hotels fully booked for months in advance, full restaurants and bars, and every other service industry experiencing a similar boost. On a national scale, gas prices have tumbled by as much as 75 per cent, providing benefits not just for domestic consumers but also the many industries that use natural gas as a feedstock.

Meanwhile cheap gas prices have led power companies to switch from coal fired to gas fired power stations, resulting in a reduction in CO2 emissions to their lowest levels in 20 years.

It is commonly implied that oil and gas companies are devious, unreliable, and bad neighbours to have. However, in this case, companies proposing hydraulic fracturing have been remarkably open: all of the pertinent data from tests conducted by Cuadrilla in Blackpool are available on the Department for Energy and Climate Change website, as is the fracking fluid composition (of which, 99 per cent is H2O). In contrast, the opposition to shale gas has based its arguments on falsehoods, manipulated data and scary YouTube videos.

There is a need for a rational, evidence-driven debate about shale gas extraction in the South-West. However, by polarising the debate in this manner, environmentalists are preventing this from happening.

DR JAMES VERDON

Research Fellow: Natural Environment Research Council

School of Earth Sciences

University of Bristol

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  • OwainS  |  November 15 2012, 12:07PM

    Sorry, got my reserves and resources the wrong way round there, the paragraph should read: "In terms of the reserves/resources argument you offer, it is indeed true that only a fraction of the estimated resources can be economically extracted, and so are treatable as reserves. However, that fraction changes, especially with changes in technology (such as multi-stage hydro-fracking and horizontal drilling), and improved understanding of the deposit by exploration, which will convert resources into reserves. Because of this, it is conventional to quote resources, rather than reserves, as they are less likely to change significantly over time. I see you estimate this economically recoverable fraction as 1-5%. Care to provide a source for that figure?" We use a slightly different system in mineral exploration, and got it mixed up in my head. Sorry!

  • OwainS  |  November 14 2012, 8:53PM

    Hi ragmala, not sure why Wytch Farm being onshore or offshore seems so important to you, but when you're drilling from land, it's onshore, at least in petroleum industry jargon: see here: http://tinyurl.com/b6dz49g Definitely onshore. Whether or not the field itself is mostly under land, water or some mix of the two makes zero difference as to how you get the oil and gas out of the rocks, which are usually at a depth many mulitples of the water depth. Since the arguments about fracking are all to do with the methods used to extract the oil and gas from the rocks, then whether it's drilled from onshore or offshore is the important and relevant point, not the proportion of the field that lies under land/water. You also argued that James Verdon had stated that "on or offshore conventional oil drilling and extraction is identical to fracking unconventional gas techniques" when in fact he has said "much of the opposition to shale gas is not based on the methods unique to shale gas production (the high-volume hydraulic fracturing), but often talks mainly about methods common to all oil extraction - as above, where the topics are well logging, geophysical surveys, and more generally with issues about well completion integrity.", which clearly implies a difference in techniques between conventional and shale gas production. In terms of the reserves/resources argument you offer, it is indeed true that only a fraction of the estimated reserves can be economically extracted, and so are treatable as resources. However, that fraction changes, especially with changes in technology (such as multi-stage hydro-fracking and horizontal drilling), which will convert reserves into resources. Because of this, it is conventional to quote reserves, rather than resources, as they are less likely to change significantly over time. I see you estimate this economically recoverable fraction as 1-5%. Care to provide a source for that figure? So does this count as "something more than nitpicking" to your "lack of adherence to facts"? Owain Shave (geologist working in mineral exploration, and a friend of Dr Verdon, FYI)

  • ragamala  |  November 13 2012, 6:39PM

    Dr Verdon, you shift your ground with every post. Originally you said "Wytch Farm is the largest onshore field in the EU" now you don't seem to know about the field itself. Now all you admit you know is that drilling is conducted from the land. The resource is NOT onshore. It is this lack of adherence to facts which makes my criticism of your posts something more than nitpicking. Frankly to continue maintaining that on or offshore conventional oil drilling and extraction is identical to fracking unconventional gas techniques is setting yourself out on a lonely position. No one is arguing that any more, it seems to me, even from the industry side. "I wasn't aware that Wytch Farm was being used for propaganda purposes." I can only say - at the most charitable - that you are expressing naivity. I am glad you agree that especially with regard to fugitive methane emissions we have a large body of uncertainty. I think this goes a long way to making my point. Especially if all we are disagreeing on is terminology - ie estimates versus guesses. To return to the Cuadrilla issue. It's not only birds that aren't a strong point of yours, it's knowledge of the facts. You seem blissfully unaware that Cuadrilla wilfully breached their planning permission in two ways. Only one was related to the conditions relating to the nearby nature resevre. The second aspect, of overrunning their basic allowed time span, was totally unrelated to this. Please read the planning permission itself before making further erroneous comments on this issue. What is at stake here is not my wanting to ban fracking, which I have never said. What I have indeed implied is that I question your detail knowledge and your inability to back up the information you have provided under the banner of an academic qualification. Regarding Cuadrilla's economic benefits claimed to the local economy I note you admit no knowledge of this. If you want I can quote you figures they provided and a consultant response which may enlighten you. I thought my last post made it clear I was not willing to trade opinions on the forthcoming BGS estimates for shale gas reserves. However you want to bring up some figure of £1.5 trillion that was indeed bandied about in the press. The first thing to point out is that this ludicrous figure was purported to be the value of what was down there. This is a very different kettle of fish from what is recoverable. Even a generous estimate of recoverable gas would be 10% which would reduce the value to 150 billion, a fraction of the national debt. And if you consider recovery costs of this "value" the net worth would be far less. It is crazy that a figure should be quoted by yourself when you are, presumably, as ignorant as I am, about the actual reserves the BGS will reoprt, and not some fictitious "value". However, from your argument's point of view, it's worse than that. If we believe the Daily Mail and a Scottish paper report, "However, only about ten per cent of the shale gas is available for commercial exploitation because much of it has been found in heavily populated areas, such as..." in other words we are not looking at recoverability, and we assume that a realistic recovery figure is in reality between 1 and 5% of the reserve available, we are a far cry from the figure you quote. This is exactly why I suggested we should wait. £1.5 trillion is a pipe dream.

  • JamesVerdon  |  November 13 2012, 9:50AM

    I guess I should take the backhanded compliment of having "a penchant for facts". Better at least than being accused of "overlooking" or even "blissfully ignoring" facts, as your other comments have alleged. Similarly, this conversation began with me apparently 'totally ignoring' the EU Committee reports, but now you yourself want to argue that the information in the report should be discounted. I can only assume that you've had this change of heart because the data in the report does not support the story you want to tell. Of course they can only be estimates, but they are made with the best evidence available, so they shouldn't be discounted just because you don't like them. If anything given the more stringent EU regulations, estimated based on the US are likely to be an overestimate. Several different reports and papers have come to similar conclusions, the only one that hasn't, by Howarth and Ingraffea, has been widely criticised even by their colleagues at Cornell as using out of date data and poor assumptions. Unfortunately, one fact I do not have is the proportion of Wytch Farm that is under Poole Harbour, and what under land. However, this is irrelevant to the issue: For drillers, once the drill is under the ground the process is the same, whether on land or under water. When working at 2km depth, the presence or absence of 10m of water really doesn't matter. What does matter is whether the drill has to be sited on land, or on a rig, and therefore whether it will have to go through the water before drilling into rock. In fact, drilling offshore is far harder than onshore. From all technical perspectives, however, drilling at Wytch Farm, where wells start on land but bend out through rocks that are under the coast at depth, is absolutely no different to drilling on land anywhere else. This isn't some invention for pro-shale-gas opportunism, this is how fields are always defined, and with good reason. I'm not sure why you feel that the fact that part of Wytch Farm is under Poole Harbour means that the safety record there can be discounted - if they'd polluted Poole Harbour that would be a major incident! Regardless of this, I wasn't aware that Wytch Farm was being used for propaganda purposes. If you really don't like this particular example, which of the other 30 or so onshore UK oil fields (that have produced a combined 66 millions tonnes of oil since 1975) would you prefer to use as an example? I think Wytch Farm is mainly talked about because it is the largest and most well known. I grew up 5 minutes down the road from the Humbly Grove Field (Hampshire), but wasn't even aware of it until I studied to become a geologist. You can see where they all are via this map: http://tinyurl.com/d4speh8 The planning permission time limit breached by Cuadrilla was there because to protect bird life. Apologies for stating migrating, when I should have said over-wintering, birds aren't a strong point of mine. And I've already stated that from a public relations perspective it was a very silly thing to do, and if I were LCC I'd want to know it wouldn't happen again. But to jump from that to banning all shale gas anywhere forever is quite a leap to make. I've not seen any data on the economic benefits of the geophys survey - either those claimed by Cuadrilla or actually measured (I'm not an economist, so I wouldn't know how you'd go about measuring that). Typically these things cost several million at least, though obviously much of that would go to the specialist companies involved rather than local people. It will indeed be interesting to see the latest numbers from the BGS. The current number being bandied about is in the region of £1.5 trillion, although until that's made official we shall, of course, have to wait.

  • ragamala  |  November 12 2012, 11:48AM

    You have a penchant for facts, Dr Verdon. Can you please say what percentage of the Wytch Field oil reservoirs tapped is onshore? Yes it is called an onshore resource. For the reason that it suits the pro-fracking argument to call it that, and this misrepresentation should be continually challenged as it used, erroneously, to imply support for onshore fracking. Regarding fugitive methane emissions I stand by my statement that there is no certainty whatsoever about the levels of methane fugitive emissions from shale gas fracking. In the EU report you refer to we have indeed some tables of figures produced, but these are estimate drawn from various widely varying US sources, some now dated, rather than hard fact. And the report makes it clear that the European experience will not necessarily be the same as the US. In other words, there is NO reliable estimate of methane emissions. I am grateful to Dr Vedon for conceding that CO2 emission is a very different thing from greenhouse gas emission or CO2 equivalent emissions, this is a factor which is hidden by much pro-fracking propaganda. Regarding Cuadrilla's wilful breach of their planning permnission your statement is demonstrably wrong.And the Guardian article you refer to makes no reference to migration at all. What it does say is that Cuadrilla wanted to exceed their planning deadline FOR THEIR OWN REASONS, and decided to go ahead WITHOUT CONSULTING LCC because they had the nod from an employed consultant. This was wilful breach of planning which had no link with migration patterns at all, and I would ask you for a retraction on that. Frankly I can not see how if Cuadrilla mislead about economic benefit this is any better whatsoever than them being misleading about geological "data". This would only be true from your blinkered perspective. The people of the Fylde are being encouraged to accept fracking turning their land into an industrial area by use of misleading figures on economic benefit. Earlier Cuadrilla issued figures on the likely shale gas available which were wild guesses and even their Australian part parent company is sceptical about these and the resulting viability of Cuadrilla's operation. Regarding shale gas estimates, can we agree to wait until the new BGS report - expected shortly - is out?

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  • JamesVerdon  |  November 10 2012, 12:16AM

    Dear ragamala, From a technical point of view, Wytch Farm is considered to be an onshore field because all of the drilling is conducted from the land - there is no offshore rig. Yes, parts of the field are below the sea, and parts below the land, but is this really basis enough for your scorn? Since you seem to be in the mood for cheap point scoring, I should mention that I described Wytch Farm as the largest in the EU, which Albania is not. It is true that production was stopped for about 2 months in 2011 as corrosion issues were dealt with. Production is now continuing, no oil leaked from the site. Is this example of a company identifying a problem and promptly acting on it really sufficient reason for a blanket ban on shale gas? You mention 'unavoidable and unquantified' methane emissions, having already criticised me for being unaware of recent EU Commission reports. Yet this EU report in fact does quantify methane leakage rates, factors them into the calculations regarding global warming, and finds that domestic shale gas still comes out with less of an impact than imported LNG. When referring to CO2 I was of course referring to CO2 equivalent, apologies for any confusion there. Cuadrilla's planning permission issue was in fact entirely related to issues of migrating birds. This has been widely reported by the national press. Laughable perhaps, but apparently true: http://tinyurl.com/cq4j6rr If Cuadrilla were less than diligent in informing local residents about their survey then that is indeed unfortunate. Your comments on data manipulation could easily be read as an accusation of manipulation of geological data rather than an over-egging of possible local economic benefits, which would be a far more serious accusation. But these surveys are a common procedure for many geological applications. Indeed our undergraduates are lucky enough to perform one across the Bristol Downs and in South Wales every year (albeit on a far smaller scale of course). You can see from my previous link the sheer number that have been conducted across the UK. The technique is exactly the same for each. Why is it that it is only the one related to shale gas that has attracted problems? I'm not sure I suggested that industry itself is not confident of success. The industry is, I believe, extremely confident, as are the British Geological Survey, about the amounts of shale gas that might be extracted both in the UK and around the world.

  • ragamala  |  November 09 2012, 8:21PM

    I am amazed that Dr Verdon can at the same time claim that the Wytch Farm is exploitation of an "onshore" field and admit that it is actually an offshore resource. This ignorance and spin characterised a recent House of Commons statement by a minister - Hayes - who expected us to be "surprised" but has some lessons to learn himself. It is even worse when Verdon himself knows that the three main fields exploited by the Wytch Farm are actually offshore under Poole Harbour and Poole Bay. The field consists of three separate reservoirs known as Bridport, Sherwood and Frome. Dr Verdon will also, no doubt, be very aware that there have been problems with Wytch Farm involving cessation of activities because of leaks and pipe corrosion. Dr Verdon should be aware that as far as I know Europe's largest onshore oilfield is actually in Albania. The issues with shale gas extraction are not restricted to "CO2 footprint" but involve unavoidable and unquantified by the industry releases of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas in the short and medium term. Regarding Cuadrilla's abuse of their planning permission this did not cover just a breach of their conditions regarding protection of an important natural resource, but by a second and separate breach exceeded their time limits. To suggest this was caused by "issues with a bird migratory route" is not only wrong but laughable. Regarding Cuadrilla's geo survey they in some instances indeed failed to inform residents, they caused significant concern and some damage, and if Dr Verdon wishes to query this he can take it up with Fylde MP Mark Menzies, who felt the need to intervene. Regarding data manipulation, I would rather say that Cuadrilla have rather been totally misleading. They have, in particular, issued figures for local economic benefit to the Fylde of their geo survey which have been shown to be totally deceptive. Sorry, Dr Verdon, we expect more from someone who claims to be a scientist relying on facts, and moreover educates our young. If this pro-fracking propaganda, blissfully ignoring facts, is an example of what they are taught in Bristol I really fear for the future. But if, at the end of the day, as Dr Verdon suggests the industry itself is not confident of shale gas's potential, why on earth should he expect local communities to abandon the precautionary principle?

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  • JamesVerdon  |  November 09 2012, 6:01PM

    Ragamala has a point, the reference to 'the emotive question of human rights records' is indeed irrelevant to the debate, so I'm happy to apologise for that. What's less open to question is the economic benefit of domestic gas production over importing LNG. I am indeed aware of the EU Commission reports, which come to the conclusion that, with appropriate regulatory regimes in place, shale gas extraction should be considered, in addition to the fact that the CO2 footprint of domestic shale gas can be lower than imported LNG. It's true that the likely market benefits of shale gas are less well understood and difficult to predict (and I'll admit that as a geologist, this is not my strong point). However, it's clear that the companies involved believe there is significant economic potential there. If they are wrong then they are free to lose money and go out of business. As for the US experience - my comments on this were motivated by Frome Council's statement that their decision to go 'frack-free' was based on the US experience. So am I a victim of Hume's induction, or is Frome Council? I agree that experiences on either side of the Atlantic may be different. That doesn't mean we shouldn't take the evidence we have and extrapolate the best we can. For instance, it's worth bearing in mind that drilling and environmental regs in this country are significantly tighter (and rightly so) than those in the US. As for Cuadrilla, it is true that they exceeded the length of their planning regs, which was a silly thing to do from a PR perspective. Those regs were there mainly due to issues with a bird migratory route. They did at least hire a bird-expert to assess the risks posed by their operations, but I agree, not a great start. I'm not sure what details you would like about their geological survey? As far as I'm aware, local residents were informed in advance, although as I am not a resident in the area, I am happy to stand corrected. It's a fairly common procedure though, you can see on the following website a history of all such onshore surveys conducted in the UK (where the Cuadrilla survey will eventually end up): http://tinyurl.com/ce4j5e9 If you have other evidence that they have manipulated data of some kind then I would be very interested to see it. My experience was that all of the tremor data was immediately released to the BGS, where it has been available for study by the UK academic community. At the same time, they were very fast to take responsibility for the tremors, and to take actions to reduce the probability of them happening again. It is interesting that much of the opposition to shale gas is not based on the methods unique to shale gas production (the high-volume hydraulic fracturing), but often talks mainly about methods common to all oil extraction - as above, where the topics are well logging, geophysical surveys, and more generally with issues about well completion integrity. It must come as a surprise to learn that the UK produces something like 10,000 barrels a day from onshore wells. Wytch Farm is the largest onshore field in the EU, and it sits below an area of significant environmental importance (Poole Harbour) and some of the highest house prices in the land. Rarely (if ever) do we see any problems from such onshore fields, yet those opposed to shale gas appear sometimes to have greater issue with the techniques used at all these fields than the specific techniques needed for shale gas. This is why I feel that the environmental movement is missing something with respect to the way it has approached the issues surrounding shale gas.

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  • GreyWolf  |  November 03 2012, 7:27AM

    And if you read Cuadrilla's applications you will see they indicate that will not use any radioactive sources on site, although if you ask the they will tell you that they will. Not that that should worry local residents of course, should it? As to Dr Verdon's arguments, he seems to a victim of Hume's problem of induction. Suggesting that the UK economic and environmental experience of fracking will mirror what has happened in the USA when local economic, physical and demographic environments are so different is either incredibly naive or deliberately misleading. He really should know and do better.

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  • ragamala  |  November 02 2012, 10:17AM

    Frankly, I am amazed that someone parading his qualifications (Dr Verdon) should pitch into the debate committing the crimes he accuses "environmentalists" of committing. He stresses the need for "rational, evidence-driven debate" yet in his opposition to buying foreign gas he dredges up the emotive question of human rights records. Where is the rationality of that? He totally ignores all the reports emerging, for example the three reports for the EU environment Committee in September, which consider that in the UK and Europe shale gas is not a solution to perceived energy problems and is unlikely ever to provide cheap gas. At least Verdon concedes that there have been instances in the US of water contamination, unlike some or the pro-frackers. Regarding Cuadrilla, I suggest Dr Verdon checks his statements about openness. Has Cuadrilla released any details of its geological survey work this year? No. Did they breach their planning conditions and continue working for two months beyond their planning permission time? Yes. Did they broadcast the fact they were using radioactive sources in wirline testing? No. Have they been honest about the benefit to the local Fylde economy of their geo survey work? No. Did they manipulate data? Yes. I'm sorry, Dr Vernon, but it seems from my perspective that you are the one polarising debate and overlooking facts.

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