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Shale gas – what are the real risks?


Last year I was at a Shell-sponsored debate on shale gas when I was startled to be accused by a member of the public of being responsible, along with Greenpeace and the BBC, for rumours that hydraulic fracturing, the ‘fracking’ process used to extract shale gas from deep underground, could trigger a volcano in the Mendips. For the record, I should clarify that WWF was not responsible for this rather surprising suggestion.

Test frackingFracking has a whole range of environmental concerns surrounding it. © Daniel Foster

What is notable about the shale gas debate is the difference between the conversations taking place in academic circles and the headlines in our national newspapers.

Today’s headlines, for example are full of the ‘news’ that fracking is not a significant cause of earthquakes. In reality, although clearly concerns about seismicity should be taken seriously, it’s never been at the forefront of environmental objections to shale gas drilling. Neither has the much-publicised risk of groundwater contamination.

Hidden beneath today’s headlines is a far more serious issue, brought up by both Professor Davies of Durham University (author of today’s study on seismicity) and Professor Robert Jackson of Duke University in the US, at an event last night on shale gas.

It concerns the rather unglamorous question of the integrity of the casing of a well – in other words whether the wells leak. Professor Jackson, who has published a peer reviewed study on this issue, has said: “We know that a certain number of wells leak through time. Some people might say 5% but one study suggested as many as half of all wells have sustained casing pressure, suggesting there is something wrong”.

There are other environmental concerns that would merit more scrutiny but have been neglected in favour of  ones that are more evocative, headline-grabbing or just plain easy to understand. The amount of water used, for example, particularly if it’s in water-stressed areas.

Then there’s the issue of what happens to the waste fracking fluids which are often heavily contaminated. As Professor Jackson said last night, in response to the question about whether shale gas drilling can be done in a way that’s safe and environmentally acceptable, it’s the wrong question. The question is not can it be done safely but will it?

There is, of course, one issue that’s been persistently ignored by most of the media debate on shale gas, despite it being the main objection from us and many other environmental groups. The biggest problem is that, without a legally binding global cap on greenhouse gas emissions, shale gas won’t be a substitute for dirty coal, but just an additional fossil fuel.

In a world that needs to stay below 2°C of global warming, we need to leave most of the world’s remaining fossil fuels in the ground rather than burning them. We certainly don’t need any new ones.

Creative Commons licensing for Daniel Fosters image

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