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Fracking & Quakes: Not A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On

There’s not a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on due to shale gas fracking – official. Except, that is, in the global energy markets. But the ‘whatever-it-is-I’m-against-it’ Marxist (Groucho, that is) eco-activists, together with the constant alarmists in the media, persist in attempting to send tremors through public opinion over shale gas extraction.

So why the fracking fuss?

Shaken (imperceptibly), not stirred

In the UK, at least, hard facts over fracking continue to undermine the trumped up charges levelled by the anti-frackers at every turn of the drill bit. And it is worth reviewing the arguments affecting the issue in the UK to see precisely why minor seismic events are failing to register as significant with the British Government when it comes to hydraulic fracturing.

The British Geological Survey (BGS) report, published in late October, on the two minor tremors near Blackpool on England’s north-west coast earlier this year they were almost certainly caused by Cuadrilla’s fracking operation just a few hundred meters from the epicenter of both micro-quakes. The first tremor on April 1 was a magnitude of 2.3 on the Richter Scale and the second, on May 27, 1.5. The BGS report highlighted both the rarity of such events over the past 60 years, and confirmed the small scale of the seismic activity.

In June, Cuadrilla suspended its drilling operation and commissioned its own investigation in conjunction with Keele University. In November, Cuadrilla Resources published its findings in a report that would also be submitted for independent peer review. The report concluded that the tremors had been caused by an “unusual combination of factors” that were “unlikely to occur again”.

Their report found that the specific geology of the well, as well as the pressure exerted by water injected directly into a tectonic fault two miles underground, meant the Preese Hall site was perhaps not the wisest choice. The study went on to state how the two tremors were of an order stronger than those usually associated with hydraulic fracking. Further, even if these factors were to combine again to cause an even stronger 3-magnitude quake that too would not be “expected to present a risk”.

Stefan Baisch, one of the authors of the Cuadrilla report, is also general manager of the German deep-drilling research firm Q-Con. He has a PhD in seismology and has spent 10 years researching induced seismicity. Baisch points out some hard facts about fracking that confirms Cuadrilla’s ‘worst-case scenario’ assessment. Referring to Cuadrilla’s operation, Basich states, “There have been more than a million similar treatments in the world over the last 50 years or so, and there are only two cases where similar seismic reactions occurred.”

Stirred, not shaken

As UK shale gas expert Nick Grealy said in the aftermath of the two reports, “3 may sound close enough to 2.2, but the way the Richter scale works a 3 is many, many times stronger.” Speaking on TV’s Channel Four News, Grealy noted that, “Richter himself didn’t even think anything under 3 could even be measured. People would be in their beds, asking themselves: ‘Was that a 1.5 earthquake or the cat flap?’ ”

The environmental risks are “negligible compared with the benefits of shale gas”, Grealy told Channel Four News. Warning about the national economic bottom line in the face of depleting North Sea gas reserves and growing gas imports: “The reality here is that if we don’t use UK shale gas we are going to end up importing U.S. shale gas”.

Speaking at a UK Shale Gas Environmental Summit in early November, post-publication of the Cuadrilla report, Mike Stephenson, Head of Energy at the British Geological Survey, further debunked two myths about the small scale tremors occasionally associated with hydraulic fracturing operations. Firstly, that “they are not perceptible to human beings” and, secondly “they do not cause damage”.

The summit also heard that the UK Environment Agency actually sees shale gas as perfectly manageable so long as drill operators abide by already existing regulations. Dr Kevin Anderson, professor for climate change research at the Tyndall Centre in Cambridge, confirmed that he no longer has any issues with most of the water and chemicals utilized in the fracking process. Both elements are central to the anti-fracking case.

Shaken and stirred (by real jobs, cheap gas)

Unfortunately, few of the hard facts above made the UK media. Shame. While the demonstrators of Frack Off invaded another of Cuadrilla’s Lancashire sites in November, along with anti-fracking protestors elsewhere, they are rarely interested in hard facts and genuine debate over fracking. For them, fracking has become a cause celebre in whose ‘evil’ they hold a passionate religious-style faith. However, here are some other highly pertinent facts and figures that should not only shake their faith and stir their conscience to a more balanced judgment.

In September, Cuadrilla reported a world-class gas-in-place figure of 200 trillion cubic feet in its license area alone in Lancashire in England’s north-west. Britain’s North Sea gas production slumped by an alarming 25 percent in the second quarter of 2011, with reliance on foreign gas imports rising in consequence. It not only forced up energy prices to record levels it also forced large numbers into fuel poverty as a direct result. While renewables simply cannot fill the power gap over coming decades, shale gas has the potential to make Britain self-reliant once again and for decades to come.

In addition in September 2011, a report by the economic development agency Regeneris Consulting on the economic impact of shale gas for the UK underscored just what shale gas development would mean in the UK. The Regeneris report states that Cuadrilla’s operations alone could create up to 5,600 highly-paid skilled jobs in the UK, with 1,700 of those based in Lancashire, a region of high unemployment. Other parts of Britain are thought to be sitting on large reserves of shale gas, too. Regeneris states that experience from the United States shows that shale gas development would have a significant downward pressure on domestic wholesale gas prices. In short, the shale gas revolution offers the social holy trinity of real jobs, regional regeneration and national economic revival.

Micro-quakes and acts of urban terrorism may make the headlines, but the real substance of the global shale gas phenomenon is its potentially enormous socio-economic impact. To borrow scale from Richter: while environmental concerns are at a magnitude of 1 to 2, the socio-economic benefits threaten a seismic 8 to 10.

Energy Tribune, 10 November 2011