In Britain, to frack, or not to frack?
With the British shale story in its infancy, a new report downplays the risk of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, leading to groundwater contamination. Will Britain follow in the US footsteps towards a shale gas boom?
A British government report said it's unlikely that hydraulic fracturing in shale natural gas sites will lead to groundwater contamination. While the British shale story is in its infancy, the government's report said policymakers may want to monitor everything from radioactive elements to noise pollution when mulling their shale future. Spills above ground may pose a risk but the report said that threat stems from operational failures or poor regulation, not so much the drilling practice itself. Critics have long challenged the practice, dubbed fracking. With science moving ahead of the debate, however, those opponents may be forced to change their tune.
Frack Off, a grassroots group in the United Kingdom, said threats from shale gas extraction include methane leaks, groundwater contamination and radioactive contamination. A report published last week by Public Health England, an agency within the Department of Health, said "potential risks to public health from exposure to the emissions associated with shale gas extraction are low if the operations are properly run and regulated". (Related article: When will the Shale Bubble Burst?)
The success of shale natural gas in the United States has pushed the country to a leadership position in terms of overall production. Last month, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the statistical arm of the Energy Department,said the United States is on pace to pass Russia as the world's leading natural gas producer thanks in part to shale extraction. The British government estimates the Bowland shale play, near Lancashire, may contain enough natural gas to last the country for decades to come. So far, however, there are no commercial shale gas operations in the United Kingdom.
The PHE report looks to the U.S. experience with shale exploration to assess the potential dangers from shale extraction. It found there were lingering concerns over the levels of contamination associated with fracking but discounted most of them, saying either the U.S. studies were flawed or the dangers in Britain weren't as great because of weather and topographical variances. Any problems associated with shale gas extraction in the United States seem to be linked to poor regulations as much anything, PHE said.
Despite the report, advocacy groups like Friends of Earth said there are no guarantees the future shale gas story in the country will be risk-free. Natural gas, they say, is just "another climate changing fossil fuel that needs to be left in the ground." But that too seems out of step with the latest trends. Last week, the U.S. Energy Department said carbon dioxide emissions related to energy consumption were at their lowest point since 1994 because natural gas was used more than coal in the country. The International Energy Agency, meanwhile, says natural gas is a "low-risk" fuel source that's cheaper and less polluting than other fossil fuels. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a British lawmaker, went so far as to claim it was the "doomsayers" themselves who are responsible for negative energy trends. With mounting evidence suggesting the fear of fracking is unfounded, the neophobes may have to tilt their ire at different windmills.