Fracking at home and abroad: compare and contrast
We often hear comparisons drawn with the US experience of shale gas extraction, but how relevant are they to what we can expect in the UK? As representatives of New York campaign group, Frack Action, tour the UK giving us their views, we take a look at some of the similarities and differences.
There is no doubt at all that the US shale gas boom has created a surge in jobs.
They include jobs working directly for the drilling companies, jobs in the supply chain and jobs in the wider economy – both in the service sector (shops, hotels and restaurants in the towns where fracking takes place) – and elsewhere in manufacturing, for instance, that has seen a renaissance as a result of lower energy prices.
In the UK, the scale of jobs creation has been the subject of much debate, with forecasts ranging from a few thousand to as many as 74,000 just in support of drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
Friends of the Earth, that is opposed to shale gas in the UK, has questioned these predictions, pointing out that they are often higher than figures quoted from the US.
One reason for this concerns the size of the industry: in the US, onshore oil and gas was a big industry even before shale gas burst onto the scene, whereas here it’s much smaller and so there is greater scope for jobs creation – especially amongst SMEs in the supply chain.
In the UK, we have a regulatory framework based on a permissioning system – where the onus to do it right is placed squarely on the duty holder, in a way that encourages continual improvement.
Our regulations are also applied uniformly, with only minor variation in the countries that make up the UK.
In the US, their system of regulation is very prescriptive. Right away, that means there’s less emphasis on operators to strive to go beyond the minimum compliance requirements.
Additionally – and crucially – very few laws are federal laws that apply uniformly across the whole country. Instead, the rules differ from state-to-state and even down to county and district level. That means that in some places the regulations are as robust as ours and in other places they’re comparatively lax.
This is one of the key reasons why we can’t just assume that the US experience will translate directly to the UK – it also affects the standards and practices that are applied.
Standards and practices
It is often suggested that the bad practices witnessed in the US will be replicated here in the UK, but that’s just not the case, owing largely to our high standards of regulation.
For instance, flowback wastewater is often stored in earthen pits in the US, from which it can leak unseen into surrounding soil and groundwater. Our rules would prevent this – wastewater will have to be stored in above-ground tanks provided with appropriate spill containment.
Apart from leaks, those pits are also a source of fugitive methane emissions as small quantities of natural gas entrained in the wastewater are liberated to the atmosphere. Again, that simply isn’t permitted in the UK.
In the US, the flowback wastewater is mostly discarded into disposal wells (either specifically built for this purpose or utilising depleted oil wells) or in municipal sewage treatment facilities. It’s even been sprayed on roads as a dust suppressant and de-icer. Here, it will be treated using a widely available physico-chemical treatment process to remove contaminants before the treated residue is returned back to the natural environment.
Then there’s the flaring of surplus natural gas. In some shale oil fields – particularly North Dakota, for example – ‘associated gas’ that is co-produced with the oil, and that the operators don’t want and can’t sell, is simply burnt off in flare stacks, with jets of visible flames that can even be seen from space. Here, where operators actually want the gas, flaring will be short term, occasional, and conducted in enclosed ground flares that reduce noise and light pollution – again, a regulatory requirement.
And, finally, much is made of the fact that US shale gas companies use hundreds of different chemicals in their fracturing fluids – many of which are hazardous. Here, European groundwater protection laws mean operators have to declare the chemicals they propose to use, and obtain prior authorisation. Any that are deemed hazardous to groundwater during use will not be permitted.
It’s often said that fracking in the wide-open spaces of the US can’t be contemplated in a much more densely populated place like the UK. And yet, in many ways, it’s for precisely that reason that the experience here is likely to be a better one.
Firstly, in the US, because of the very large land mass and the way the population is very spread out in some states, it’s common for people to draw drinking water from private wells on their own properties – getting water piped to those homes just wouldn’t be viable. A badly operated shale gas well near a poorly constructed water well increases the risk of water contamination. Here, where we all live much closer together, 99% of drinking water is supplied by pipe directly to our homes by water companies that source much of it from above-ground reservoirs. Risks to drinking water are therefore substantially lessened as a result.
Secondly, because there’s so much more land available in the US, there’s less importance attached to minimising the surface footprint of shale gas extraction. Here, multi-well pads are likely to feature much more simply because it just wouldn’t be acceptable to proceed with lots of single wells.
The US has a “let’s do it” attitude to most things, which at times might have manifested in a gung-ho approach to shale gas extraction.
Here, we do things in a much more quintessentially British manner – we’re much more reserved and considered in our approach to things. You can already see that in the way shale gas has been slow to take off, with dozens of reports and investigations commissioned since 2011 to understand the potential economic, health and environmental impacts including:
PHE shale gas report – Review of the Potential Public Health impacts of the shale gas extraction process that concluded “An assessment of the currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health from exposure to the emissions associated with shale gas extraction will be low if the operations are properly run and regulated”
House of Lords shale gas report – The Economic Impact on UK Energy Policy of Shale Gas and Oil that concluded “the risks to human health and the environment are low if shale development is properly regulated”
Royal Society shale gas report – Shale gas extraction in the UK – a review of hydraulic fracturing that concluded:“The health, safety and environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing (often termed ‘fracking’) as a means to extract shale gas can be managed effectively in the UK as long as operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation”
When considering the potential impacts of shale gas extraction here in the UK, we should also look to our own experience. There is no evidence to suggest the communities that have played host to onshore oil and gas development – dating back over 70 years – have worse health outcomes than the rest of us according to publicly available and searchable datasets from Public Health England as we point out here. It’s also clear that the most exposed risk group are the men and women who work on the drilling rigs, and yet there’s no evidence of chronic ill health in this worker population either.
Yes, it’s important to learn relevant lessons from elsewhere, but it’s also important to trust our tried-and-tested regulatory regime and decades of onshore oil and gas experience we have here in the UK.
For an appreciation of the various steps involved in searching for and then extracting shale gas onshore in the UK, see our Shale Gas FAB Facts.