What’s your idea of an ‘earthquake’? Mine looks rather like those television images coming out of Fukushima or Christchurch earlier this year: rooms shaking, objects falling from the walls, people cowering under furniture, buildings collapsing. So when a report by an energy company admits that its exploratory drilling for gas in north-west England has caused two earthquakes, that’s a really good reason to be concerned, right?
No wonder, then, that nine anti-fracking protesters from the campaign group Frack Off ‘stormed’ (according to the Guardian) a drilling rig and unfurled a (barely readable) banner. Colin Eastman, one of the climbers, said via a Frack Off press release: ‘Conventional fossil fuels have begun to run out and the system is moving towards more extreme forms of energy like fracking, tar sands, and deep-water drilling. The move towards “extreme energy” is literally scraping the bottom of the barrel, sucking the last most difficult-to-reach fossil fuels from the planet at a time when we should be rapidly reducing our consumption altogether and looking for sustainable alternatives.’
So we face a trade-off, it seems, between reducing consumption and going renewable on the one hand and facing a hellish future of pollution and earthquakes on the other. Faced with these facts, how can we allow shale-gas production to continue?
As it happens, the ‘fracking’ techniques employed to extract shale gas are enabling us to exploit very easy-to-reach fossil fuels, of which they are plenty. Indeed, the development of these technologies could well be the saviour of those difficult-to-reach wildernesses that greens are so keen to defend.
But the current news is all about the ‘earthquakes’. The seismic events that have taken place as a result of the exploratory drilling by Cuadrilla Resources were, in fact, only earthquakes in the very broadest definition of the term. The first of these events, on 1 April, had a magnitude of 2.3 on the Richter scale; the second, on 27 May, was of magnitude 1.5. What do these numbers mean?
According to the US Geological Survey (USGS): ‘Earthquakes with magnitudes of about 2.0 or less are usually called microearthquakes; they are not commonly felt by people and are generally recorded only on local seismographs.’
An educational site for ‘budding seismologists’ explains how the Richter scale works: ‘For each whole number you go up on the Richter scale, the amplitude of the ground motion recorded by a seismograph goes up 10 times… To give you an idea how these numbers can add up, think of it in terms of the energy released by explosives: a magnitude 1 seismic wave releases as much energy as blowing up six ounces of TNT. A magnitude 8 earthquake releases as much energy as detonating six million tons of TNT… Fortunately, most of the earthquakes that occur each year are magnitude 2.5 or less, too small to be felt by most people.’
In other words, the two earthquakes caused by the shale-gas drilling were so small that they wouldn’t normally even be felt, let alone result in any damage. A comparison with an earthquake in 2008 in the eastern English county of Lincolnshire is instructive. That one measured 5.2 on the Richter scale and was the largest earthquake in the UK for nearly 25 years. Using the USGS’s handy earthquake comparison calculator, we can see that the 2008 earthquake was over 800 times bigger than the larger of the two recent seismic events and released over 22,000 times more energy. Even then, the Lincolnshire earthquake was pretty small in the grand scheme of things, though it was felt across the UK. It caused ‘damage to chimneys’ in the area near the epicentre and one serious injury.
Yet on the basis of events that were far, far less significant than even the Lincolnshire tremor, it is suggested that shale-gas production should be banned. If planners, policymakers and local residents fall for this piece of green spin, they really need their heads examined.
In reality, the frequent exaggeration of minor problems with shale-gas production – from methane releases into groundwater to spillages of ‘fracking’ chemicals – are all side issues to greens’ biggest concern: that these new supplies of natural gas will be so cheap and plentiful that it will be a no-brainer for governments to give them preference over expensive, intermittent and unreliable renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.
Even many experts who are gravely concerned about climate change can see that finding abundant supplies of gas – which produces substantially fewer greenhouse gases than coal or oil – could be an invaluable ‘bridge’ technology, a get-out-of-jail card, while renewables are developed further so that they are more reliable and economic. But it would probably mean kissing goodbye to any hope of meeting the UK’s ludicrously optimistic CO2-reduction and renewable-energy targets.
That would be no bad thing. The policies put forward to deal with possible global warming have been myopically obsessed with reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, even at the expense of inflated fuel bills and lower economic growth. A compromise solution like gas that reduces emissions while providing cheap energy would avoid some of the harm such policies might otherwise cause. It would also buy us some valuable time to see if this climate change fuss is really all it’s cracked up to be, and it would reduce the cost of importing energy into the UK.
No wonder greens are quaking in their boots.