4 July 2011

Fracking – a tale of gas, greed and global warming

Every now and again it seems like a solution has been found to our energy problems, one that will allow us all to go on consuming (and wasting!) for decades, if not forever. For many years nuclear fusion was billed as the answer. The research began with the hydrogen bomb in the 1950s, but the timeline for rollout to the civil nuclear industry keeps getting pushed out and currently stands at 2040 at the earliest.(1)

In the 1980s Japanese scientists proved that it was theoretically possibly to extract uranium from sea water, which appeared to suggest that a key physical limit to nuclear power – the availability of uranium supplies – was no longer an issue. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately given all the other problems associated with nuclear power) nobody has actually been able to make usable uranium via this process because of the high level of carbonate in sea water.(2)

In the last few years shale gas has bubbled to the top of the pile and is now being widely touted by the oil and gas industry as: a) a clean, green alternative to coal and oil; b) proof that Peak Oil/Gas is many years off; and c) a cheaper use of government subsidies than support for renewables.(3)(4)

Those are pretty mighty claims, but do they really stack up? And even if they don’t, might there be some pretty unpleasant home truths in the shale gas story?

Shale gas is methane produced by blasting a combination of hot water, sand and chemicals several kilometres below ground into sedimentary rock containing organic matter. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, breaks up the rock, floods it with water and releases tiny trapped bubbles of natural gas which are pumped to the surface.

Fracking isn’t new – it was invented in the US in the early 20th century. But back then it was a complicated and expensive process by comparison with the extraction of conventional fossil fuels. What’s different now is that: a) prices for fossil fuels are much higher; b) industrialised economies use a lot more gas; and c) it’s expensive to liquefy someone else’s gas and ship it round the world.(5)

As a result shale gas fracked from local sources was 21% of US gas reserves in 2009 and is predicted to be 20% of all US gas supplies by 2020.(6)(7)

“The potential for natural gas is enormous,” President Obama said in a speech earlier this year.(8) But what he didn’t say in that speech was that in the US, which is much further down the shale gas road than anywhere else, there’s considerable controversy over the environmental implications of fracking.

In 2009 Wyoming failed to meet federal standards for air quality for the first time in its history partly because of the fumes containing benzene and toluene from gas wells. In Texas a hospital operating in six counties with some of the heaviest drilling reported a 25% asthma rate for young children in 2010, more than triple the state rate of 7%.(9)

Gas has seeped into underground drinking-water supplies in at least five US states.(10) In the town of Bradford in northern Pennsylvania, where two homes exploded at the end of last year, entire streets have been fitted with gas detectors as a precaution against methane gas migration.(11)(12) 

In April a gas well exploded in Pennsylvania sending toxic chemicals into the local river and forcing the evacuation of nearby homes.(13) A number of US towns have had to warn locals to boil tap water before drinking after water treatment plants were compromised by bromides in waste water from gas-drilling projects.(14)

In the early days of the fracking boom companies refused to disclose the chemicals they were using. Then, when reports started emerging of highly toxic flowback water from the wells polluting water supplies, they were forced to change their tune.(15) State regulators in Wyoming and Texas have now ordered that drillers disclose all chemicals used.(16, 17, 18) 

Caudrilla, the company fracking near Blackpool in the UK, say they’re using just three chemicals, all of them present in food and cosmetics.(19) The makers of the recently released documentary “Gasland” say they’ve identified 600 chemicals used in US fracking operations, many of them carcinogenic.(20) A recent report by Democratic members of Congress found that drilling companies sometimes injected chemicals that even they could not identify. It also found that more than 650 of the chemicals used in fracking were carcinogens.(21)

The practice of fracking is also being blamed for releasing radioactive substances into waste water which sewage plants are not equipped to deal with, the death of flocks of birds which have been dropping mysteriously out of the skies and increased frequency of earthquakes.(22)(23)(24)

The earthquake issue hit the UK recently when two small tremors were felt near Blackpool where Caudrilla were drilling for gas shale. Operations were stopped whilst investigators checked to see if there was any possible link.(25)

In March the Energy and Climate Change Committee of the UK Parliament launched an inquiry into the exploitation of shale gas. It concluded that the UK version of fracking was safe but that there was only 18 months worth of shale gas in the UK and that importing shale gas from elsewhere risked crowding out investment in renewables.(26)(27)

Others have been less sanguine. The French government halted shale gas drilling in March pending an inquiry. The French National Assembly then voted to ban fracking completely. The upper house of the French parliament, the Senate, is likely to vote the ban into law soon.(28)

The US city of Pittsburgh has now banned fracking. Other smaller municipalities in Pennsylvania and New York state have done the same, or have at least banned the dumping of toxic waste water in their areas. But for the moment it’s the gold rush all over again and the industry is running well ahead of the regulators. Last year the US Environmental Prevention Agency started a review of fracking, but it’s not expected to report until 2014!(29)(30)

It’s much harder work removing shale gas from the ground than conventional fossil fuels because it needs to be forced out rather than just bubbling up under its own pressure. As a result the energy return on energy invested during extraction ratio (EROEI) is low. It’s considerably worse than conventional oil and gas and, according to some reports, it may be worse than oil tar sands.(31)(32)

Peak Oil/Gas theory predicts that EROEI will fall for fossil fuels as they get harder to extract. Some have suggested that this might work hand in hand with finding a solution to climate change – as EROEI rises making fossil fuels more expensive that creates incentives to move to other fuels which produce fewer greenhouse gases. But in the case of shale gas it’s also possible that the leakage of methane – which is 33 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas – has the potential to cause considerable damage to the climate.

In May 2010 the US Council of Scientific Society Presidents wrote to President Obama urging great caution against a national policy of developing shale gas without a better scientific basis for the policy. This umbrella organisation which represents 1.4 million US scientists argued that, because of methane leakage, shale gas might actually aggravate global warming, rather than help to mitigate it.(33)

In January 2011 a report by the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change made the same argument based on research into US drilling sites. They also said there was no evidence of a switch from coal to gas in the US – they found it was being burned in addition to coal.(34)

Then came the first peer-reviewed study, by academics at Cornell University, which suggested that, because of methane releases caused during fracking, shale gas had a carbon footprint that could be as much as 20% higher than coal.(35)

If that’s true, then it’s both staggering and terrifying. Unsurprisingly the gas industry, which claims fracking has only half the emissions of coal, has come out fighting and has denounced the Cornell report, especially the leaking methane claim, as bad science.(36)(37)

The International Energy Agency (IEA), not normally a foe of the fossil fuels industry, recently released a double-edged report entitled “Are We Entering a Golden Age of Gas?” which both highlighted the amount of available gas and the risks for climate change. The report says: “the high gas scenario shows carbon emissions consistent with a long-term temperature rise of over 3.5°C.”(38)

The authors of the Cornell study say they do not believe they have published the definitive science on fracking and admit that some of their data is not well documented. Either way, it’s a perfectly valid and utterly critical topic of discussion.

The shale gas frenzy appears to prove the theory of Peak Oil/Gas/Fossil Fuels, but decouples it from the solution to climate change. As conventional supply tightens we go to every greater lengths to secure unconventional supply – including mining the Arctic, shale gas and oil, oil from coal, tar sands. These are all signs of desperation. The trouble is these death throes of the fossil fuel industry probably have the capacity to provoke runaway climate change many times over.

“If we are serious in our commitment to avoid dangerous climate change, the only safe place for shale gas remains in the ground, " says Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre.(39) So far just one country has offered to keep its fossil fuels locked up underground – Ecuador. But only if the world pays to protect the rain forest sitting above those reserves.(40)

Another way to reduce the incentives for fracking is to prove that renewables are cheaper to develop. But the gas industry is working hard to counter this. They’ve been giving anyone who will take it a report commissioned by the European Gas Advocacy Forum (EGAF), an industry lobbying group, based in part on an analysis by consultancy firm McKinsey and called “Making the Green Journey Work”. This report argues that the EU could meet its 2050 climate targets €900bn more cheaply using gas than by investing in renewables.(41)(42)

It’s possible the shale gas bubble will burst of its own accord. The New York Times recently published an article suggesting the economics of shale gas were being over-hyped. It quoted an analyst in the US Energy Dept as saying:" “Am I just totally crazy, or does it seem like everyone and their mothers are endorsing shale gas without getting a really good understanding of the economics at the business level?”(43)(44) 

Prof Robert Howarth, lead author of the Cornell study, said: "My strong belief is that shale gas has been promoted far beyond the objective evidence of what it can and cannot do. It is time to step back, and objectively analyse whether this is a reasonable energy technology for our future. It is also time to analyse how environmental issues associated with the technology might be reduced, and at what cost."(45)

But even if the shale gas phenomenon turns out to be nothing more than a vast Ponzi scheme, or if regulators, legislators and the public eventually decide that the environmental risks of fracking are too great, this is a story with a nasty truth at its heart. It illustrates all too well the lengths to which Hydrocarbon Man will go to in order to maintain his intravenous drip addiction to fossil fuels. It’s time for those of us who subscribe to Peak Oil theory to start thinking about what happens if unconventional fossil fuels stretch the peak out for years, maybe decades, and cause untold damage in terms of climate change.


1) The Guardian, 23 August 2011
2) Wikipedia - Uranium
3) The Guardian, 20 April 2011
4) The Guardian, 8 April 2011
5) The Oil Drum, 17 January 2011
6) US Energy Information Administration, 30 November 2010
7) US Environmental Protection Agency, June 2010
8) New York Times, 27 June 2011
9) New York Times, 27 February 2011
10) Ibid
11) The Guardian, 21 April 2011
12) The Guardian, 12 April 2011
13) The Financial Times, 2 June 2011
14) New York Times, 27 February 2011
15) Energy Bulletin, 1 March 2011
16) New York Times, 20 December 2010
17) The Financial Times, 2 June 2011
18) Planet Green, 23 December 2010
19) The Guardian, 20 April 2011
20) Gasland, the movie
21) US House of Representatives Energy & Commerce Committee (Democrats), 16 April 2011
22) New York Times, 27 February 2011
23) New York Times, 5 January 2011
24) Huffington Post, 6 March 2011
25) The Guardian, 1 June 2011
26) BBC News, 3 March 2011
27) The Guardian, 23 May 2011
28) The Financial Times, 11 May 2011
29) US Environmental Protection Agency website
30) New York Times, 23 June 2011
31) Cassandra's Legacy Blog, 17 April 2011
32) The Oil Drum
33) Council of Scientific Society Presidents, 4 May 2010
34) Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, January 2011
35) Howarth, R., Santoro, R., Ingraffea, A. (2011). "Methane and the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations." Cornell University: New York.
36) Energy In Depth, 20 May 2011
37) The Guardian, 20 April 2011
38) International Energy Agency, 6 June 2011
39) Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, January 2011
40) The Ecologist, 5 August 2010
41) European Gas Advocacy Forum, February 2011
42) The Guardian, 20 April 2011
43) New York Times, 27 June 2011
44) New York Times, 26 June 2011
45) Howarth, R., Santoro, R., Ingraffea, A. (2011). "Methane and the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations." Cornell University: New York.