Building public confidence in fracking (Day 112)

Fracking demonstration

Balcombe, UK, fracking demonstration (Image – Randi Sokoloff – Shutterstock.com)

A few weeks ago, I provided some information to the media in relation to a fracking ‘scare story’. As I always do in these situations, I look at the evidence and provide a factual and objective assessment. As chemical engineers that’s all we can ever do.

Realistically, concerns over fracking are unlikely to disappear. There will always be sceptics, but they have an absolute right to be heard. It’s up to us to listen carefully and respond to these concerns – consistently and in language that everyone understands.

My professional belief is that there is no reason why fracking should be any more risky and ‘fail’ in the sense of causing safety, health and environmental problems, than conventional oil and gas – which has a good record despite a few major failures – as long as state-of-the-art engineering practices and regulation are applied.

If we look at the experience of the US, the benefits of fracking are clear – it has supported a boom in cheaper energy production – through a recession – and lessened its dependence on foreign sources of energy.

If we consider the recent events in the Ukraine and Europe’s reliance on Russia for its gas and oil, energy self-sufficiency is an attractive proposition.

But even in the US, there are regular scare stories in the media. Most recently, research from the University of Washington, by Peter Rabinowitz, concluded: ‘adverse health symptoms, notably skin and upper respiratory problems, were more frequent among people who live near active hydraulic fracturing facilities.’ However, it is not known what causes the health problems.

In response, trade association, the American Petroleum Institute (API), has stated clearly in a recent report by the American Petroleum Institute: “There are zero confirmed cases of groundwater contamination connected to the fracturing operation in one million wells hydraulically fractured over the past 60 years.”

The report also states “numerous protective measures are in place at well sites” and “federal statues regulate every step” of the process.

The predictable debate about the safety of fracking emphasises the need for improved long-term monitoring and intervention procedures to ensure that shale gas wells remain low risk for the entirety of their lifetime, and that high quality practices are implemented as part of the regulated process.

A cradle-to-grave approach to minimise safety and environmental impact is essential – and achievable using current technology and approaches, although more research and development to develop improvements and lower risks further is essential.

It’s also important to remember the benefits of shale gas extraction to mitigate climate change.

The production of more gas by fracking will, if used to replace coal, result in around 50 per cent less CO2 emissions in power generation and be one of the most effective ways to combat climate change by mitigating CO2 emissions, especially if this is also accompanied by carbon capture and storage from gas plants and industrial gas use.

Lowering fugitive methane emissions using smart completions is a way to reduce even the small amount of methane released during shale gas production to negligible levels and recycling/reuse of water in fracking operations can greatly reduce the amount of water used – the total volume used is comparable with the amount we lose through leaks in the water supply system so there is scope for better water utilisation overall.

If you want a taste of the polarised debate – at community level – surrounding fracking, take a look at a recent reader’s letter published in UK regional news outlet, the Lancashire Evening Post.

Building confidence will take time, but it is a challenge we should embrace.