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Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Risk, shale gas and fracking

The risks involved in hydraulically fracturing wells are probably small, and certainly difficult to pin down.

It is certain that there is the potential for gas producers to damage the environment and human health, but we do not know how great. Earth science academics, like myself, understand the subsurface well enough to know that some of the threats are truly negligible, while life scientists point out that our ground and surface waters and surface habitats are tremendously fragile. Oddly, not much is heard from engineers!

The big question has recently been stated by John Kemp at Reuters  -

"Should oil and gas producers be allowed to hydraulically fracture wells even if there is a small but hard-to-quantify risk to the environment, property and human life?"
  • The UK government has said YES for energy security and the greater good of all.
  • Most environmentalists have said NO, based on distrust of commercial interests backed-up by often unsubstantiated data from the USA, where a totally different E&P regime exists.
  • Local residents have said NO - that is the vocal one's have, but increasingly we hear of the silent ones that quietly support shale gas.
  • Most journalists are behaving in an unbiased fashion, though one suspects that they are more interested in the social tension than the actual outcome - a bit like watching King Lear for the hundredth time.
  • Some oil and gas companies have said YES, but many have said NO, regarding shale gas as too risky, but from an economic point of view.
  • Academics have tried to pull the extreme views towards the middle ground where uncertainty is recognized and rationality derives from evidence. Unfortunately, in doing so, they have become stretched both ways, as if by bulls. This is not a happy or dignified position for the academic who only seeks reasonable debate.

Photograph modified from original by Lin Chun-Chung

There are worries that risks exist to ground-water, surface water, and ecosystems, or might cause air pollution, earthquakes, subsidence, massive release of  methane as a potent GHG, as well as cause nuissance by increasing traffic and industrial noise, or bring radioactive minerals to the surface, or by attracting protestors themselves, who may also be disruptive.

As John Kemp puts it -

"For their part, oil and gas producers insist all energy production is associated with some level of risk but fracturing has a good safety record and fears about it are exaggerated."

The problem is that no matter how small, there are perceived risks with all of these issues, and, importantly, these are risks that most people do not see the industry taking on responsibly.

The general population will not trust the E&P companies until they stop mindlessly minimizing the risks, but addressing them honestly, and putting themselves clearly in the position where the general public can see that the company will be in financial straits if anything goes wrong.

Perhaps we need large E&P bonds from companies before they are allowed to explore and produce from gas shales?

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