MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Wed 18-Sep-13 16:14:20

Guest blog debate: Is fracking good for Britain?

The debate over the risks and benefits of fracking rumbles on: experts in the UK warned this week that the controversial method of oil and gas extraction could contaminate the food chain, while conflicting US research claims the risks have been overstated. In our debate, Green party MP Caroline Lucas, and Andrew Austin, CEO of IGas, put their respective cases.

Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavillion, and Andrew Austin, CEO of IGas

Mumsnet Blog Debates

Posted on: Wed 18-Sep-13 16:14:20

(24 comments )

Lead photo

Fracking in the US has reduced energy prices

Andrew Austin, CEO of IGas:

Enjoying a hot shower, washing clothes and cooking a family meal are things we take for granted. But these home comforts depend on being able to access reliable and affordable energy. Right now, Britain relies on places like Russia and the Middle East for its energy - leaving us vulnerable to rising prices and volatile foreign markets.

Using energy produced here at home would mean we are much less exposed to these risks, and fracking or hydraulic fracturing, as its technically known is an established technique that could help us achieve this. Certainly, this subject is controversial. But so far the conversation has been clouded by myth and it seems sensible to look at the facts before passing judgment.

There are three key questions to answer: what is fracking, how does it impact climate change and can it be done safely?

So, lets start with fracking. Essentially, it's a technique used to release oil or gas trapped underground by injecting water and sand, with a small amount of disclosed chemicals (most you would find at home) into shale rock under high pressure. This causes the rock to fracture, releasing the gas trapped inside - the same type of gas weve been extracting onshore in the UK for 150 years. And fracking isnt new, either. Invented in 1947, it has been standard practice ever since. Of the 2,000 conventional wells drilled onshore in Britain since the Second World War, around 200 have used fracking - and all without incident. Its a safe, highly-regulated industry and while the process being discussed in the media today uses higher pressures and more water, its the same technology.

In terms of emissions, experts actually predict that the introduction of shale gas into the UK would be good for the nations carbon footprint. This is because gas produced locally would generate lower emissions than imported gas, as it doesnt have to be transported from places like Qatar. Gas also produces half the CO2 generated by burning coal, which currently accounts for 31 per cent of Britains energy. Developing our shale resources will help us move away from coal, and decarbonize our economy.

Like most people, I support the development of renewable energy resources. But right now, these resources are not developed enough to supply our energy needs. Many environmentalists agree we will need gas as part of our energy mix in the short to medium term, and shale gas provides an ideal stepping stone to keep Britains lights on whilst this shift accelerates.

And what about safety? People have talked about the risk of small earthquakes, water pollution, and industrial sites, but its important to keep these concerns in perspective. Firstly, naturally-occurring earthquakes are recorded daily across Britain. In March this year alone, 16 tremors were recorded across the UK of greater intensity than those picked up near Blackpool in 2011, which related to a shale site. Recorded seismic incidents related to fracking are extremely rare and, to put them in context, the vibrations in Blackpool were the same intensity as a man jumping off a ladder.

Water? Fracking does of course use some water but the quantity required to frack a shale well is broadly the same amount used to irrigate a golf course each month and there are over 7,500 of those across the UK. Pollution concerns are also exaggerated the fluid is typically 99.51 per cent water and sand, with at least a mile of solid rock between shale and underground water supplies, making the risk of contamination extremely unlikely.

Fracking could be very good for Britain. It could create and support 74,000 jobs in regions that need it most" - Andrew Austin

Caroline Lucas: "We need an energy revolution, but it needs to be based on clean, renewable sources of energy and improved efficiency.


Finally, fracking will not alter Britains landscape. Onshore wells are not intrusive in fact, most people are surprised to hear there are already some 250 across Britain. They take around three months to drill before leaving an unobtrusive well that is often barely visible to local residents and significantly smaller than the oil and gas field at Wytch Farm, which is set in one of the most environmentally-sensitive areas of the UK, yet produces 16,000 barrels of oil a day.

Aside from these concerns, fracking could be very good for Britain. It could create and support 74,000 jobs in regions that need it most. It could provide greater energy security, meaning we wouldnt be dependent on gas from the other side of the world, and it will supply a lower carbon fuel as we transition to renewable energy.

Ultimately, we in Britain have a valuable resource literally beneath our feet one that has potential to deliver real benefits for the whole country. Surely we owe it to ourselves to at least explore the role shale gas could play in securing Britains energy future?

Caroline Lucas, Leader of the Green party:
 
Lets start by getting two of the big myths out of the way.
 
First, youre not likely to see your fuel bills going down because of fracking.   Its not just me or other environmentalists saying that - the energy regulator Ofgem and Deutsche Bank are among the wide range of industry experts who say that the addition of UK shale gas into the energy market wont bring down prices.  The respected economist Lord Stern recently described the Prime Ministers claims that fracking will bring down gas prices as baseless economics?.  Even a Cuadrilla representative, when asked whether shale gas could reduce energy bills, admitted: Weve done an analysis and&at the most its a very small percentage&basically insignificant.
 
Second:  we cant expect an American style energy boom (to use the words of some pro-frackers).   The comparison just doesnt hold up.  Unlike the states, the UK is small and densely populated; our planning laws are very different,  as is our geology.  We dont even know how much shale gas can be extracted.  And, also unlike the US, were part of a huge multinational European energy market, so the impact on prices of shale gas extracted here would be minimal.   In fact, probably the most relevant lessons that can be drawn from the American experience are the negative ones like the fact that communities have been hit hard by water shortages.  This has the potential to be an even bigger problem in  the south and east of England, which are already water-stressed.
 
Ive been to visit the people resisting fracking at Balcombe several times. Many of them were local mums who told me this was the first time theyd protested against anything. From talking to them, I know how real their fears are about the effect of fracking on their communities and their families.   Theyre worried about contamination of groundwater supplies, the impact on areas of natural beauty, the noise of traffic to and from the site, the possibility of gas flares at night.  And theyre not alone.   Fuel poverty campaigners, pensioners groups, the National Farmers Union and the RSPB have all raised concerns.
 
The desperation of the Prime Minister to act as a PR man for fracking, and the fact that figures from the shale gas industry have senior roles in Government, hasnt helped.  But in addition to the important concerns about the impact on local communities, I  also oppose fracking on the basis that its incredibly perverse to be embarking on another dash for gas when the planet is at risk of potentially disastrous climate change.  According to current estimates, 60% to 80% of fossil fuel reserves have to stay in the ground if we want to avoid dangerous levels of global warming.  
 
The fact is that this generation of politicians has a moral responsibility to ensure our climate is safe and habitable for our children and our grandchildren.  Ultimately that can only be achieved if we move away from a high-carbon, high-cost future, to one based on renewable energy sources and better energy efficiency.  Thats whats happening in Germany, which has reduced its carbon emissions by 27% since 1990, and is working towards a target 80% of the energy it uses to come from renewable sources by  2050.  Meanwhile, our Government is offering tax breaks for companies trying to extract new sources of fossil fuels.
 
A cleaner, sustainable future doesnt have to mean higher prices. The reason fuel poverty exists is that our energy market is dominated by huge, under-regulated companies making massive profits from high-risk, high-polluting energy sources.   There are a whole range of steps the Government could be taking to bring down bills  regulating the Big Six to prevent them from overcharging, providing free insulation for homes that need it, investing far more seriously in energy efficiency    but extracting yet more fossil fuel through a process about which there remain serious concerns is not one of them.  

I agree with the Government that we need an energy revolution, but it needs to be based on clean, renewable sources of energy and improved efficiency not the dangerous extraction of another high-carbon fuel.

By Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavillion, and Andrew Austin, CEO of IGas

Twitter: @MumsnetBloggers

LifeIsBetterInFlipFlops Wed 18-Sep-13 18:27:15

It's good to hear the positives regarding fracking as the anti-brigade so far are the only voices heard.

The negatives far out weigh the positives.

Merguez Thu 19-Sep-13 14:11:04

Interesting. I'm very keen on renewables, especially onshore wind, but have so far sat on the fence on fracking. Last night I went to a talk about it and what I found most shocking was the huge ponds of 'produced water' which the process generates - contaminated water which sits above ground in tanks.
Could Andrew Austin come back and tell us how this gets disposed of safely please?

frazzled1772 Thu 19-Sep-13 16:01:22

To argue that the it is ok to frack because fracking uses the same amount of water as watering a golf course is misleading. Most of water used in fracking is not reusable - unlike the water on the golf course that makes its way into back into the water cycle. Much of the water used in fracking is not able to be treated adequately enough to be used again.

I don't agree with either golf courses or fracking using huge amounts of water. And, as frazzled points out, it can't be reused.

I live in area which gets water from an aquifer in the Balcombe area. I don't think we should be messing around with our water supplies.

amyrobina Thu 19-Sep-13 20:31:53

I live in the Fylde so this is close to home for me, too close to home (about 4 miles) but I would be against fracking anywhere in the UK, the negative long term impacts far outweigh the short term gain. It is a short sighted project which will have a serious effect on the climate - why are we looking at burning more fossil fuels when we KNOW that this causes irreversible environmental damage? And of course fracking wells change the landscape, you can't grow crops or build houses or graze animals next to a fracking well. It is also highly unregulated and untested and although small on the richter scale, the process has caused earthquakes, on top of the ones we already experience - any slight damage to the infrastructure could cause a whole heap of problems. There will be very few jobs from it too, the figures for growth we were given at a local meeting were pulled apart in seconds. Far too much money has been unwisely spent on this which could have been spent better on renewable energy.

TheFallenNinja Thu 19-Sep-13 23:26:00

I'm with the science on this, it's not new, it's been in operation for years.

Our supply is external which in times of shortage means higher prices or reduced supply, we should control our own resources.

If someone came along saying we could create free energy by cuddling kittens the naysayers would certainly follow with their big media budgets and the we're doomed message.

I've got a fairly big garden. They can start there if they want to.

thylarctosplummetus Fri 20-Sep-13 01:15:17

The fracking debate is being used as a foil for poor government policy.

Whether fracking goes ahead or not doesn't really depend that much on its environmental credentials, but on government economic policy.

I don't think that accessing coal seam gas / shale gas is inherently bad (many environmental impacts can be adequately managed), but the policy needs to be examined.

Merguez Fri 20-Sep-13 08:17:34

TheFallenNinja it's a bit misleading to say it's been in operation for years. Traditional vertical drilling has been around for years. The new technology which enables shale gas to be extracted is horizontal drilling which enables the highly pressurised fracking fluids to be injected into the shale rock. This means it is now possible to extract natural gas from shale which could not previously be reached by conventional technology.

I completely agree that we should control our own energy resources, and that's why I favour onshore wind - relatively simple technology, abundant free resource, minimal damage to the environment.

TheFallenNinja Fri 20-Sep-13 08:34:35

It's been around since the early 50's so, years.

Nothing misleading about that.

AugustRose Fri 20-Sep-13 09:41:12

I will start out by saying that I am against fracking, I don't understand why we can't use wind and tidal power - we are a windy island! I am slightly terrified as I live in Cumbria and last year discussions were taking place as to whether to allow fracking in North Cumbria not that far from Sellafield! Oh that's a good plan lets fracture the earth and create vibrations next to a nuclear power plant and it's underground (or planned underground) nuclear waste dump.

I would also like to say that as one of the may millions of people who do not have gas pumped into their homes this would not save me any money, nor will it save many - it's a money making scheme for big business. I don't think having the head of one of the companies tell us the 'positives' is a balanced argument.

Of all the things this goverment has done this one worries me the most.

frazzled1772 Fri 20-Sep-13 10:06:54

Ninja High volume slickwater fracking is new technology. Only one well in the uk has been fracked in this way and that was in Lancs. (DECC will confirm this if you ask them) and this caused an earthquake (the EA will confirm that - as will Cuadrilla). Fracking has been used to help release oil/gas in conventional reservoirs. That's different to fracking oil and gas trapped in shale rock.

TheFallenNinja Fri 20-Sep-13 11:48:44

Then I stand corrected.

frazzled1772 Fri 20-Sep-13 13:49:20

I think the information put out in the media in some instances has been deliberately misleading.

TheFallenNinja Fri 20-Sep-13 14:11:50

The only media coverage I've seen has been utterly negative. But then all media coverage of anything new is negative.

Andrew Austin Is your largest shareholder Nexen as concerned as you are about UK energy security, because I note Nexen is not a UK company. You say that relying on foreign gas leaves us open to fluctuations in supply and cost but the same could be said for lots of commodities and services. We live in a world which is increasingly globalised, where the traditional competition between states is being eroded by the free flow of capital plus shareholders often don't pay tax in the country in which a given businesses makes its profits. So I find the first part of your argument disingenuous.

You say that you support renewable clean energies, if this is so why did you set up a gas company? wouldn't it have been more logical to have put your talent and capital to use by developing green energy. If you wanted to accelerate the move to green energies you might have sought investment into that, instead it would seem that making a quick buck is all that matters.

I agree that shipping gas in uses a lot of oil but won't you be using lorry loads of water, another commodity in short supply. Living in the south east I know only too well how often we have had hose pipe bans and talk of stand pipes. I love taking a shower, but if you are to be believed I shall have an abundance of cheap gas to heat water that I will be unable to use. Comparing water usage for one drilling site to a golf course is quite a laugh, yes we have golf courses but it isn't on the whole ordinary working people using them, do you play golf?

In terms of delivering real economic benefits, aren't these being overstated? we are a post industrial nation, whilst we need to keep the lights on, I don't think shale is going to lead to any sort of boom in the real economy, the real winners are people like you.

Merguez Fri 20-Sep-13 19:52:57

Brilliant post, ElizabetaLuknichnaTomanovskaya

tynecorbusier Sat 21-Sep-13 10:11:43

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NicholasTeakozy Sat 21-Sep-13 16:52:26

It appears there could be as many as 15000 sites drilled and fracked over the coming few years. When you consider each well will require anything between 3 and 8 million litres of water it's a worry as they use potable water and what returns is poisonous, possibly even carcinogenic. Our supply of drinking water is more important than profit for a few, even if they're related to Gideon.

KarenRChenard Mon 23-Sep-13 01:34:58

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JessMumsnet (MNHQ) Mon 23-Sep-13 11:52:56

Merguez

Interesting. I'm very keen on renewables, especially onshore wind, but have so far sat on the fence on fracking. Last night I went to a talk about it and what I found most shocking was the huge ponds of 'produced water' which the process generates - contaminated water which sits above ground in tanks.
Could Andrew Austin come back and tell us how this gets disposed of safely please?

Andrew Austin has sent us this response -

"Hello Merguez and thank you for raising the topic of how we dispose of the water used at our sites.
In answer to your question, all waste water is stored onsite in secure steel tanks and then sent to water treatment plants where it's recycled. This is a highly regulated process in the UK under the Environment Agency and has been happening safely at our onshore oil and gas sites for many years. It is also different from the USA, where water is typically gathered in large pits – as you have described."

Will he be making a response to any of the other points made on this thread?

frazzled1772 Mon 23-Sep-13 21:15:28

Andrew Austin:what about the naturally occurring radioactive material in the water - is that removed at the water treatment plant? When you say "recycled" do you mean that it is made drinkable again? What percentage of the water used is recycled back into industry? What percentage is recycled back to drinking water? What percentage of water/fluid remains in the well after fracking?
When the industry has developed and there are 1000s fracking wells across the country will there be enough water treatment facilities to deal with the waste water? If not what will happen to the waste water then?

SalisburyMummy Tue 05-Nov-13 22:52:04

If this kind of fracking has been going on so long, why are cuadrilla struggling with license issues??? Its this kind of deliberate misleading which makes us mums mistrustful of these gas companies. Mistrustful we should be! Its a classic case of profit over welfare. Scientists who claim the process will be safe in the UK are frequently on the payroll of gas companies (the royal academy of engineers ex-president & alleged report co-author is Lord Browne, Chairman of Cuadrilla). Peter Lilley, MP on environmental committees earns a pretty penny from Tethys Petroleum Ltd. You only have to listen to the people affected in the USA to see for yourselves.

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