Cuadrilla has been granted new consent
Cuadrilla has been granted permission for a second horizontal well, for hydraulic fracturing purposes. A previous first test well was highly controversial, with strong opposition from locals and environmental campaigners. News like this makes us consider the overall hydraulic fracturing pros and cons.
The consent was given by the UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) for the full planning and permitting. The first consent got granted last July, and both wells are about to be drilled at the site at Preston New road in Lancashire.
Here’s the official quote from Francis Egan, the Cuadrilla CEO:
“We are delighted to receive this consent. We are currently completing works on site in readiness to start hydraulically fracturing both wells in the next few weeks. The UK’s need for a new and reliable source of natural gas, the cleanest fossil fuel, is underlined by a new report suggesting the UK is going to have to rely on more coal to generate electricity. That would be a massive backwards step in reducing carbon emissions, as would continuing to import gas over long distances by pipe and ship. We are very proud to be the first operator in the UK to make significant headway in shale gas exploration.”
In the UK, the practice of hydraulic fracturing has been used successfully offshore in the North Sea since the 1970’s. It has also been used onshore since the 1980’s to stimulate more than 200 wells. It’s only in the past ten years that the practice has become embroiled in controversy and opposition. That’s probably around the time that the abbreviation of hydraulic fracturing got changed in popular usage from ‘fracing’ to ‘fracking’ which sounds far worse.
The USA has been using hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for almost seventy years. Due to recent advances in horizontal drilling technology, they’ve seriously ramped up the practice. The shale boom has created more than two million jobs and has had some pundits talking about US energy independence. Others have looked at the massive debts and merely see it as the latest financial bubble that will rob their grandchildren of natural resources or saddle them with more bailout debt.
Hydraulic fracturing pros and cons
It seems that Cuadrilla has succeeded in their plans, despite strong opposition. Now might be a good time to take another look and the pros and cons of fracking. Before we go into this, there are three concepts that we think are important to bear in mind when discussing anything that has a broader environmental impact.
Alternative energy can’t replace fossil fuel in the short term. Leaving fossil fuels in the ground is an impossibility anytime soon. human-made The other reason is that we’d need developing countries to follow suit, even the Paris climate accord has opponents in the most developed countries. What chance is there for a global agreement to go ‘cold turkey’ on fossil fuel?
The same project can be done well, or badly. Every industry that we can think of, and every product and service can have good and bad actors. If something poorly created or carelessly used, the risks to the public and environment can skyrocket. Lenin Diaz is a cementing specialist since 1996, that’s 22 years of just focussing on cement! He sometimes gets called in to examine and fix previous sub-par cement jobs in wells that are being updated or improved. Cement is used to secure the wellbore and well casing in place. According to Lenin:
“With the level of reservoir pressure and the demands of drilling for oil and gas, a perfect cement job is critical, to ensure well integrity. We need the well to contain pressure and keep the reservoir deposits from moving into different layers of the formation. A bad cementing job is a leading cause of well control problems and can be easily avoided”
We know about cowboy builders, the stories about them get continuously printed. Even something as innocuous as baby and child products can cause harm. Imported toys are sometimes found to have lead paint, and we all remember the baby milk scandal. Here’s a Chinese cabbage, and another milk scandal. (Formaldehyde on cabbages and mercury in baby milk).
A sloppy hydraulic fracturing job can cause unnecessary issues. It seems that hundreds of safe ones were completed in the UK from the 70’s until 2008. Otherwise, surely negative sentiment for fracking would have made the news earlier?
All energy alternatives have pros and cons. Nuclear energy is responsible for Chernobyl, Fukushima and countless smaller leaks. Engineers say that modern generators are so much safer, yet this is what they’ve said for decades as accidents have continued (and cancer rates continue to rise). Solar energy requires rare earth materials that cause a lot of water and topsoil pollution during the mining process. Wind turbines kill a lot of birds, in fact, every alternative energy source has pros and cons.
People with the strongest opinions against hydraulic fracturing are also against fossil fuels altogether. The ‘keep it in the ground’ movement cite the premise that mining carbon from beneath the ground and putting it in the atmosphere is a bad thing. The scientific consensus is that global warming is real and that human-made carbon emissions must need drastic reduction. (The author of this article is on the fence edging towards the scientific consensus).
There are some that are most convinced that global warming is a scam that favours green industries over traditional ones. They say that it’s a reason to increase taxes through carbon credits. The global warming movement didn’t do itself any favours when the official statistics got rigged.
A pragmatic view?
It’s logical that mining fossil fuels put carbon into the air, along with methane and these are greenhouse gasses. Does it matter? There are divided scientific opinions, but by not caring about the possible impacts we’re playing a dangerous game.
If we reduce emissions and switch to green energy, we might end up paying more for our power, and waste some time and effort. If we do nothing and face catastrophe, then this is the worst scenario. On balance, surely its better to be cautious with our future?
Benefits of hydraulic fracturing
- It’s used to access hydrocarbon deposits in tight formations that won’t release them without fracking.
- It has been used to release natural gas, in such quantities that gas prices have been depressed for years. Cheaper gas is more affordable for consumers and makes their life easier.
- More natural gas means less reliance on dirtier energy sources such as coal.
- More available reserves mean an increase exploration and development, which leads to more jobs and economic growth.
- There’s an economic breakeven point on mature wells, and some disappointing new ones too. Fracturing can make the difference between an abandoned well, and one that continues to produce.
- The combination of fracturing and horizontal drilling reduces surface environmental impact since more of the reservoir is accessible from each vertical borehole.
- More cheap energy allows governments and citizens to save money and use it towards other essentials such as food or healthcare.
- Increase in domestic energy sources reduces the need for imports and helps the balance of payments in foreign trade.
- Land drilling is cheaper and more straightforward than deepwater or even shallow water drilling. Supply is responsive and easy to tap.
Disadvantages of hydraulic fracturing
- An increase in seismic activity including small earthquakes makes people wonder if these will lead to a significant quake happening sooner.
- Reports of groundwater being contaminated by hydrocarbons due to fractures. Also, pressure from the hydraulic fracturing process can drive fluid vertically along the main wellbore and into different formation layers.
- Frac sandblasting causes particulate matter to be released in the air. Airborne crystalline silica can cause many medical problems if breathed into the lungs.
- The whole process is dirty and noisy, from the sandblasting to the frac plant, to the transport trucks.
- Cheap fossil fuel makes alternative energy more expensive, which sets back investment and technological progress. It causes short-sighted leaders to delay the inevitable and ‘kick the can down the road.’
- Frac fluid can have all sorts of nasty ingredients, even the safe parts such as salt can destroy topsoil if spilt at the surface.
- Radioactive isotopes are sometimes used to track the progress of a well. If hydrocarbons contaminate the water supply then that’s bad. If the water is radioactive would we even know?
- Each frac well uses 2-7 million gallons of water over its lifespan, this puts pressure on local supplies and creates wastewater that can also spill.
- Cheaper fuel is sending the wrong message to industry and the public. It’s a sign of the same frivolous and foolish consumption epidemic that’s filling our oceans with plastic. Expanding fossil fuel extraction is like putting our foot down on the accelerator to oblivion.
Are there any pros and cons that we missed in this list? Do you think that this has been a balanced view of the debate? If there are any errors, what are they? Feel free to address any of these points and others in the comments section.
If you want to find out more about fracking and dig into the answers to questions about frac sand, fluid or the process itself, here’s a great online resource: https://drillers.com/what-is-fracking-and-other-related-questions/