I live alongside the Midlands mainline from London to Sheffield and am very used to a train passing every five minutes. Fortunately it is down a cutting so the noise is attenuated and for most trains there’s just a barely perceptible vibration of the ground. The stone trains from the local quarry though are a little more noticeable, and although the quarry is two miles distant at 12:30 precisely the house creaks as another 10,000 tonnes of granite is brought crashing to the quarry floor. I’m not about to complain about this though, in fact just the opposite I’m happy to be living in a vibrant part of the country with active industry providing local employment and good transport links.
So why do headlines that juxtapose “earthquake” with “fracking” seem to be so prominent? I could understand if people were getting fed up of crockery falling off shelves and regular rattles interrupting prime-time telly. But no, we’re talking about “earthquakes” – or microseismicity – of magnitude 1.1, 0.5 or 0.3 ML. According to the BGS website “Earthquakes with magnitude less than 2 are not usually felt and if they are felt then by only a few people very close to the earthquake.” So I’m guessing my passing trains are around the 2 level, the quarry blast slightly higher, but events of 1 or less are going to be undetectable. So it does seem daft that fracking companies have to stop operations if seismographs twitch by more than 0.5 ML, it’s a good job East Midlands Trains don’t operate to the same standard!
Perhaps there is a concern that microseismisicity could lead to more substantial earthquakes. Indeed fracking for geothermal energy has induced larger events and ultimately killed off a geothermal project in Basel after a magnitude 3.5 event. However this project was fracking around an active fault – deliberately so to access the geothermal heat percolating up through the fault line. Therefore it is not surprising that the residents of Basel, which was destroyed by a 6.5 ML earthquake in 1356, were particularly nervous about frackers inducing fault slip. In the geologically stable UK this ought to be less of a risk. It is interesting to note that I write this article a week after drilling has started for a new geothermal project near Redruth, Cornwall. “Any relative risk of induced seismicity is very well controlled” the Managing Director of the company behind the project is quoted as saying. Given there is a risk, and given the heightened sensitivities around the high pressure injection of water through fractured rock it is surprising the “Frack-Off” objectors are not surrounding the site with a ring of placards.
I’m not writing as an apologist for fracking, I think there are significant concerns, but I do think we need a sensible debate away from the emotion that seems to surround it. Where do we want to source our energy from over the next 50 years? Many would say we should pursue low carbon sources and make a switch as fast as we are able. According to IPCC
figures PV at 48 g/kWh (lifecycle CO2eqemissions) or better still wind and nuclear at 12 g/kWh would be front runners for electricity production. But we have to start from where we are which is a system where nearly all the flexibility and much of the firm capacity is provided by gas. Furthermore more than 80% of our heating comes from gas. This will take decades to transform, and even if we do we may adopt hydrogen which will in all probability come from gas: according to UKERC’s CCS report released last week “There is close to universal agreement that if we did make this change then we would create hydrogen from fossil fuels using CCS at least for the foreseeable future”.
So given our energy system and gas are going to be joined at the hip until 2050 and beyond we need to plan where best to source this gas. The options it seems are quite limited:
- Exploit conventional gas. Economics say this will happen anyway but domestic reserves will soon run very low. We import just over half our gas now and BEIS estimate nearly ¾ will come from overseas by 2030.
- Import LNG. Liquifying, transporting and then regasifying methane adds quite an energy (and climate) penalty though.
- Import via pipeline. Ultimately this probably comes from Russia.
- Exploit unconventional gas (e.g. by fracking). This will probably only supply a small proportion of our needs, but will help reduce the first two options.
So it’s a zero sum game between fracking, Russian pipeline and LNG. The question is which is least damaging to the environment or best for our energy security? I’m just not convinced either import option is better than shale gas, I think we need more data.
The website frack-off.org.uk list the following problems they associate with fracking (in bold) with my comment alongside:
Leaking methane: Given methane’s large global warming potential even leaks of a fraction of a percent seriously undermine gas as a fuel and feedstock. We need to see good data here, collected and analysed independently from the producers and the protestors and compared with LNG production and long pipelines across the tundra.
Water contamination: By licencing sites away from potable aquifers and vigilant monitoring this ought to be controllable.
Air pollution: Supplying the energy for the fracking could cause air pollution, but is this any more than other industrial developments and can it not be cleaned up?
Radioactive contamination: The suggestion is that returning water can contain radioactive elements, although this is more of an issue when fracking for geothermal energy and usually not significantly higher than background. Good monitoring should spot issues here.
Massive industrialisation of the landscape: Indeed, there will be inappropriate places to do this, but in terms of energy production the industrialisation has a much lower impact than onshore wind. The rigs are much smaller than turbines and energy production is higher.
Worsening climate change: Any unabated burning of fossil fuel, or methane leaks (see above) will cause this. If we were really concerned about the climate we would capture the emissions via CCS. The question is will fracking in the UK encourage us to burn more gas, or just change the source of the gas? The real question centres on the environmental impact of fracking vis a vis imported LNG.
Earthquakes: As discussed above is probably the least important objection.
So, let’s undertake some well monitored trials and collect data on the above. I’d be happy if that was in my backyard, after all my corner of Leicestershire is already littered with energy infrastructure such as a coal power station, a large PV farm, wind farms, an oil well and 400kV power lines. Let’s fully understand and account for upstream issues with alternative sources of gas, and not sweep them under the carpet as outside our jurisdiction. Then let’s procure the gas we need from the sources that best meet our environmental, security and affordability considerations, putting in place sound regulation to mitigate any issues. Finally let’s ensure that when we burn or convert our gas we capture as much CO2as we practicably can before it enters the atmosphere.