Despite years of fierce opposition, fracking has returned to the UK. And if the government has its way, safety standards meant to protect communities from earthquakes will be relaxed to help out the shale industry. L. Michael Buchsbaum takes a look at what’s happening in Lancashire.
This is the first in a multi-part series covering the international fight against fracking.
Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, has unlocked incredible amounts of oil and gas from shale formations. But it’s also generated increasing public outrage as legal efforts against it continue to fail, further exposing a rift between concentrated economic wealth and widespread democratic health.
Once hailed as a technological miracle, the fracking process requires workers to blast sand and chemicals at high pressure down into deep rock formations, creating fissures that allow gas and oil to escape and be brought to the surface.
Beginning in the early 2000s, in combination with a host of environmental deregulation, fracking became the international oil and gas industry’s prime method for developing otherwise more challenging resources. This boom began in the United States, but has spread around the globe.
Fracking has unleashed megatons of methane; used up and ruined hundreds of billions of liters of fresh water and fouled other clean water supplies; required a steep increase in sand mining; destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of wildlife habitats; and made tens of thousands of residents living near fracking sites sick. In addition, it has resulted in a huge increase in earthquakes: in the heavily fracked U.S. state of Oklahoma, earthquakes are more common than in famously earthquake-prone California.
However, fracking has also generated an economic fortune for a small group of banks and investors.
Though fracking produces both oil and gas, most of the media focuses on the later, consistently referring to natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal because, when burned, it only releases half as much carbon dioxide.
But natural gas is essentially methane, a much more robust greenhouse gas that, when released into the atmosphere, is at least 86 times more powerful than CO2 in trapping heat over a 20-year period. And all throughout the fracking process and along the subsequent gas delivery system it leaks into the atmosphere. Though it’s vaulted the U.S. to the top of international oil producers, the vast increase in fugitive methane released by fracking there has negated any supposed benefit from the nation’s reduced coal burning.
Ironically, while Germany and several other European nations have banned fracking locally, fracked gas is freely sold and burned. Ominously, if U.S. President Trump has his way, fleets of Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) tankers will be docking at ports throughout the world tying global economies to a largely fracked future.
Let the Brits Quake
Though fracking is still mostly concentrated in the US, its usage is spreading rapidly.
In September 2011, the UK’s first gas well was drilled in Lancashire, in the north of England. Initial test wells were both unproductive and created a series of low-level earthquakes. Regulators placed a moratorium on further testing through the end of 2012. But despite growing opposition, in 2013, the extraction company Cuadrilla resumed drilling—igniting a massive anti-fracking movement that continues to this day.
Activists endured freezing temperatures to physically block drilling activities which had been cleared by the national government. In 2015, they successfully convinced the Lancashire county council to reject further applications, leading to a standstill. But in mid-October, following a seven-year blockade and the overturning of Lancashire’s ruling by the national government, fracking has returned to the UK.
Though estimates of how much shale gas actually exists under the whole UK vary, the British Geological Survey believes there is more than 3.7tn cubic meters of gas in the Bowland shale, a formation that runs across most of north and central England.
While Westminster pushes fracking in the UK, the opposition Labour government has a policy of banning fracking, the Scottish government has a shale gas moratorium and the Welsh government has promised to block any applications.
On Monday October 15th, trucks from energy company Cuadrilla arrived at the new drilling site. But despite the recent harsh sentencing of years of prison for four anti-fracking activists, opponents from the group “Reclaim the Power” used a van to block the entrance and chained themselves to various equipment.
Nevertheless, within hours, Cuadrilla proudly confirmed “that it has started hydraulic fracturing operations at our Preston New Road shale gas exploration site.” Fracking activities will last several months after which flow rates will be tested and, quite likely, more wells will be drilled.
Undeterred, activist Henry Owen, who was locked to the top of the scaffold, said it was important to continue demonstrating.
“It’s absolutely vital because this industry has no social license in the UK,” he said. “It’s being pushed through by government who don’t care about their commitments to take action on climate change…After all democratic avenues have been exhausted over a seven-year campaign, there is a place for direct action to stop this industry.”
Cuadrilla completed its second shale gas well this summer during an ongoing water shortage, while a hosepipe ban was announced for parts of England.
As it stands now, current regulations require companies to suspend fracking operations even if very low levels of seismic activity occur. But energy minister Claire Perry suggested that standards designed to halt fracking operations if they trigger minor earthquakes could be relaxed as the shale industry expands. Perry recently admitted that, despite her vociferous support of fracking, she herself had never personally visited a well site.
Still, activists will continue to fight. Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Europe and Food & Water Watch, criticized the government’s decision to resume fracking in a press release: “The effects of climate change are already here. This summer’s drought had devastating results on European crop yields and threatened to lead to a UK food supply crisis. It is deeply cynical that amidst these events we still talk about fracking in a country completely unsuitable for any form of it.”
It’s not a consensus position, but there is quite strong evidence for the claim that fracking is a bubble. The very short life of an individual well (almost all the extractible oil or gas comes in the first 2 years) means that production can only be maintained by constant drilling of new wells. The industry has managed to stave off diminishing returns by a large fall in drilling costs, but a continuation of that is a high-risk bet. Second, the financing of the industry is extraordinarily speculative and shady. Most of the oil majors have stayed clear. The industry has not overall made a profit yet; profits are always just round the corner. This can’t continue indefinitely either. With such a fragile structure, any setback could become very messy indeed. Cf. the dot-com bubble.