Two sides in the fracking debate went head to head at an event in Chichester to discuss the pros and cons of shale gas.
On the pro side was Professor Ernest Rutter, of Manchester University, and Dr Nick Riley, formerly of the British Geological Survey. Opposing fracking were Emeritus Professor at Glasgow University, David Smythe, and writer and campaigner, Julie Wassmer.
The debate was chaired by Alistair Beaton, the writer of Fracked, a new sell-out play currently running at Chichester Festival Theatre.
About 200 people watched the debate, of whom about 10% were in favour, 50% against and 40% unsure. By the end, six people said they had changed their minds: two from unsure to in favour and four from unsure to against.
DrillOrDrop was in the audience and compiled these extracts of the views of the panellists.
To explore or not explore?
Ernest Rutter (ER): “We don’t know without exploration whether we have an economically-viable resource. We need about 50 wells to find out if there is anything worth proceeding with.”
David Smythe (DS): “Shale gas exploration in Britain should be banned on the precautionary principle. It is no solution to Britain’s own energy needs because if the industry ever got going it would take too long to ramp up to full scale and last, but not least, it is not even economic. It is going to lose the companies and the public large amounts of money.”
Nick Riley (NR): “I think it is unscientific to say there should be a moratorium on exploration because being a scientist I want to know more knowledge. The exploration phase, which is where we’re at – hardly at with shale gas in this country – if we don’t have exploration we won’t be able to address the concerns that the anti –fracking community have: the integrity of the wells, that fluids will move up faults, we won’t be able to do the operations safely.”
Julie Wassmer (JW): “If other countries have the good sense to ban fracking we can do it too and we should.”
Economy benefit or Ponzi scheme?
ER: “I think we should explore the potential of home produced shale gas for business and jobs. As well as the value of the gas produced, thousands of new jobs will be created in the supply chain, many areas of industry will be rejuvenated or made competitive, 6,000 miles of sealed pipes will be needed, tax revenue generated.”
DS: “US shale is not a success. It is a Ponzi scheme. The breakeven point for US shale is $6 per unit. The Henry Hub market value [for gas] is currently $2.30. They are only carrying on because they have to keep drilling to service the debt. The analogue would be: you’re in hock to your credit card, you have to pay the monthly payments, otherwise you get sued by your credit card company so you get another credit card and you borrow money on that to pay the other credit card. The American industry is actually like that but on a huge scale. The American shale gas industry model is unsustainable so why should we be applying this in the UK where the costs will be far higher? They are carrying on because they have to keep drilling to service the debt. The shale bubble, as they call it in the US, is now ready to collapse.
JW: “If the industry came even close to stringent regulation it would be financially unviable. Ironically the industry is already financially unviable due to the low price of oil, for example. The US players are carrying a huge amount of debt. The vast estimates of reserves quoted in press releases here by companies are precisely that. They are estimates for investors. The US has shown that only about 5% of the resource is actually producible. And that percentage is likely to be far lower here due to the geology. Why do they continue? This “frack it and see policy” favouring short-term profit is for the company’s shareholders.”
Can fracking be safe?
EW: “All of this must be done and seen to be done in the framework of best industrial practice.”
NR: “The UK has much better regulation than the US.”
DS: “UK regulation is not the best in the world. It is split between four agencies and a number of things can fall between the cracks between them. Do not be misled by the assertion that the UK regulation is good. It is basically a process of self-regulation and self-reporting.”
JW: “Fracking cannot be regulated safely. Reports come with one important caveat: that fracking can be done safely if there is that robust regulatory regime in place. There isn’t. There’s a set of offshore regulations and what amounts to self-regulation by the companies involved. … [On the Blackpool earthquakes] the company failed even to recognise the significance of that event and those are the energy minister’s words, not mine. So when the government boasts of its gold standard regulation I am minded to ask exactly where were they in 2011 when fracking was still said to be safe. And why on earth should we still trust them now that the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive have suffered so many budget cuts. You cannot make it safe.”
Who gets hurt by fracking?
ER: “Environmental and health impacts, these are the things that concern people most of all, they are local impacts. The big problem is trucking. You cannot get away from that. The main adverse effect is during the construction phase which will last for about one year. People will suffer inconvenience there is no doubt about that. When you have a big construction project someone gets it in the neck.”
NR: “Obviously there will be some places, in residential areas and because of infrastructure where even if the geology is good it is clear that those sites will not be able to be developed.”
JW: “There is a disconnect between what the industry, regulators and government is say and what happens in practice. People on the ground know the threat.”
Is shale compatible with tackling climate change?
ER: “We are committed as a nation to not discharge carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2050. That does not mean we have to stop burning fossil fuels. Importing gas doubles greenhouse gas emissions as a nation, compared with home produced gas. Imported gas has to be paid for by the balance of payments. Home produced gas is good, imported gas is bad both for the economy and for greenhouse gas emissions. Home produced gas will replace imported gas not add to it.”
NR: “I was deeply, deeply, disappointed by Cameron government, without any consultation, scrapping the only, the world’s first, carbon capture and storage demonstration in Scotland on gas fired power generation. … If you use hydrocarbons you should be prepared to produce them domestically if you can. Importing them displaces your issues to another part of the world or the country. We have renewable or nuclear but they are not neutral. They all have an environmental impact.”
JW: As the former climate diplomat John Ashton has said: ‘You can be in favour of fracking or you can be in favour of tackling climate change. But you can’t be in favour of both at the same time’.”
Will shale gas industrialise our countryside?
NR: “If you say that shale gas is going to industrialise our landscape – which I don’t think it will – you should listen to the [Radio 4] farming programme this week. … In the East Midlands, where we have the highest density of oil and gas wells, the EA’s own regional data from 2009 shows that the water companies, the waste disposal firms and farming are the main polluter of groundwater.”
JW: “The truth is out there. It is there in every country where fracking has taken place. In areas, as in Pennsylvania which have been abandoned a sacrificial zones to this industry. So where are the sacrificial zones to be in our densely populated island: in Balcombe, in Blackpool, in the Weald?”
Faults: what’s the risk?
ER: “Most faults will not leak. Most faults seal and that is a fact.”
DS: “We don’t know whether faults are seals or conduits to flow. It is not a closed issue. … What shocked me was that the [Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering] report made no mention of the risk of migration of contaminated fluids and the gases themselves up geological faults. And this is partly because they were so hooked up on in their report on discussing the earthquake triggering problem, which in my opinion is not a big issue when you are fracturing. (Disposing of the waste is a different matter). This is not a problem in the USA, which is why there have been relatively few studies of the results of the chances of migration up faults in the US shale basins. This is because they don’t have these kinds of faults.”
NR: “Have you found any leakage coming up faults from carboniferous developments in the North Sea or the Irish Sea? Many of those wells have been fracked. I don’t think faults are a big risk.”
What do we do with the waste?
ER: “We have quite a lot of experience of dealing with water from oil and gas sites. When you do not have an industry you do not have the [waste treatment] infrastructure. You develop the technology when you need it. We don’t know if we are going have the industry so we don’t know whether we need the water treatment infrastructure and technology.”
Who opposes fracking and why?
NR: “Fracking has become a touchstone for a lot of angst in our society for all sorts angst that we have…. I think there is a big fear campaign by anti-frackers. Leaflets were put through letterboxes of farmers in Lancashire with pictures of dead cattle in a field in America. UK regulations over here don’t allow you to have open pools of frack water. Non-governmental organisations: they run businesses and they need the limelight because they need subscriptions. … There is a complete lack of integrity and spin in a lot of things I have seen.”
JW: “It would be wholly wrong to believe that those who oppose fracking are a bunch of irrational eco-freaks. There are nearly 500 residents’ groups [opposing fracking] in this country. Frack Free Sussex alone has over 10,000 followers. Importantly members of these groups include professors, lawyers, doctors, councillors of all parties and engineers who are well versed in this industry and its failings. We fight only with the truth and we don’t need PR companies or to bribe communities with compensation.”
Fracked continues at Chichester Festival Theatre until Saturday 6 August 2016. All performances are currently sold out but returns may be available. Link to tickets
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