Tom Steward, IGov Team, 25th June, 2013
Last week’s episode of the BBC’s Horizon set about making the case for fracking – investigating ‘what we in Britain can learn from the American experience’. If the programme is to be believed, we seem to be able to look forward to all of the benefits, with none of the draw-backs that come with investment in fracking. Call me cynical, but I’m not entirely convinced.
Horizon’s story began with a visit to a shale drilling rig in Pennsylvania, with an explanation of how the fracking process works. Then we took a quick trip to a cave in Derbyshire, followed by a chat with a professor from the British Geological Survey to find out where our shale gas reserves come from – so far, so good.
Things started to go downhill for me when the program returned to the US to find out about ‘the winners and losers’ in fracking.
Winners – The Economy
The winners were represented principally by C B Leatherwood, a farmer from Louisiana who made hundreds of thousands of dollars selling drilling rights for his land. As the program explains, US landowners have rights over the gas that lies under their land (although the part explaining that this is not the case in the UK, where all hydrocarbons are the property of the crown, seems to have got left on the cutting room floor). Mr Leatherwood also explained that huge numbers of jobs that have been brought to the area, giving the economy a much-needed boost.
Mr Leatherwood is not alone in his analysis – Citigroup estimates that exploitation of shale could help kick-start a new industrial revolution in the US – with the potential to raise GDP by 2 – 3.3%; clearly a very appealing prospect for everyone. In the UK too it is easy to see why the treasury is such a strong advocate of fracking – taxes and other charges from domestic drilling of oil and gas currently act as a big contributor to government coffers, but this is likely to decrease as North Sea oil and gas is depleted, a gap that could be filled by shale exploitation.
Winners – Energy Security
Questions of UK energy security were also raised, nicely visualised with a visit to the National Grid control room, and the Isle of Grain gas storage depot in Kent. Problems of geo-politics, and the international market for gas were discussed, with the conclusion that as long as we are importing gas by tanker, we will never be secure, and that what is needed is a reliable gas supply at controllable, affordable price. A solution apparently offered nicely by shale as ‘home-grown energy’.
However, Horizon seem to have missed a few things. Firstly, the total volume of shale gas that is technically and economically feasible to extract is very unclear – with enormous variations in estimates. On top of which, as shale gas production ramps up, supplies of gas from the North Sea will continue to decline, meaning that the UK will still need to import much of its gas supply. This in turn means that UK gas prices will remain closely tied to European, and wider gas markets. This is joined by stricter environmental safety standards, greater population density, and stricter planning rules, along with substantial comparative shortcomings in necessary infrastructure; all of which push costs up. Overall this means anyone expecting the scale of America’s drop in gas prices to be replicated here, is likely to be very disappointed. Even Cuadrilla, the only firm to have begun shale drilling in the UK, don’t think much will happen to the gas price as a result of UK shale exploits.
Losers – Health
Beyond the brief mention of those that view fracking infrastructure as a blight on the landscape, the losers were represented by Janet McIntyre – who has become ill since the fracking companies arrived in her area, which she attributes to leaks from fracking chemicals into the water supply. She spoke in detail of the range of symptoms she and others in her community have experienced. However the program’s presenter was keen to point out that there was little scientific proof of a connection between her illness and the fracking, and that the water had been tested by both the department of environmental protection, and the fracking companies themselves, both of whom gave it the all-clear. However , later in the program a doctor explained that on the grounds of commercial sensitivity, the fracking companies will not release details of the chemicals they use. This makes it near-impossible for a doctor to diagnose where someone who might have had exposure to chemicals associated with fracking (with the exception of doctors who sign a contract of non-disclosure, giving them access to the list of chemicals, but meaning that if they do identify exposure, they cannot then inform the patient).
The program explained that this will not be the case in the UK – fracking firms will be required to divulge the chemicals they use.
In addition, Horizon spoke to Prof Rob Jackson, from Duke University, who examines water for signs of contamination by gas-drilling activities. Although he’s never found evidence of fracking chemicals leaking into ground water, he has found a higher incidence of natural gas appearing in the water of homes close to gas wells. He suggests that this most likely occurs as the result of poorly-sealed bore holes, as opposed to the process of fracking itself being dangerous.
The program reassured viewers that the regulatory framework in which shale gas exploitation occurs in the UK will be far more stringent than in the US.
So overall, this program seemed to suggest that there are no immediate draw-backs to Britain getting fracking. However, I can’t help but feel maybe the two lines of dialogue that hinted towards impact on climate change weren’t quite comprehensive enough given its relevance to the fracking debate:
“Some [questions] are about whether we should be investing in another carbon-based form of energy at all. And over the next the next few years, this charged debate is going to unfold.”
In fact, this debate has already unfolded. A recent report from Australia’s Climate Commission confirmed what many have suspected for a long time – if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we must leave the majority of remaining fossil reserves in the ground. Embarking on the extraction of more fossil fuels is unlikely to be conducive to carbon reduction. Many feel that gas could be the perfect transition fuel to a decarbonised world, and if managed properly they may well be right. But creating a whole new industry, with high capital costs to be paid off – to me is not transition, but lock-in. Horizon’s presenter explained that he was mainly concerned about uncovering the immediate dangers associated with fracking, but when considering long-term investments, with long-term consequences, there is no room for such a short-sighted outlook.
The most worrying thing..?
Finally, what I find maybe most concerning is the one-sided nature of the program. Of course the political power of the media is nothing new, but maybe I naively expected a little more from the apparently unbiased BBC. Overall I am left worrying how many people saw the program and were inspired to go out and critically examine its claims, as compared to those who were left with the impression that fracking might indeed be the ‘saviour of the planet’, as the program claimed.