Few environmental issues have sparked as much controversy in recent years as fracking. People argue passionately on both sides: Pro-frackers think it's an affordable and safe way to get, much needed, natural gas. Anti-frackers are dubious about its economic merits, see the chemicals used as a massive cause for concern and that’s even before you get to the environmental impact.
To be clear: we're firmly opposed to fracking.
The long term impact on our public health and environment is completely unknown. It’s yet another bet on a method of energy extraction driven by energy executives with an eye on their profit margin. And by the way, we believe the economic benefits are slim to none. At best, it’s a red herring, at worst an environmental and public health disaster.
We'd much rather focus on green gas. Carbon neutral, renewable bio-methane produced from farm waste.
Our ‘Green Gas’ guarantee
You can argue all day about fracking - believe us, we have. But the reality is until you start taking positive action to increase the production of truly ‘green gas’ we won’t tackle the warped incentives that support fracking in the UK.
Our “Green Gas Guarantee” is a cast iron commitment that drives all our activity in the energy marketplace, our engagement with gas suppliers and what we think is a priority in terms of future gas usage in the UK:
We will continue to increase the proportion of our gas mix that comes from green sources (we’re currently at 10%)
We will work with green gas producers to encourage expansion and increase in output
We will invest in the development of new technologies to support green gas
Digging down into fracking (sorry…)
So what’s our position on fracking based on? Well, a lot of thinking, discussion and debate. But most importantly it’s based on cold hard facts and the scientific evidence available today.
As you may already know - you are reading an article on our website after all - hydraulic fracturing is a process by which millions of gallons of water and fracturing fluids are pumped into horizontal wells to access natural gas in mineral formations below.
We’re not luddites. If an innovation was developed that enabled fracking and burning the gas without an environmental impact we would re-evaluate our position. But until those that support fracking are able to respond to serious concerns in the following three areas, we won’t.
1. The economic case
British politicians are queuing up to get cosy with fracking execs. They laud fracking as the reason for the United States' economic recovery since 2008, but ignore how different the conditions are for fracking over here.
As a form of gas extraction, fracking has been used since the early 1960s but the process of hydraulic fracking using horizontal wells has really only been developed on a commercial scale in the US since the late 2000s when the wholesale price of gas was as high as 70-80 pence per therm (p/th). Not only was the wholesale price high but the cost of production was also far lower in the US (10-30p/th) for a couple of reasons.
First, larger US rock formations such as Marcellus Shale cover multiple states and at points are very shallow (<100m well depth) which make gas much easier to extract.
Second, land is significantly cheaper in the US and planning restrictions looser due to far lower population density.
Conditions in the UK couldn’t be more different. The UK is much more densely populated than the US with 267 people per km2 vs. 67 people in the US. Fylde County in Lancashire, where the first UK fracking tests caused an earthquake, is rural yet still has a population density of more than 460 people per km2. Furthermore, UK rock formations are far harder to frack. Fracking in Bowland Basin (between Preston and Blackpool) would have to occur at depths of 800m which leads to tougher extraction and increased costs. The cost of producing fracked gas in the UK is at a minimum 50p/th, but could be as high as 100p/th. So it would be harder and more expensive to get out.
Furthermore, even when it’s out, the wholesale price of gas in the UK is currently 45p/th and expected to remain around that level for the foreseeable future. Increased imports of cheap liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar, and reduced demand across Europe have driven wholesale prices down over the last 3-5 years.
2. The impact on public health
When you move away from the economic case things become pretty murky. In the UK, Public Health England report assessed the risk to human health of extracting shale gas in a report published in June 2014 and concluded that “risks to public health from exposure to emissions from shale gas extraction are low if operations are properly run and regulated”. However, this report was produced before much of the evidence was available, and the regulation of shale producers in the UK is far from clear at present.
So again, we think a look across the pond where fracking has been going on for years makes sense. In 2015, New York State released a 1,600-page report after a 7-year study into fracking. This is one of the most detailed reports on the effects of fracking. It led to an indefinite ban on fracking in the state. One of the biggest concerns was the potential contamination of the water table in such close proximity to large populations. Other areas of concern were impacts on air pollution and respiratory disease. The Public Health Review from 2014 that fed into the wider study is worth quoting at length:
...the overall weight of the evidence from the cumulative body of information contained in this Public Health Review demonstrates that there are significant uncertainties about the kinds of adverse health outcomes that may be associated with HVHF, the likelihood of the occurrence of adverse health outcomes, and the effectiveness of some of the mitigation measures in reducing or preventing environmental impacts which could adversely affect public health.
All of this isn't even taking into account the known health risks that "normal" carbon based pollution causes, which the production of additional fossil fuels would be contributing to.
3. Short and long term environmental effects
The impact of fracking on our environment is the biggest unknown. Because it always is. We can’t predict the future. But we know enough about what aggressive extraction of fossil fuels has done to our environment over the last hundred years and it isn’t pretty. In fact, the general consensus is, if we could go back and make different decisions we would. So why are we considering charging into another process with the potential to further damage our environmental future?
Specifically, the New York State Report cited above raised the climate change impacts due to methane and other volatile organic chemical released into the atmosphere. It cautioned against the danger for earthquakes and creation of fissures induced during the hydraulic fracturing stage. This was confirmed a threat when fracking tests occurred in Blackpool in 2011. Cuadrilla, the company running the tests, suspended its activity over fears of links to the earthquakes with one tremor of magnitude 2.3 hitting the Fylde coast on 1 April, followed by a second of magnitude 1.4 on 27th May. Not to forget the danger of surface water contamination resulting from inadequate wastewater treatment. Just look at Flint, Michigan if you want to know about the terrifying impact of not taking care of your water supply.
And finally, there are broader quality of life issues. Rural areas, national parks even, simply don’t need more surface penetrating drilling. And this isn’t only about drills on the horizon but lorries driving through small towns and villages and what that would mean for small communities across the U.K.
All things considered - it’s a no from us. We always welcome your input and if you have any thoughts, concerns or contributions to this ongoing debate, please post them below.