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Frack, frack and away?

by Alex Rubin Frack, frack and away? With Britain set to replace up to 25% of its power supply, the need to secure a viable alternative to North Sea oil and find a cheaper source of energy is becoming increasingly vital. The revised estimate put forward by IGas this month concerning shale gas – a natural gas found within shale rock formations - will have the UK chancellor licking his lips. On its Bowland site in the North East, the company upgraded its estimate to 172.3 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of shale gas – that is a twenty fold increase. To put the figures into perspective, it is estimated that 15 tcf is enough to supply Britain for 5 years. So surely shale gas has the potential for becoming part of the UK’s energy mix? Well, on the outset, the positives for such a case are in abundance but so are the negatives. Notably, many MPs and lobbyists argue that shale gas would sustainably displace coal within Britain’s energy mix and thereby reduce carbon emissions in the years to come. According to the Institute of Directors (IoD), global displacement of coal with natural gas would reduce global carbon emissions by 17%. This, however, has been refuted by many academics indicating that shale gas exploration and production has a much higher greenhouse gas emission (GHG) footprint than coal. Secondly, the economic potential of shale gas has also been touted by the IoD, in the same way that North Sea oil has developed by providing jobs, investment and a sustained income for the British Government. The IoD estimates that investment within the shale industry could be worth £3.7 billion a year which in turn would create 74,000 new jobs. Similarly, the IoD indicates that this would have a knock on effect within the chemical industry and manufacturing sector with the potential to create 1 million new jobs across the next decade. Doubts, however, remain with the commercial viability and potential of wells which have been identified by firms such as IGas in Britain. Notable opponents of its production deem the process and subsequent job creation figures as far from the truth. In particular, Greenpeace points towards the unpredictability of the identified shale wells in this country, with very active wells – known as ‘sweet spots’ – being surrounded by less productive ones. As a consequence, the projected output from a sweet spots cannot be merely replicated for every identified well. This suggests that the figures regarding output and job creation from the IoD must be taken lightly. Environmental groups also pointing towards the negative, often hidden impacts of shale exploration and production in relation to the environment. The technology of getting shale gas flowing – known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking – is a key example which such groups have described as unsustainable due to the vast amounts of water, chemicals and sand needed in the process. Alongside this, the by-product of the millions of barrels of water has also been called into question – this is due to the toxic contamination of the water after the process of fracking. Other notable concerns which environmental groups have expressed from fracking pertain to earthquakes. As recorded in 2011, near to a shale drilling site in Blackpool, two earthquakes were measured at a magnitude of 1.5 and 2.3. Both earthquakes, although not considered as damaging to local infrastructure, were as a consequence of the high powered fracking at the Preese Hall site. Clearly, the potential case for utilising shale gas within Britain’s future energy mix is unclear. The vast necessity to plug the gap, however, is clear. With sceptics continuing to talk down shale and talk up renewable energy, thorough R&D and continuing development of the industry in America will allow time to tell. The British government must therefore make a decision, whether to talk the talk or walk the walk on shale gas.

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