Fracking is being hailed by its supporters as a clean solution to our energy needs. Its critics say it is just a chance to make big bucks at the expense of our health and safety. A lack of available data means that little is known for sure.
But a study published on Monday in the United States suggests that fracking (hydraulic fracturing, or the process of extracting shale gas from underground drill-holes) can contaminate local water supplies with dangerous methane gas.
Fracking has taken off in a big way in the US in recent years and test drilling is being carried out in several European countries including the UK and Germany. It involves pumping water, chemicals and sand underground to crack the rock and collect the freed natural gas.
According to the study made public this week by researchers at Duke University in North Carolina, methane levels in water supplies close to drilling sites were on average 17 times higher than they were in water supplies further away from those sites. Their experiments were carried out in the Marcellus Shale field in Pennsylvania and New York State, one of the largest natural gas fields in the world.
Methane, while not known to be toxic in water supplies, can cause death in humans through asphyxiation and is highly flammable. In the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary ‘Gasland’, which is filmed in the Marcellus Shale field, one homeowner lit a fire from gas emanating from his kitchen tap. Drilling industry lobbyists claim such incidents are rare and anecdotal.
There are also fears that the chemicals used in and created by fracking could also contaminate water supplies although there is no hard scientific evidence yet to prove that is the case. A team of French chemists and toxicologists has even suggested that hydrogen sulphide created by the fracking process could be responsible for the sudden and simultaneous death of huge flocks of birds in Arkansas, US earlier this year.
But the latest scientific findings will further worry those who feel the young industry is under-regulated. Indeed, the new study concludes that “Greater stewardship, knowledge, and—possibly—regulation are needed to ensure the sustainable future of shale-gas extraction.”
But there are political considerations that may put the brakes on regulators in the US and in Europe. Gas drilling in Pennsylvania alone provided nearly 400 million dollars in tax revenue and 44,000 jobs in 2009, according to official data quoted by Bloomberg.
With the economy likely to be the big issue for voters in the 2012 US presidential election, many believe the Obama administration is unlikely to go head-to-head with the drilling industry lobbyists, especially as shale gas is considered a much smaller producer of carbon than oil and gas. Bloomberg quotes one energy industry commentator as saying “It’s likely that the science is going to say we need to regulate fracking, but Obama’s political team is going to say don’t regulate, and I think the political team will win.” He may be right but any further negative science will pose Obama headaches going into the campaign.
Environmentalists’ fears are stalling the drilling industry’s attempted push for shale gas in Europe. France has imposed a moratorium on fracking until the facts become clearer. Poland however is among those keen to push on. Polish dependence on coal production and gas imports make the much-lauded cleanliness and availability of shale gas a big draw and Warsaw has already stated its intention to make shale gas extraction a priority of its six-month tenure of the EU presidency, which starts in July. Quoted in an euobserver.com article, the European Commission is still wary that “The possible impact of future European unconventional gas production on the EU’s energy mix is difficult to assess.”
Europe is thought to have somewhere in the region of 17 trillion cubic metres of recoverable underground shale gas (the US has around 24.5 tcm) but a high population density is another thing the drilling industry has going against it in Europe.
That is not a problem for China, thought to be the world’s largest potential shale gas reserve with some 36 trillion cubic metres. Chinese officials have said they expect shale gas to play a big role in the country’s energy mix within eight years.
The first scientific results are encouraging for those who oppose fracking, or put more accurately, the data backs up their suspicions. But with renewable energies still struggling to win the confidence of governments, the pro-shale gas lobby has plenty of cards it can play.
By Mark Davis