Mention fracking at a social gathering and, depending on the company you keep, there will be one of three responses (or perhaps all three). For many people, fracking conjures up images of massive drill rigs, industrial pumps, burning gas coming out of kitchen taps and stories of contaminated drinking water. For them, fracking is an undesirable activity. People from the industry have a very different position. They see fracking as a highly efficient way of recovering gas and oil from otherwise unworkable geological situations, notably tight shale. Industry rejects the idea that fracking is the source of contamination described in documentary and dramatic movies about events in the United States such as Gasland and Promised Land. Economists and governments will have a third view.
Fracking opens access to gas and oil reserves that provide much needed energy resources at an affordable cost. Indeed, fracking has dramatically changed the status of the United States, which is moving to an oil and gas surplus thanks to the application of this technology. With supply booming, prices for gas have plummeted. There is now the prospect of the United States exporting cheap liquefied natural gas, a complete reversal of the situation just a few years ago.
Despite the potential economic benefit and ability to satisfy energy needs, there is a broad public that is uncomfortable with fracking, pointing to the environmental risks. Local opposition to fracking has often been intense, a situation that the industry generally regards as NIMBYism. Governments in many countries are struggling to know how to manage this social rejection and facilitate a move towards greater energy self-sufficiency. In Europe, this has not been helped by warnings from Russian President Vladimir Putin that ‘fracking for shale gas is dangerous’.
So where is the real picture?
High pressure hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, is hardly new. It was first tried in the 1940s and present technology used to release gas and oil from tight shale is at least 30 years old. However, the scale and intensity of fracking has increased dramatically over the last 10 years, particularly in the United States, with the advent of multi-well horizontal drilling techniques.
Aside from the question of contribution to global atmospheric carbon loading, concerns about fracking tend to focus on two risks. First, that the cocktail of chemicals, sand and water used to fracture rock under high pressure could contaminate ground water with toxic, perhaps cancer inducing, products. Second, that the fracked well could leak gas, contaminating near-surface ground waters used for domestic and agricultural purposes, creating the fire from kitchen taps that features in several YouTube videos.
There seems to be little hard evidence of contamination of ground water by fracking fluids. On the other hand there have been surface impacts on the environment. For example, in May and June 2007, fracking chemicals leaked into a 2km stretch of Acorn Fork Creek, Kentucky. The chemicals were stored in surface pits that overflowed. The creek turned acid and all visible life forms disappeared. Leakage of gas from fracking wells into near-surface ground waters is much more controversial. Experts are divided on this matter largely due to a lack of reliable base line data. As a result, debate has become fractious and at times degenerates into shapeless sniping of can-can’t and did-didn’t.
The British Royal Society recently completed one of the more rigorous evaluations of fracking. The overall conclusion was that the technology is not risk free.
The principal risk is contamination of ground water from faulty well construction. This compliments information assembled by Senator Susan O’Keefe in Ireland.
Experts from Holland, where fracking has been ongoing since the 1970s, informed her that the greatest risk was from faulty wells. The common recommendation is to have strong regulations and good drilling contractors. The Royal Society suggests that the technology could be considered safe under the strong regulations that exist in the United Kingdom. On the other hand, Ireland, lacking adequate regulations, has fracking on hold pending input from the European Commission.
So is there an evidence-based solution to the fracking controversy? Probably: but there are other factors in play. Putin’s derogatory comments ignore the fact that that Russia’s Gazprom uses fracking in its own oil and gas fields. However, they come as European countries consider the technology to access plentiful shale gas and rid themselves of dependency on Russian supplies.Loss of these markets is an obvious threat to the Russian economy and Putin’s power in Europe.
Similarly, buried in the credits to the movie Promised Land is an interesting detail: it was part funded by Abu Dhabi Media, a company owned by the Abu Dhabi government. The company states that it invested purely on commercial terms. But the film’s anti-fracking message happens to coincide with the interests of its owner. As an established hydrocarbon exporter, Abu Dhabi sees the United States’ potential for export of natural gas as a threat to its market in Japan.
So there are both governments and multinational companies that have an interest in sustaining a negative image for fracking. You need to look carefully at who is saying what to whom, and ask why. It may be noteworthy that Japan lacks shale gas amenable to fracking. The country has other opportunities for energy supplies and is developing a process to recover gas from frozen methane hydrates – also known as fire ice – found offshore on the continental shelf. If there is a campaign targeting fire ice as a hazard to health and the environment, better check to see where the funding comes from.
By Ian Thomson, On Common Ground Consultants Inc.
Ian Thomson is a Principal and Co-Founder of On Common Ground Consultants Inc., an international consultancy with offices in Lima and Vancouver specialising in enhancing social performance and socially sustainable outcomes for the global resource sector.