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Green Movement Divided Over Shale Gas

The Guardian

Fracking is polarising many in the environmental movement.

The UK government has given the green light to fracking for shale gas – a controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing – under strict conditions. Energy secretary Ed Davey said:

“Shale gas represents a promising new potential energy resource for the UK. It could contribute significantly to our energy security, reducing our reliance on imported gas, as we move to a low-carbon economy. My decision is based on the evidence. It comes after detailed study of the latest scientific research available and advice from leading experts in the field.”

Fracking is polarising many in the environmental movement. To help you understand what is at stake, climate change writer Mark Lynas and Greenpeace scientist David Santillo debate the pro and cons of the practice, and will answer your questions in the thread below.  

Mark Lynas, freelance writer working full-time on climate change

By going big on opposition to fracking, the environmental movement risks scoring a large own-goal. Just as they have done with nuclear power, the greens are using arguments about trivial and manageable risks to try to stop a technology that can help to reduce a much greater risk – that of global warming.

The local environmental impacts of fracking should be taken seriously, but are often wildly overstated by opponents. For the UK the companyCuadrilla, which wants to drill in the Lancashire shale, uses only sand, water, a benign chemical called polyacrylamide (at 0.04% concentration) and trace amounts of salt. The fracking takes place 3km below the surface water table, and disposal of the resulting flowback water is strictly regulated by the Environment Agency.

The UK may have 6,000 billion cubic metres of shale gas or more, enough for 60 years at current consumption. Gas is a cleaner fuel than coal, but because coal is currently cheaper than gas the UK’s carbon emissions are higher than they need to be. Shale gas could reverse this situation as it has in the US, where coal is in decline and emissions are falling. In the longer term, however, gas-fired power stations should be required to capture their emissions through carbon capture and storage technologies.

Greens must remember that coal is the single biggest contributor to global warming, and that coal mining – which still goes on in the UK – has vastly greater landscape and even seismic impacts too. The priority must be to get coal off the UK grid, and shale gas – with captured emissions – can help that to happen.

David Santillo, senior scientist for Greenpeace

Hydraulic fracture methods (“fracking”) are associated with a range of environmental impacts, some of which are not fully characterised or understood. The process consumes huge amounts of water (estimated at anywhere between 9,000 and 29,000 cubic metres of water for a single well).

A range of hazardous chemicals are added to fracturing fluids (at least 260 chemical additives are known to be used), some of which are toxic, carcinogenic or mutagenic. These chemicals can contaminate groundwater if well bores fail, and are part of waste fluid streams returned to the surface, which can also pick up contaminants such as heavy metals, volatile hydrocarbons and naturally occurring radioactive elements from the shale itself. Well-drilling operations can also cause severe landscape degradation and noise pollution simply as a result of normal operations.

On top of all this, it appears that the greenhouse gas “footprint” of shale gas may be significantly greater than for conventional gas and has even be claimed by some to be worse than coal.

Greenpeace is therefore opposed to the exploitation of unconventional gas reserves until the impacts are fully investigated, understood, addressed and regulated. We call for significant more effort to be put into understanding the full impacts of fracking.

The Guardian, 13 December 2012