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Fracking Shale Gas – What on earth is that all about?

I was very privileged this morning to hear a very eminent authority speak upon this very emotive subject. On Day two of the sole British ‘Green’ MP, Caroline Lucas’ trial for her part in the ‘Battle of Balcombe’ last summer on public order offences relating to Quadrila’s exploratory well drilling for oil in Sussex, I was delighted to hear Professor Richard Selley, Emeritus Professor of Petroleum Geology at Imperial College London clarify the position. So to some facts:

  • The first naturally occurring shale gas well was dug in Fredonia in New York State in 1821.

    This was followed by extensive ‘cottage industry’ oil and gas extraction in the Appalachian Mountain district of the United States, south and south west of Lake Erie throughout the 19th & 20th Centuries mostly in Ohio and Kentucky. The method was crude, slow and most wells lasted for about 30 years before they dried up. They were used to power houses, hospitals, shops and small machinery operations.
  • In Britain our first well was drilled in Netherfield, in the Weald of Sussex in 1875 and was dug by a scientific group led by the Royal Society.

    We have been extracting shale oil from the Wych Farm well for over 30 years. Much of this is actually taken from under the most expensive real estate in Britain; Sandbanks in Bournemouth.

There are two main objections to shale gas extraction in Britain. These centre around water and earthquake fears:

  • Surface water will become contaminated by ‘dirty’ water from the wellhead
    current drilling methods encase the entire extraction ‘tube’ in concentric layers of steel and concrete so whilst this is potentially possible the likelihood is very small and easily resolved should it occur.
  • Surface water will become contaminated by water used to release the gas
    this is all taken away, in small wells by tanker and larger ones by pipes specifically laid for the purpose, and 80% of it is recycled.
  • Aquifers will become contaminated
    Aquifers lie at less than 1000 feet under the surface of the earth, oil and gas extraction layers are between 9 and 11,000 feet. There are therefore many hundreds of feet of rock between the gas layer and any possible aquifer.
  • Earthquake risk.
    Fracking shale, a very soft rock, requires the creation of very narrow bore holes, about the thickness of a drinking straw, at a depth of between 9 and 11,000 feet. This can cause very minor seismic activity but never greater than 3 on the Richter scale. Britain ‘suffers’ 10 – 50 seismic events less than 3 on this logarithmic scale every month, most of which are old mine workings collapsing. One cannot feel these, even if one is standing right on the fault line. A scale 3 ‘event’ has approximately the same impact as a large lorry passing on a road 30 feet away.

There is NO reason to fear shale gas extraction and, given the difficulties we will undoubtedly face in trying to keep our power supplies at the level we need, rather than the excessive level we desire, for the next decade, is going to be very difficult since we do not yet have the resources, the expertise or the political will to get on with this essential work. Not for nothing only this very week was David Cameron, reported in the Guardian thus:

“Speaking after the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, Cameron said it was “our duty” to be more energy-independent, saying it should be a “tier one” political issue. He acknowledged people had “uncertainties and worries and concerns” about hydraulic fracturing – known as fracking – which involves using high-pressure jets of water to release gas. But he insisted they would be addressed once people could see functioning shale gas wells in the UK.”

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