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Fracking - is there a good side to it?

Natural gas drilling in the USA / Daniel Foster Natural gas drilling in the USA / Daniel Foster

Author Tony Whitbread

Chief Executive

Well no, actually, I dont think there is. But Id like to look at one of the arguments in favour of fracking to see if there is bigger picture here that we need to take account of.

An argument often used is that fracking provides us with a short-term, interim energy source that buys us time while we develop non fossil fuel based forms of energy generation. Burning natural gas produces less carbon dioxide for the energy it provides, it is claimed, than other forms of fossil fuel so, as an interim fuel it could be a good one.

Let us put to one side all the other problems with this energy form. Forget that this could industrialise Sussex, ignore the amount of water that is needed, the transport footprint from the lorry movements, the land needed to treat polluted water and the risk of air and water pollution and so on.

If fracking gives us more energy for less greenhouse gas emissions then it has to be taken seriously. This sounds persuasive; it is often repeated and rarely challenged. But there are problems.

Fracking gas is methane, which does indeed produce more energy for less greenhouse gas than, for example, coal. Methane, however, is itself a very potent greenhouse gas. An often quoted figure is that methane is 25 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. This, however, is a 100 year long term average, as it does not remain in the atmosphere for long. In the short term, say 20 years, methane is about 70 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

This means that you only need a small amount of gas leakage to completely negate any greenhouse gas emission advantage that burning methane has.

Whilst they have been criticised, there are some peer-reviewed studies that indicate a leakage of around 10% of methane from wells in the USA. So lets play with some figures to see just how relevant this might be.

Instead of 10%, lets be generous and say that only 2% of the methane is lost to the atmosphere. And instead of 70 times as bad as carbon dioxide lets say its 50 times as bad (it makes the sums easier!). If my maths is correct this means that a 2% leakage of methane has the same greenhouse effect as the other 98% burned and emitted as carbon dioxide. In other words (and even if my maths is not spot-on) it doesn't take much leakage to make exploiting fracking gas twice as bad as it appears in terms of climate change. This could make it as bad or worse than coal and as such could not be considered an interim fuel.

Another problem with the interim fuel idea is that I've heard it before. I am old enough to remember similar arguments when North Sea oil was developed. Yes we were talking about wind and wave energy in the 1970s and it was said that North Sea oil would buy us the time to research and develop this properly. Ideas quickly forgotten in the rush to develop.

I am also unconvinced that an apparently lucrative gas supply will be abandoned before it is fully exploited as renewable energy sources are developed. It is far more likely that, as with North Sea oil, attention will turn away from any thoughts on long-term sustainability and focus entirely on the apparent benefits of apparently cheap energy.

There are now highly emotive arguments being presented by the pro-fracking lobby: from dire warnings of the lights going out, to unchallenged claims that fracking will save the planet, that it is supported by the science, that it is good for the economy or that it will bring us out of recession. Perhaps the worst thing, however, is the way that fracking has taken over a far more important agenda about developing an economy that is fit for purpose, delivering real prosperity while maintaining and improving the environment on which we depend.

Photo credit: danielfoster437 / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA


  • Dave*:

    20 Aug 2013 21:35:08

    Good article.

  • John Woodcock:

    21 Aug 2013 06:29:52

    Thank you for a well considered and clearly laid out article. This should be required reading for the Pro-Frackers. I was ambivalent until I read the arguments laid out on SWT’s website. Now I am pinning my flag to the Anti (Even if it has attracted the media loving loonies as well as the sensible)

  • Sue Walton:

    21 Aug 2013 09:25:42

    Well argued and presented Tony, thank you.
    Like you I do not buy the Government’s argument that Fracking is a necessary interim measure to allow us time to deliver the ‘renewables’ that they committed to when they claimed to be the “Greenest Government ever”.
    If that were the case then they would be giving the tax breaks to the renewables industry to secure a sustainable investment in our futures not handing our taxes to Cuadrilla and those with a vested interest in the carbon culture.

  • Jerry Webb:

    24 Aug 2013 09:08:06

    Very good article

  • Peter Watson:

    02 Sep 2013 09:11:57

    Unlike the other members who have posted and it seems the Trust senior staff I am not opposed to a carefully controlled use of fracking because apart from any potential economic benefit it is preferable to the inexorable spread of wind farms (more correctly called wind factories) which are despoiling so much of our unspoilt countryside. Even the pictures in the articles by Petra Billings and Tony Whitbread show that fracking would mean a minimal visual impact compared with wind turbines and the only ‘farming’ they do is the already excessive subsidies.

  • 04 Sep 2013 09:10:34

    We have published a response to some of the recent comments we have received on fracking and related issues here:

  • Tessa Burrington:

    05 Sep 2013 18:08:51

    Just some background information. Make of it what you will :-).

    “How to play this boom besides opening a motel in North Dakota?

    First, ignore the obvious plays of companies making this or that for the actual fracking process. These are maxed out and do not generate income anyway. Instead, think about the companies that will benefit by being the middleman between the fields and the refineries, the fields and the consumers. This is where natural gas liquids (NGL) come into play. These liquids are found in unusually large quantities in many shale formations, notably those in the Marcellus shale formation in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. The expected volume is already so large the Carlyle Group, arguably the most successful private equity firm in the world, has purchased, is retrofitting and re-opening a shuttered refinery outside of Philadelphia with a market focus on NGL Not all NGL is good stuff often it has to removed and cleaned up to enable its re-sale or to make the natural gas itself easier to transport.”

    Note Carlyle Group.

  • Linda S:

    04 Dec 2013 21:58:14

    Fracking fluids, potential aquafer contamination and treatment of returning waste water will be a realistic problem in many parts of the most beautiful and biodiverse parts of Sussex. At best, many of these potential problems are not well understood or have no long term plans to deal with them. I have trawled the internet for real info on fracking from the US, and found biased, non evidence based promotions from fracking companies and government, but eventually I found this report This could happening sometime soon near you.

  • laurie barnes:

    10 Jun 2015 19:28:13

    Thank you for the very informed debate here.

    There also seems to be an unused economic argument for putting a moratorium on the fracking process.

    Stripping out any short term political, economic and emotive arguments, there seems to, also, be a very good argument for leaving such energy resources in the ground, any way. In that way we have a reserve energy supply should world supply/ demand shortages occur at some future date – not an unlikely prospect with the increased demand from developing economies. This also buys time for commercially viable, and more environmentally friendly, alternatives to be improved and developed, to then come fully on stream – again, a very viable possibility, especially as climate change is beginning to get the attention that deserves across the whole world

    On the unlikely event that the latter does not happen, then this is a win/win situation because the resource reserves will be even more economically valuable to us in the future with increased pressures from energy scarsity. It seems utterly pointless to exploit them now, both from a naive simplistic short term political and economic point of view as well as from the increasing documented evidence of the hazards involved in the operation.

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