What the frack?

ImageAround 1000 BC, a Greek goat herdsman came across a burning stream, with flames rising from a crack in nearby rocks. A lightning bolt had ignited natural gas. Believing the flame to be of divine origin, the ancient Greeks built a temple around the spot at the top of Mount Parnassus. This temple housed a priestess, known as the Oracle of Delphi. She issued prophecies which she claimed were inspired by the flickering flames.

Around 500 BC, natural gas became a valuable commodity. The Chinese found where gas was seeping out of the ground. At a good seep spot they built pipelines using bamboo shoots to transport the gas to a giant fire under massive pots, where the gas was used to boil sea water, separating the salt and making it into potable water for drinking.

In 1821 AD, the first natural gas well was drilled in the United States.

Cosy in their fossilized clubs, cabals and coalition, how these Eton-educated, macho millionaires love to don a hard-hat, pretending to get down and dirty. How they love to expropriate, extract, commodify and preside over our precious resources, rather than harness the power of Nature responsibly. As David Cameron speaks of rolling back green levies on energy companies, where is the UK Government’s renewables agenda now?

At last, a subject with endless opportunities to create eye-catching headlines. What the frack’s in store for us? Is fracking a mere pipe-dream? All hail to shale? Golden ticket, silver bullet, white elephant, ‘a bridge to a low-carbon tomorrow’ or ‘a gangplank to more global warming’? Is Balcombe ‘a litmus test for fracking protests in the future’? The phrases ‘immense strain’ and ‘finite resources’ come in mind..

In a world where access to (clean drinking) water is a major concern, the same powers who oppose wind turbines (‘they blight the landscape’, purportedly) propose to decimate the countryside by forcing millions of litres of water into the Earth’s crust to extract shale gas and oil – a process proven to contaminate groundwater supplies.

There’s been a rush for power and new natural gas boom in the United States (U.S.): the reward is tight oil resources – shale or ‘unconventional gas’. Hydraulic fracturing or fracking is part of the process involved in the mining and extraction of shale gas and oil. Found typically 1.6Km+ deep underground in the U.S., shale is formed from deposits of silt, clay, mud and organic matter. Explorers sink vertical boreholes into shale layers, then drill laterally and seal off the well. Shaped charge blasts (shocks) create holes along the walls of the well casing. Millions of litres of fracking fluid – a cocktail of high-pressure water, propant (sand) and proprietary chemicals which are a commercial secret in the U.S. – are then blasted down the borehole to fracture and prop open the rock. Splitting the rock extracts the trapped shale gas or oil, which flows up the borehole to be captured and piped off at the surface.

More convenient, conventional sources of gas are running out, we hear. Natural gas imports from outside the North Sea are set to surpass domestic production by 2015. The United Kingdom (U.K.) risks losing out to higher-paying Asian customers in the race to secure new supplies. The price of gas in the U.S. is less than half of the U.K. price. Shale gas currently represents around 45 per cent of U.S. domestic supply. Natural gas is used to make fertilisers, plastics, anti-freeze and fabrics. Shale gas burns with lower emissions than dirtier fossil fuels like coal. It is being touted as the great hope for the future.

The Energy Information Administration estimate that recoverable shale resources in the U.K. amount to 26 trillion cu.ft of shale gas and 700 million barrels of shale oil in two assessed regions. Energy bills will be lower, it is claimed. Though the Crown owns petroleum rights in the U.K., like farmers diversifying into windfarms, money will be made by communities and landowners from selling drilling rights for land on which to site rigs. Affected communities will be compensated and benefit. Thousands of jobs are promised.

Secretly U.K. Treasury officials and senior civil servants met energy industry representatives 19 times in 10 months to discuss a ‘generous’ tax regime for shale gas mining. The chief executive of Cuadrilla met Britain’s most senior civil servant Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, for dinner – just a day after the company announced its controversial plan to drill for shale gas in Sussex. The meeting came to light in emails released to Greenpeace in a Freedom of Information request. Water utilities are to offer discounts for drillers needing supplies for fracking.

Chancellor George Osborne unveiled the ‘most generous tax breaks in the world’ for fracking, setting a 30% rate for shale gas producers in what he claims is a bid to enhance U.K. energy security, in reality to avoid a price crunch, ‘a tipping point’. The top tax rate for new North Sea Oil operations is 62%. For older fields it is 82%. All this fracking is good news for firms that bid for extraction rights based on low estimates and can now tell their shareholders about much higher figures, a process known as overstatement.

Osborne’s father-in-law and former government energy adviser Lord Howell has issued an apology for suggesting that hydraulic fracturing could be used in “desolate” North-East England without any impact on the surrounding environment.

Now for the fingerprints of corporate interest..

Guy Robinson is a senior aide to Tory environment secretary Owen Paterson. Previously he worked for the lobby firm run by Lynton Crosby, the Conservative Party Chief Strategist and election guru. Crosby’s PR firm, Crosby Textor, promotes fracking in Australia and represents the Australian Petroleum Exploration Association.

Lord Browne is a Cabinet Office advisor with the run of Whitehall: he is also a director of fracking firm Cuadrilla Resources Ltd. Lord Browne has been a partner of Riverstone Holdings since leaving BP in 2007. In this role he co-heads the world’s largest renewable energy fund, with $3.5bn in equity. Riverstone owns 44 per cent of Cuadrilla, jointly controlling the company with AJ Lucas, the Australian engineering group.

Cuadrilla has attracted vociferous protests and a community blockade in Balcombe, West Sussex by drilling a 914M vertical exploratory borehole. In addition, a horizontal well was drilled through a band of limestone rock. They have collected rock samples (core) and carried out a set of advanced petrophysical logs. The well confirmed the presence of hydrocarbons.

Cuadrilla do not have approval for fracking at the Balcombe site. Beating a humiliating retreat, on September 3rd the company withdrew a bid to have their drill permit extended beyond September 28th, poisoning their own well, so to speak. Cuadrilla calls it ‘a question of legal ambiguities’. They will make a fresh full planning application after ‘consultations’ and may return to test flow rates.

Hopefully this retreat will allow County Council officials to overturn consent for the site. Cuadrilla have said that ‘the site is unlikely to become a full production location in the future. Other sites have better infrastructure and transport links: they are more suited to production’.

The new application will include revised boundary delineration showing the extent of a subsurface horizontal well. When Cuadrilla submitted its planning application in 2010, it showed only the surface layout of the site. Cuadrilla had also applied to increase the height of flares at the well. The full application covers management of mining wastes. On September 30th the Environment Agency granted Cuadrilla a permit to manage wastes which contain sludge, salts, oil, chemicals, heavy metals and (naturally-occurring) radioactive materials. Fracking fluids contribute to geochemical reactions within the shale rock that might free up potentially dangerous metals and radionuclides, such as arsenic, barium, strontium and uranium.

The fresh application will not be considered for planning approval for six months. Drilling operations were called to a temporary halt recently because the company has breached noise limits. Residents had complained that noise from the site disturbed their sleep. Windows rattled and patio tiles shook.

Greenpeace called the planning foul-ups “a dog’s dinner”. Friends of the Earth commented:- “Cuadrilla’s rhetoric is shifting fast in the face of overwhelming opposition. If the new application was withdrawn because it was flawed, then it’s highly likely the existing permission is also flawed”. Conservative Party MP, the well-named Mark Reckless, called on the authorities to do more to assist Cuadrilla Resources to push ahead with its work, once the planning problems have been resolved, and ensure other companies are not deterred.

Charles Metcalfe, campaigner and Balcombe resident, said he was taking Cuadrilla’s new application with “several tablespoons of salt”. The local community have developed the ‘Frack Free Balcombe’ website to provide residents and concerned individuals from further afield with the information to make an informed decision regarding resistance to attempts to explore for oil and shale gas near their village. The Lower Stumble drilling site is less than one mile from the centre of Balcombe, next to the main London-to-Brighton railway track and close to the Ardingly Reservoir which supplies over 85,000 people within Sussex with their drinking water.

Cuadrilla has signed a new lease at the Lower Stumble site after its original three-year contract expired. Campaigners say that it could condemn the village to 30 years of noise, trucks and pollution – and was proof Cuadrilla wanted to frack at the site.

“We live in a densely populated island,” says Paul Ekins, a Professor of Energy and Environment Policy at London’s University College. “The qualities of the countryside are precious to people. When they feel it’s threatened, they react quite strongly.”

The ‘mandibular angle’ technique is a martial arts-style move that involves pressing against a pressure point behind the ear. The tactic was used by police to clear protesters at Balcombe. “It does hurt, but it doesn’t cause injury,” said Martin Richards, Chief Constable of Sussex Police. “It’s a disabling technique which allows us to move the person from an unlawful place to a lawful place.” In addition to Public Order legislation used against them, Balcombe protesters faced charges under Section 241 of the iniquitous Trade Union Labour Relations Act for attempting to stop workers from accessing the site. Cuadrilla boss Francis Egan has received an e-mail threatening that, unless his company ceased its activities in the U.K., the company would receive pipe bombs (sic) delivered to their premises. ‘Fracking kills,’ the message said, continuing: ‘And so do we’.

Of course the threat of power cuts and a lack of energy is a serious problem. Failure would leave the U.K. subject to the vagaries of the market, or rather ‘even more dependent on’. 1/2 of the gas we consume is imported from Norway, Qatar, Africa, and Russia via Kazakhstan. The U.K. could be exposed to future price shocks, insecure supplies and blackmail by foreign suppliers.

The frackheads may fantasize about a bonanza, but resources are not reserves, and reserves do not necessarily result in supply. Shale wells are expensive, have high decline rates and require substantial capital expenditure to keep production flat, much less increasing. Estimates of the exploitable reserves vary wildly. No-one knows how much shale gas can be extracted. Initial shale gas discoveries may be massive, but they lack high, sustainable flow rates. From 50 experimental wells drilled across Europe to date, not so much as one cubic metre of shale gas has been extracted. The U.K. is one of the less promising European prospects because its shale formations are thinner and deeper than those in the U.S., and therefore more expensive to mine. U.S. shale gas production has been on a plateau for two years. The U.S. produces 69.3 billion cubic feet of marketed natural gas every day, less than it consumes. Decreasing production causes reduced prices. Under poor regulations, faulty well casing has led to chemicals contaminating drinking water.

“The evidence that we have seen in the U.S. is that fracking has serious environmental and health problems. Many of the problems come not so much from the actual drilling, although we now see connections between that and earthquakes, but in the failure rate of the cement casings. Studies show that 7% of all casings will fail during the frack. Cement deteriorates so even though the drilling companies claim the process is safe, the cement protection will erode over time, often as early as 10 years.” ‘Fracking Pennsylvania’, Dr Walter Brasch.

Samples taken from feeds into a water source in Western Pennsylvania show dangerous levels of radioactivity build-up and salinity. At a shale gas waste disposal site, elevated levels of chloride and bromide, combined with strontium, radium, oxygen and hydrogen isotopic compositions, are present in the Marcellus shale wastewaters at the treatment facility. There is a biological danger of slow accumulation of radium that can end up in fish. Elevated levels of salinity from the shale brine cause high levels of bromide, which is not toxic by itself but turns into carcinogenic trihalomethanes during purification treatments.

Two young Pennsylvanian children from the Hallowich family have been banned from ever talking about fracking. The gag order was imposed under a settlement with a leading oil and gas drilling company, Range Resources Ltd. The Hallowich family had earlier accused oil and gas companies of destroying their 10-acre farm in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania and putting their children’s health in danger. Their property was adjacent to major industrial operations – four gas wells, a waste water pound and gas compressor stations. The family claim that the company’s drilling operations contaminated water supplies: it caused burning eyes, sore throats and headaches.

The U.K. Government is proposing to stymie public discussion over controversial issues such as fracking and wind turbines. Their Lobbying Bill will slash the spending limits on campaigning for the year before any election. Campaigns that impact don’t cost the earth, but they are not free. Fracking protesters, for example, are backed financially by companies bound by ethical considerations, such as the Coop and Lush. Bear this in mind when you next bank or shop. Additionally the Government has unveiled changes to the law surrounding onshore oil and gas planning applications, including removing the need to notify people under whose land developers propose to drill.

Methane is the main component of natural gas. By its very lightness, methane rises. Wherever drillers have not properly sealed and cemented the wells, methane has escaped, moving through fractures into groundwater wells, stream beds and the basements of houses. Methane emissions are 24 times more potent a greenhouse gas than C02. 25% of all carbon dioxide emissions are absorbed by oceans, creating a problem known as ocean acidification. A more acidic ocean could result in an irreversible disruption of ecosystems and the collapse of the food web.

Water should be piped to sites, not delivered by juggernauts. Dissolved methane in mining waste should be removed, cleaned up and pumped back through gas pipes, never flared. Methane escaping challenges claims that burning natural gas produces far fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

There will always be occupational and environmental drawbacks to energy production and supply – drilling can involve operational failures – deformed casings, blowouts, explosions and subsidence. No form of power production is benign. Coal mining and oil/gas exploration aren’t exactly risk-free, clean industries. Nuclear power and renewables (with its embryonic technology) are geopolitically fraught and not exactly cheap. Landfill sites for household waste, permafrost erosion, cattle and farm manure also produce, release and exacerbate methane pollution.

In England, (Conservative) MPs must explain to constituents that their green and pleasant shires will be disfigured – coated by compressor stations, power and pipelines, (unavailable) land rigs and new roads chock-a-block with huge convoys of juggernauts. Each U.S. well requires 1,000 truckloads of equipment, water and other materials. Regulators gave Cuadrilla planning permission for only 60 truck passages daily through Balcombe, then relented when Cuadrilla pleaded and argued to be allowed 120 – because ‘what goes in must come out’!

Go and tell electors that property prices will fall, as insurance costs rocket. Vast traits of land for food production and animal grazing will be lost as operations spread. Farmers living in drilled areas should be very concerned about potential exposures of their crops and herds to shale-gas contaminants in the water, air and soil. Habitats and tourism are bound to suffer. Production of shale gas may require flaring off methane leakages, producing carbon dioxide: other problems will include lung-threatening silica dust, destruction mining of special fracking sand, ethane concentrations, contaminated waste water disposal, toxic chemical evaporation, flooding, landslides, noise and light pollution..

The infrastructure in the U.K. simply will not cope. Intensive drilling is incredibly disruptive. No amount of mega-money windfalls/bribes, local sports sponsorship, energy bill discounts or restored church roofs could compensate the affected communities. The average set-up cost for a shale gas drill-pad is $30 million.

So money off the council tax bill and investment in communities is being promised in return for destruction of the countryside and depletion of fossil fuels at the same time as tens of thousands of folk face hardship due to austerity measures such as the spare room benefit cuts.

Cosy in their fossilized clubs, cabals and coalition, how these Eton-educated, neo-liberalist millionaires love to don a hard-hat, pretending to be macho, to get down and dirty. How they love to expropriate, extract, commodify and preside over our finite resources, rather than harness the power of Nature responsibly. Where is their green agenda now? Generally the Tories love fracking and hate turbines. In October 2013 U.K. Energy Minister Michael Fallon addressed the Conservative Party conference. He mentioned Britain’s “strong environmental and climate change commitments”. A conference delegate shouted: “Scrap them!” Fallon replied: “It would be my luck to scrap them.”

The risks of this ‘dash for gas’ are multiple. Money spent on gas diverts investment from renewables. The green energy sector is one of the few parts of the U.K. economy currently displaying economic growth, though it can be argued that the relentless pursuit of growth is a major problem in itself. Capital requires its own expansion in order to function properly, demanding the constant creation of cheaper production and new markets. As emerging economies grow, global gas demand is going to keep climbing. More supply of gas and success with the development of other energy sources may lower prices, but the U.K. is part of a huge European gas market. Shale gas and oil will sold to fellow European Union members, if not to the highest bidder.

This ‘dash for gas’ makes it less likely that targets for reducing carbon emissions will be met. It locks the U.K. into a continued reliance on mining an expensive, polluting fossil fuel. Conventional gas production will decline. Energy efficiency measures to curb bills will become low priority.

For years people have turned naturally produced steam from hot springs and the like into electricity. Iceland is a geothermal powerhouse, and a geothermal power plant in Larderello, Italy, has churned out electricity this way in Tuscany for more than a century. France has banned fracking for shale gas and oil, but has given approval for the fracking of geothermal wells, whereby water is pumped down on to hot rocks and heat from the rocks turns the water to steam. The steam rises and turns a turbine that spins a magnet to make electricity. Germany is building 150 geothermal plants providing 9000 jobs and costing £3.4bn.

Netherlands Economic Affairs Minister Henk Kamp announced last week that the Dutch Cabinet would take 18 months to study the potential effects of hydraulic fracturing on the environment before allowing Cuadrilla Resources to drill test wells in the central province of Flevoland.

In the Philippines geothermal power now produces nearly 20% of the country’s electricity, thanks to investments that were made in the 1990s. Kenya will derive more than half its electricity from geothermal sources by 2030. Geothermal combined with hydro-electric power will mean both countries are powered entirely from renewable sources.

Other unconventional gases include coalbed methane (CBM). It is extracted by drilling into and along coal seams, for example disused mines in the Central Belt of Scotland. To release the gas, the seams are depressurised. Millions of litres of contaminated pumped-out water must be treated for disposal – a toxic cocktail, undrinkable and containing a host of chemicals, some carcinogenic. Existing treatments cannot remove all the toxins found in coalbed methane wastewater. Fracking is used on many CBM wells to extract the last pockets of gas, or where seams are less permeable. The fracking fluid stays in the ground and can pollute soils and waterways.

In Australia 40% of CBM wells are fracked. Communities near gas fields report a host of health problems; farmers protest at lower levels and depressurising of their ground-water supplies.

Dart Energy is a subsidiary of the Australian Petroleum Exploration Association (op. cit.). Dart was booted out of Australia and shed 70% of its global workforce earlier this year. Their European HQ is at Stirling, Scotland.

Dart submitted CBM extraction planning applications to Falkirk and Stirling Councils for 22 new wells and a network of pipelines at Airth. The scheme already has 16 wells drilled. The term ‘fracking’ was avoided in the planning application. Fracking might be necessary in the future, as gas production drops. 90% of U.S. wells are fracked at some point in their lifespan.

Dart have appealed to the Scottish Government because Falkirk and Stirling Councils failed to make the decision on their planning application, due to resistance from local communities and a lack of credible information on health and environmental concerns. Updated regulations are not yet in place to deal with CBM, nor have the lifecycle health implications been fully considered. A planning inquiry will be held later this year. The HSBC bank has frozen Dart’s loan facility because of delays with the project. Dart are also exploring more than 20 coalbed sites at Canonbie, a small village in Dumfriesshire.

Greenpeace has launched legal challenge to halt fracking, claiming drilling under homes without permission is unlawful. “Under English law, if you own land, your rights extend to all the ground beneath it. That means if someone drills under your home without permission it is trespass,” said Greenpeace senior campaigner Anna Jones. “To avoid being liable for trespass, drillers would need landowners’ permission. And this case is about people explicitly declaring they do not give that permission. This will make it extremely difficult for companies to move ahead with any horizontal drilling plans.”

Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) is an extreme energy extraction process which involves setting fire to unmined coal seams. Using two mobile wellheads, similar drilling and injection (air, oxygen, water) technology to shale gas and CBM mining brings syngas to the surface. UCG is far more polluting, dangerous and expensive than previous extractive processes. Among other U.K. locations, licences are being sought for UCG mining in the Firth of Forth.

Be warned, if allowed to gain a foothold, UCG will spread to all areas where there is coal that can be burned. There are major problems with subsidence, groundwater contaminants and halting the combustion process after gas extraction. Blockages have caused underground explosions. The prospect of UCG becoming widespread in the U.K. presents a nightmare scenario, indeed hell on Earth.

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