It’s Not Easy Being Green

Father DougalWell Ted, I’m very cynical as you know. I seem to have been born with a sceptical turn of mind, liable to challenge anything I hear or read. “Is that really true?” “What exactly does that mean?” “That doesn’t seem likely.”

Perhaps that’s why, in spite of being very well-disposed towards the environmentalist point of view, I’ve reacted negatively to anti-fracking campaigns and publicity. It seems to me that they are high on emotion and low on content. Worse, some are clearly based on improbable and unverifiable stuff trawled off the internet, such as viral videos. Some of it might be true. Some of it might be real. But I’d bet that some is fabricated.

So does that put me, uncomfortably, in the same camp as the fossil fuel companies? When it comes down to it, I really don’t care. If something’s wrong, it’s wrong. There is no “higher truth”.

frackingBut I was glad to see a sober and well-researched article on fracking in the most recent ‘New Scientist’. It gave me a lot of food for thought. I went off to seek actual information, not hysteria.

OK, in case you’ve missed all the hoo-hah, “fracking” is “hydraulic fracturing”. It’s a method of releasing natural gas from underground rock formations, and it involves drilling a deep well, pumping very high-pressure fluid into it, and collecting the gas that’s released. It’s controversial because the “fluid” uses up great quantities of fresh water, but also includes various chemicals. Both the chemicals and the natural gas (methane) have been suspected of leaking into water supplies, and the whole process has even been accused of creating earthquakes.

To take the last item first, fracking has definitely been linked firmly to earthquakes. In the couple of decades since the technique was invented, there have been five fracking-related tremors, two from the underground working and three from disposing waste water on the surface. Water works and earthquakes are a familiar pair, with dams known to have caused about 200 quakes in the last century. But the record quake attributed to a dam project was magnitude 7.8 while the biggest ever in the fracking industry was 3.8.

Incidentally, I noticed a magnitude 4.1 quake last time I was on holiday in Italy. It was like a big truck driving past. When I mentioned it to my landlord, he was amused that I thought it worth comment. It’s clear that the quake record of fracking is not worth mentioning either.

Well, what about contamination? Fracking has been going on longer and much more widely in the USA than anywhere else, now accounting for about half of natural gas production, but there has been no evidence of contamination of water sources by the chemical content of the fracking fluid. But it’s not all good news. Increased methane levels have been found in ground water near fracking sites. The industry thinks that it can fix the problem, but it’s an issue of concern.

Leakage of gas generally is a concern. Natural gas, methane, is a much worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, having about 20 to 30 times the warming effect. Although natural gas is a far “cleaner” fuel than coal in terms of carbon generation, any leaks undermine the climate benefits, but the calculations suggest that the leakage rate would have to be much worse than actually observed in the American industry to make fracked gas as harmful as coal.

In fact, natural gas is credited with about half the net reduction in the United States’ carbon emissions over the last ten years. Because it’s currently cheaper, gas has displaced coal for power generation, and gas releases about half the carbon dioxide as coal for the same energy. The coal reserves being exploited today are also dirtier than previously, so less coal means cleaner air generally.

So that’s all good? Well, what happens to the dirty coal that American power stations no longer want? Countries like Britain and Germany buy it for power generation, that’s what. While the USA has gradually reduced its carbon footprint by 9% over ten years, Britain’s jumped 3.5% in one year, mainly because of the use of cheap American coal, instead of natural gas.

If Britain had its own gas and could produce it on the same scale as the Americans, it would bring down the carbon footprint, and hence the interest in fracking in the UK. But nobody yet knows if production is practicable and scalable. All the current work is merely experimental.

Taking all the information into account, my opinion at the minute is that there is no realistic danger of fracking on our doorsteps causing direct environmental damage. The argument shouldn’t be about that, but about the climate change aspects. Fracked gas is better than coal; but of course solar, wind, tide (and maybe even nuclear power) are better than gas.

Some people argue that gas is a “filler” technology, a less damaging substitute for coal to bridge the gap while we get renewable energy sources to their full potential. Others say that it would be better to spend money now on renewables and not on fracking.

I’m going to be open-minded for now, while bearing in mind the deviousness and dishonesty of the fossil fuel industries. I’m very cynical as you know.


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