16 Apr 12 Eddie's Blog Global

Shale gas and fracking. A level playing field?

Shale gas and fracking:

And so the debate heats up.  Actually alot like the planet as a result of fracked gas leaking into the environment.

The fundamental objection that I have to fracking natural gas is as follows:  they never have to carry out an environmental impact assessment on the work they propose to do.

This might seem a trivial point.  The oil industry will argue that they never had to do it, for their traditional wells, so why bother doing it now.  To which I say:  just because safety was not on anybody’s agenda 50 years ago, and thousands died needlessly across the globe, is this any reason why the art of safety management should not be rigorously applied now?

There is however a more fundamental argument.  It relates to commerce and to competition between energy sources.  Mainstream is a renewable energy company specialising in the development of wind and solar photovoltaics (PV).  For every power station we develop, we carry out exhaustive environmental assessments.  Even for PV which has no moving parts and hugs the countryside.  The thing about our environmental assessments is that we are turned down sometimes, by the local authorities in the areas where we seek to develop a wind or PV installation.

What we do is classed as high risk.  When we begin a study of our wind or solar plant’s impact on the local environment we don’t know what issues could emerge to derail the project.  Whether it is eagles or Kerry slugs, shadow flicker or some beauty aspect, what seemed a very good project can implode.  Money spent at this stage has to be well rewarded, given that risk and reward are intimately related.  It is also a fact that once a new impact is identified it has to be studied in every subsequent impact statement. Hen harriers, and moving bogs have now to be studied in every planning application after they emerged as issues on one wind farm.  This means that the environmental impact statement has to last two years at least.  This further adds to the cost of the money being used, as time before getting a return is lengthened.

Contrast this with what happens with shale gas exploration.  The developer  of a shale gas well negotiates the right to locate his rig on a landowners  area.  In many cases the local authority does not know about the drilling.  The drill can travel vast distances from the platform and can be breaking rock miles away from the platform.  We have seen water wells being polluted where fracking is taking place; we have seen earthquakes being caused (force 4 on the Richter scale) where fracking is happening on a known geologic fault; we have seen coal seams being penetrated and gas being released into aquafers; there is no need to have a waste water disposal plan, which leads to uncontrolled dumping into rivers;  the chemicals used to create “slick” water are proprietary, and not at all controlled; no systematic measurement of radioactivity is made in the water effluent from gas wells; criteria for the release of radon gas have not been agreed.

There can also be the release of methane into the atmosphere.  It doesn’t matter that some flat earther doesn’t believe in human induced global warming, the science is well established for 150 years.  To the science deniers I say “look around you”. Also “try a little reading of how greenhouse gases work”  Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.  Anything that increases its contribution to the atmosphere should logically be stopped or at least charged for.  Let the polluter pays principle apply.

Wind power and solar power developments are placed at a competitive disadvantage to fracking for gas.  They both produce the same end product:  energy for human consumption.  The wind and solar developer is forced to spend copiously  on environmental  assessment.  The other just gets on with fracking.  One is held up for 2 years the other does it immediately.

All of us developing renewable resources see natural gas as the transition fuel to a completely renewable generation of electricity. In principle gas should be better for the environment than coal or nuclear.  Remember that it is the cost issue that has seen no new build of nuclear in the US for 30 years.  What prevents “clean coal” is cost.  Carbon capture and storage makes it so expensive that it will never be possible to deploy it widely.

The way commerce works is that technologies compete and the most commercial wins out.  For renewables now we are forced to compete with one hand tied behind our backs. Can you imagine what the costs of fracking would look like if they had to model the effect of causing explosions underground, of damaging ground water, of dumping waste water and of compensating home owners for damaging their health?  If they had to pay for the uncontrolled release of methane, and the damage it causes to the environment, what then would the cost be?

Frackers have no development costs.  Or 2 year delays when they could get turned down by the local authority.  They do not have to recover the cost of failed gas wells from the operating ones which passed the environmental impact tests.

For free enterprise to work there can be no “special arrangements” for one industry segment over another.  Fracked gas is a subsidised sector.  The final question is 
Could fracked gas stand the competition from wind and solar if it were forced to undergo the same scrutiny as them?