Shale Gas FracturingThursday 10th May 2012
Like a number of other energy technologies, both new and not so new (wind and nuclear in particular) Shale Gas Fracturing, or Gas Fracking, as it is commonly referred to, arouses strong passions for and against. Although there have been a number of detailed technical reports, and an enquiry by the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee of the House of Commons, which provide a balanced view, these have been largely ignored, with reports concentrating either on potential negative aspects, or the potential positive aspects, both of which are generally exaggerated, but serve the interests of their respective supporters.
A more balanced view would concede that, whilst there are certainly risks, as experience in the US, and to a lesser extent Lancashire, have shown, there are also benefits; although, despite claims to the contrary, there is very little knowledge of UK reserves. The British Geological Society estimates about 5.3 trillion cubic feet (about 2 years demand in the UK at 2009 rates), whilst others have estimated a total of 1,000 trillion cubic feet, both on and offshore.
The main driver behind the detractors comments seems to be a fear that gas derived from Gas Fracking will reduce the need for carbon free technologies such as wind or tidal. The supporters of Gas Fracking seem to be more driven by their dislike of subsidies of renewable energy and perhaps their dislike for what are generally intermittent sources of energy. Both use various facts to support their actions, but neither seem to be prepared to admit that, whilst there might be usable amounts of gas reserves to be extracted using Gas Fracking, they are not great enough, even assuming the resources are higher than the British Geological Society estimates to do much more than replace some of the existing imported gas, bearing in mind the likely timetable to production on a commercial scale. In addition, to meet carbon reduction commitments, carbon capture and storage will be needed to be installed, although this might be operating commercially by the time Gas Fracking reaches large scale operation.
There is little point in the UK being forced to accept the views of those opposed to the use of gas, when they fail to acknowledge that no current form of renewable generation (wind, solar, tidal or wave) can generate sufficient consistent power to meet UK requirements. All require back-up power. Whilst Anaerobic Digestion and Energy from Waste plants can provide some of this, they are not sufficient in scale to provide it all. In theory, nuclear could provide back-up power, but there is no more support for that technology than Gas Fracking and, in any event, its vast cost makes it more suitable to provide base load than back-up power. Gas, by contrast, is suitable as a back-up source of generation. With carbon capture and storage, it would also only emit into the atmosphere relatively small amounts of carbon. Similarly, there is no point in the UK not having renewable generation, since it does reduce carbon generation and, on even the most optimistic estimates, it seems unlikely that Gas Fracking will provide sufficient gas to replace renewable generation as well as remove the need for imported gas.
In short, there is too much emotion in the argument at present. It is certainly true that, if Gas Fracking is allowed to proceed in the UK, then a different method of operation will be needed to that used in the USA. Environmental and planning regulations are already far tougher in the UK, and they may need to be enhanced to take account of the specific issues. They should certainly be kept under review.
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