Fracking: No great shakes says definitive British study

Court cases and studies have shown time and again that fears over earth tremors and threats to drinking water acquifers have no basis in fracking facts

Sit down, calm down, drill down
Peter C. Glover
On 12 April 2013 11:07

We live in age when public angst is regularly fuelled by the scare stories of the Occupy Brainlessness brigade, much of which masquerades as ‘socially concerned greens’. So don’t expect a new British study of tens of thousands of global fracking operations to shake their fact-free world.

For those of us who prefer to Occupy Intellect in the form of hard facts, however, the evidence is conclusive. Professor Richard Davies of Durham Energy Institute observes: “Most fracking-related events release a negligible amount of energy roughly equivalent to, or even less than, someone jumping off a ladder onto the floor.” He adds, “It is extremely unlikely that any of us will ever be able to feel an earthquake caused by fracking.”

Davies and his team do not entirely rule out such an event as he explains: “We cannot see every fault underground and therefore cannot completely discount the possibility of the process causing a small, felt earthquake.”

The research, published in the Journal of Marine and Petroleum Geology, puts that prospect into perspective by contrasting how mini-quakes caused by mining can register up to 5.6. Tremors linked with the filling of reservoirs can register up to 7.9. By comparison, the two mini-tremors that caused Cuadrilla to voluntarily suspend drilling near Preese Hall, Blackpool in April 2011 weighed in at a mere 1.5 and 2.3. This alone begs the question of eco-activists: Why so steamed up about shale gas fracking and not the tremors associated with filling reservoirs or mining generally?

The study found that seismic events related to fracking were “in almost all cases” only ever noticed by geoscientists using specialist equipment. The study went on to state that drilling companies could reduce the risk of causing earth tremors even further by avoiding fault lines that are “critically stressed and already near breaking point”.

The research indicated that just three incidences of earthquakes caused by fracking, one each in the UK (Blackpool), the US and Canada (the biggest recorded at Horn River in Canada) were reported as having a magnitude as high as just 3.8. No seismic tremors anywhere, associated with fracking, were higher.

The report’s conclusions are consequently emphatic: “Hydraulic fracturing is not really in the premier league for causing seismicity,” says Professor Davies. “Fundamentally it is never going to be as important as mining or filling dams which involve far more volumes of fluid.”

When the UK Government gave the go ahead for shale gas development in December 2012, it did so with a host of safeguards in relation to seismic activity.  These included an assessment of risk and faults before fracking takes place, the advance submission of a fracking plan to the Energy Department, seismic monitoring before, during and after the procedure, and a ‘traffic light system’ categorizing seismic activity that would stop operations. As in the US, that makes the fracking procedure in the UK one of the most closely regulated in mining.

It won’t affect Greenpeace activists, however, whose real objections are ideological and not based on environmental facts. Their concern is linked directly to the obvious potential success domestic shale gas extraction will have in creating jobs and boosting the economy – to the detriment of their naive preference for extravagantly subsidized wind and solar projects. For the Occupy Intellect citizen, the fracking process at the heart of shale gas drilling is set to provide a huge boost to the UK employment.

The UK currently imports most of its gas as North Sea production gradually falls. Within a couple of decades it will be forced to import all its gas. However, a highly conservative estimate of Britain’s recoverable shale gas suggests that this could meet 25 percent of the country’s gas demand.  

The British Geological Survey is shortly expected to produce its much-anticipated report. And that is expected to upgrade its official estimate of UK shale gas reserves to a massive 1,000 trillion cubic feet. That’s enough gas to keep Britain supplied for 100 years.

Equally, development of the domestic shale gas industry is estimated to create thousands of jobs both directly in the industry and in ancillary disciplines including engineering, technical development and accountancy to name a few. Add to that the enormous tax revenues for government, and the equivalent saving on expensive Russian, Norwegian and Qatari gas imports.

The national benefits of extracting domestic energy supplies simply cannot be over-stated. So I continue to be baffled by the energy industry’s abject PR failure to rubbish mindless Greenpeace-style rhetoric by getting across some simple key messages – messages that should see national rejoicing at the very real economic prospects ‘fracking’ opens up.  

Giving evidence to the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee in December, Graham Tiley of Shell Ukraine got to the heart of the issue by highlighting how public concern was constantly skewed by two key misunderstandings.

First, that the term ‘unconventional gas’ was widely misunderstood. Tiley pointed out how, to geologists, the term simply meant “unconventionally trapped hydrocarbons”.  But in the public consciousness the term had taken on a darker overtone suggesting unease over its extraction. Given the increasing frequency of freeing up gas and oil from such sources the very term ‘unconventional’ is becoming something of an anachronism as extraction utilizing fracking techniques is becoming increasingly ‘conventional’.

Tiley further observed how the shorthand term of ‘fracking’ for hydraulic fracturing (the splitting of rock to allow the release of hydrocarbons) has been allowed to become “almost an accepted swear-word”. He rightly points out: “The industry has recognised that it has done a very poor job of communicating our activities to the public.” Something of an understatement given the glaringly obvious raft of relatively risk-free massive economic benefits fracking will mean for Britain.

The fact is that court case after court case and study after study have shown plainly that fears over earth tremors and fears over any alleged threat to drinking water acquifers have no basis in fracking facts. Shale gas is extracted at depths of between 6,000 and 10,000 feet while water acquifers are at a depth of around 500 feet. How gas or oil is supposed to gravitate between thousands of tons of solid rock (when the gas and oil could not do so previously) is never explained by eco-activists.

But then, when it comes to the modern fantasy world of Greenpeace-style Luddite activism, facts and reason are not what life is about.  For them John Wayne’s dictum applies: “Life is tough, but it’s tougher when you’re stupid.” 

Peter C Glover is co-author of the bestselling Energy and Climate Wars and is a contributing editor at The Commentator. For more:

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