Fracking debate: light on oil, heavy on gas

Protests against fracking tend to focus on natural gas, even though the potential for oil from fracking is significant. Would talking about oil change the debate?

Gareth Fuller/AP/File
Activists link arms to resist police officers during anti-fracking demonstrations in Balcombe, England. Protests against fracking usually focus on natural gas, not oil.

One of several paradoxes in the UK and European shale debate has been how it’s been entirely about shale gas. In that respect it mirrors the debate in the US, where the Gasland anti-fracker movement has been almost exclusively against natural gas. Why aren’t people protesting about oil?

In the UK,  the Great Gas Gala had two incongruities, the first being one of how effective a contribution does a demonstration, of up to 2,000 people, make against the chief residents’ concern of increased traffic.

The second enigma, which the UK media has mostly ignored, is that Cuadrilla have noted from the very first public meeting in January last year, that they are searching for oil.

Would talking about oil change the debate? The debate is framed to the UK media by the army of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth press flunkeys.  At an event earlier this year on shale gas, ten or so speakers debated shale, including academics, scientists, Chris Smith, head of the Environment Agency,  Igas’ Andrew Austin,  Ken Cronin of UKOOG (UK Onshore Oil and Gas) and Greenpeace.  After the debate, Fiona Harvey of the Guardian made a beeline for Joss Garman of Greenpeace, and this is rather typical of the energy and environment reporting in the UK. The people always ready to talk are the FoE and Greenpeace. Note the recent absence of WWF from the shale debate by the way, as significant. WWF is certainly not pro-shale, but it has always been more open to debate. 

Greenpeace, and Josh Fox on the other side, consistently assume an anti-gas stance, but ignore oil. Because they ignore oil, so has the rest of the press. The press, and Greenpeace were surely not unaware that earlier this year, one of the most respected oil and gas research houses, IHS, stated at the Royal Geological Society that they thought there was 4 billion (yes, with a B) barrels of oil recoverable in the Bowland Basin. That was surprising. That should have been front page news. But since there is a green silence over oil, we didn’t hear about it.

Similarly, the conventional wisdom even amongst UK geologists was that the Bowland was in the gas window and the oil was in the southern Weald Basin. That was confirmed to the House of Lords in October when DECC chief geologist Toni Harvey said that the BGS survey of southern Britain wouldn’t even bother with gas and would likely do an assessment of oil resources. It’s safe to assume the BGS is unlikely to bother to do a report on a resource that doesn’t exist.

Yet, we hear nothing except shale gas. I think Greenpeace don’t, or won’t, frame the debate against oil for a number of reasons.  

Oil is much more easily understood by the public as being a valuable commodity. Jethro Clampett didn’t move to Beverly Hills due to a gas discovery. Every one equates oil, sometime wrongly, with wealth. Refusing to access oil would be to most people as foolish as leaving gold in the ground. Similarly,  condoning economic stagnation thanks to high oil import costs, is like starving to death in a bakery.  We don't import eggs or bread, why should we import oil or gas?  After all, local food is good.  Renewables are cited as being good local energy.  Why not oil and gas?

Everyone uses oil, and well understands that any alternatives are, to be polite, somewhat limited. Oil is dominant in personal transportation, and although smart people like Ed Morse see natural gas as eating into oil demand in trucking, marine and rail applications,  oil will remain dominant in cars. But not everyone will be driving an electric Tesla anytime soon, and it’s becoming more likely that the green alternative will be hybrids, not pure electrics. UK, and European, residents understand oil since most interact with the oil market each time they fuel up. They also understand the international implications of their oil use. In the UK, thanks to the declining North Sea, we imported around 500,000 barrels a day last year. Last year, at a  UK shale event, a speaker compared the Weald with the US Eagle Ford, which was, at the time, producing 500,000 barrels a day, but is now on it’s way to producing a million a day.

Geologists would tell business reporters, if they asked, that the potential is not limited to the UK and we could see French Bakken’s and German Permian Basin analogues in oil. But since reporters only speak to Greenpeace & Co, they get told the gas story alone.

Gas, wonderful fuel that should be embraced by greens as it may be, is relatively mysterious to the person in the  European street, rue or strasse. There is of course, however expensive or physically difficult, a green alternative to gas in it’s main industrial and generation markets, and it’s evident that it is that alternative market, not CO2, that is most dear to the hearts of Greenpeace.

The natural gas vehicle alternative in large engines is one that greens conveniently ignore: there is no alternative short of a return to sail in shipping and electric trucks and buses need their weight in batteries to move.

Gas will do great things for the UK economy, but it has to be sold. Domestically produced UK oil will do even better things economically. Could the UK, or France or Germany produce enough oil to make themselves auto-sufficient, or even exporters?  The notion that the USA would be energy independent, with the attached economic and political benefits, was a completely fanciful notion only two years ago. Since then, reality has intruded, and places like Mexico, Russia and OPEC all see the implications of shale oil. The natural gas revolution is a harder sell than the  shale oil renaissance.  Which may explain why the debate has been anti-gas and ignore oil.  Has Josh Fox for example ever talked about replacing oil as he does about gas?  No, because, even to him, the idea is unworkable.

It’s an especially hard sell however if the story doesn’t even start to get across.  For that, we shouldn’t blame the overworked hacks of the UK media. We should blame Green Inc for impoverishing not only the energy debate, but ourselves further.

It may well be an entirely fanciful notion that European onshore oil production would be ever be either geologically possible or physically achievable. If we don’t at least start to ask the question through a public debate and then through exploratory drilling, we’ll never find out the answer.

But as long as Greenpeace and FoE pretend the question doesn’t even exist, via their stranglehold on the UK media, any debate itself won’t even exist.

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