People should worry less about fracking, and more about carbon
AT A recent shindig in London of the shale-gas industry, energy firms gave a rosy view of the fuel’s prospects in Europe. Like America, Europe has vast beds of shale rock, in which innumerable bubbles of natural gas are trapped. By cannoning water, sand and chemicals at them, a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, the bubbles can be released. This, the firms said, could bring Europe the same bonanza of cheap gas and new jobs in the industry that America is now enjoying. It would also lessen Europe’s irksome dependence on Russian gas.
Outside the venue, meanwhile, protesters chanted, “Flaming water from our tap, we don’t want this fracking crap.” They referred to fears that fracking can cause contamination of aquifers by the methane and naturally occurring radioactive material it displaces, or by the chemicals it uses. Another worry is that fracking may cause earthquakes. A recent British study suggested that 50 tiny quakes in Lancashire were the result of fracking nearby.
Such issues have been raised in America, too, but energy firms there have been able to ignore them because they are exempt from many environmental rules. An intervention in 2005 by Dick Cheney, then vice-president, wrested an armful of exemptions specifically for fracking. That has helped the industry grow spectacularly. In 2000 shale beds provided 1% of America’s natural-gas supply; they now produce around 25%. But it has also allowed reckless American frackers to do environmental damage. Some are alleged to have pumped toxic chemicals into the ground with impunity.
In Europe, where environmentalists are stronger, energy companies have a tougher time. In response to anti-fracking protests, France has slapped a moratorium on the practice; in Britain, activists for Frack Off, a pressure group, have shut down drill sites.
Reasons to worry, and not to
Environmentalists are probably worrying too much about the immediate consequences of fracking. The technique has been in regular use in the conventional oil and gas industry since the 1940s; and in all that time no aquifer is known to have been contaminated by fracking. Fluids used in fracking and methane regurgitated from gas-wells may occasionally have got into groundwater: an energy company in Pennsylvania has been forced to deliver clean water to householders because of this. But that risk could be greatly reduced by tighter regulation, leading to better industry practice: it is not an argument for banning the procedure altogether.
It does appear that fracking can cause earthquakes. But so can geothermal energy production and other parts of the oil and gas production process. Wherever fluids are injected into deep wells, that is a risk. It warrants strict regulation and further study. It is not, however, a reason to shut down a promising industry.
But the industry’s promise should not obscure its dangers, especially when it comes to the fuel it provides. Energy firms often call gas a clean fuel: burning it releases roughly half as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as burning coal does. So if gas-fired power stations are built instead of coal-fired ones, the cheap gas bonanza will help control global warming. Unfortunately, though, they probably will not be. Few new coal-fired power stations are planned in America or Europe anyway. And China, which also has lots of unexploited shale gas, has few scruples about burning cheap coal. Either way, gas-fired power stations are more likely to substitute for solar panels, wind turbines and nuclear power stations.
The only way of ensuring that does not happen is to price fossil fuels to cover the cost of the environmental damage they do. Power generated from coal would carry a high carbon-price-tag; power generated from gas a smaller one; power generated from renewables none at all. Thanks to recession and a lack of political will, governments have found this politically impossible to do adequately or at all, as the latest UN climate summit, which begins in Durban on November 28th, will make clear. But the effort should not be abandoned; and cheap gas does not give governments an excuse to stop trying.