Saturday, 17 August 2013

Fracking 2013

What does ‘fracking’ mean?

The other day I read a Guardian article on line in which a fracking protagonist stated that fracking has been used for years in UK land-based oil wells when water is pumped into the well to force oil out. It’s true that that practice has been common in the oil industry for many years, particularly in wells which have passed their peak production. But that has never been called ‘fracking’ before, that I am aware of.

I listened to another protagonist on the Today programme, who said that fracking was an integral part of drilling for geothermal energy, although geothermal drilling is an entirely different process, which recycles the water. In all the time since I first assisted in a geothermal test drill in the Rosemanowes Quarry in Cornwall in the early ‘80s, I have never heard the word ‘fracking’ in this context.

I have a sense that the ‘fracking’ enthusiasts are subtly widening the meaning of the word, to include processes which are, or have been, in common use without controversy, thereby gaining a kind of 'borrowed respectability'. It’s a neat trick!

So when I read the Telegraph article by David Cameron, I admit to looking at it with an analytical eye, because, like Tony Blair, he is good with words!

It has to be said that although the protests at Balcombe have turned into a national event, many of those protesters are there because they perceive a potential effect on their own lives from copious heavy road transport and the likely effect on the water supply, both through over use and through pollution, both of which have been experienced in the USA. These are entirely reasonable and valid motives for the protests, but in global terms they are probably amongst the less important reasons for objecting.

There are many lessons to be learned from the American experience, but it seems that our political leaders are surrounded by people who tell them what they want to hear, rather than the facts. On the other hand it has been suggested to me that the present Government attitude is simply designed to fend off UKIP and keep the Tory Right in check, and that after the next election many obstacles to planning permission may be discovered! But they are politicians – how can we possibly know what they really think!

In his article, Mr Cameron said, ‘If we don’t back this technology, we will miss a massive opportunity to help families with their bills and make our country more competitive. Without it, we could lose ground in the tough global race.’

It is difficult to understand exactly what he means, aside from the bit about bills. How will it make us more competitive? How will it affect our position in the ‘tough global race’? As for that bit about bills, that probably won't happen, because fracking is a very expensive process, and importing gas from Norway and Qatar is actually likely to be cheaper, even with George Osborne's generous tax concessions.

As Mr Cameron says, ’Just look at the United States: they’ve got more than 10,000 fracking wells opening up each year and their gas prices are three-and-a-half times lower than here’.

10,000 wells a year! Imagine that!

Well, exactly! Mr Cameron, this is how it works:

The banks, always on the lookout for an opportunity, have smothered the industry in the US with loans, secured against the assets of the companies, who are making hay while the sun shines. But a shale gas well produces about 80% of its capacity in the first two years. So in order to maintain the flow (and it is the flow rate which is important) they have to keep drilling new wells as the old ones die (hence Mr Cameron’s 10,000). And as we have said, drilling wells is expensive. So why are gas prices in the US so low? Because they have been over producing, running fast to try to keep up with themselves! Then they have been exporting gas to countries like ours where gas prices are higher than at home, to try and recoup some of that money. In 2012, the expenditure on shale gas drilling in the United States was $42 billion. But receipts from sales of that gas were less than that by about $10 billion. As our American cousins would say, ‘Do the math!’ To me (but I am no expert) it has the smell of subprime about it!

Meanwhile, in the US the green-washers have been triumphantly extolling their reduction in CO2 emissions, forgetting that the coal which they haven’t been using has been exported to someone else, whose emissions have gone up.

Mr Cameron is undoubtedly right in claiming that a thriving shale-gas industry in this country would support plenty of jobs (although not for a while yet), but not nearly as many as would be supported by a thriving renewable and energy conservation industry.

Mr Cameron claims that a well-regulated shale-gas industry would be safe, by which I presume he means no water pollution, no loss of domestic water supplies and no leakage of methane into the atmosphere. Good luck with that! But I can afford to take an objective view because there will be no fracking where I live (unless it is for geothermal energy).

My objections to this industry are twofold. The first is that it merely prolongs our dependency on fossil fuel, with all that that implies for the decarbonisation of our energy supply. The second is that for a relatively short term benefit it is far, far too expensive (and will do nothing to reduce our energy bills).

I do have a third objection, which is more general and relates to the whole approach to Government by this coalition. In his article, Mr Cameron once more suggests that we are all in this together. He wants us all to share the benefits. He says, ‘Local people will not be cut out and ignored’.

But that is just what is happening at Balcombe.

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