Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process of extracting hydrocarbons by pumping a high pressure mixture of water and chemicals into rock, forcing seams to open and hydrocarbons to flow. While this isn’t a particularly new process, it is increasingly controversial as its rise brings it into proximity of larger urban populations and to the attention of environmental groups who argue that the risks far outweigh any economic benefit.
Films such as Gasland have helped to drive the movement opposing fracking by raising awareness of potential risks to community water supplies, while many countries, including France, have already banned fracking or in the case of Germany, introduced a moratorium on the use of fracking technology.
Fracking isn’t the only game in town when it comes to unconventional gas extraction. There’s already a number of sites in Scotland that have seen various methods of getting to hydrocarbons held in coal seams or shale rock. From the famous Shale Oil industry of the Lothians to current onshore oil sites or Coal Bed Methane Extraction, such as at Airth. We are already doing our bit to extract every last carbonised trickle of oil and gas out of Scotland’s dwindling fossil fuel reserves so that we may burn them greedily.
It also seems there is some confusion about different types of unconventional gas extraction, with fracking being used as a catch all term when really people mean something else. The most common method at the moment is Coal Bed Methane Gas Extraction (CBM) that utilises a process known as “dewatering”, which while not getting as much headlines as fracking, is certainly not without risk. The idea is to reduce the pressure in the coal seam by drilling wells into it, pumping out water (often full of toxins) to lower the pressure, which then releases gas from the coal into the pipeline up to the surface. In a recent environmental assessment, the Environment Agency in England and Wales identified eight different risk areas associated with CBM. Their assessment rated the overall magnitude of risk associated in operating CBM wells as High but they note that with appropriate regulation this can be reduced to Low. There are associated risks of reduced water availability, increased competition for water resources and potential pollution through chemicals used in the dewatering process. Many CBM sites develop into fracking sites later in their lifecycles, with some evidence pointing to around 40% of CBM sites using fracking once the facilities have matured to squeeze more hydrocarbons out of the coal seams.
There are currently a number of CBM sites operating in Scotland, but no fracking sites as yet (though Dart Energy and Reach Coal Seam Gas Ltd have bought licences to explore fracking potential in central Scotland and INEOS are clamouring to get in on the action too). This incredibly handy interactive map produced by the Department of Energy and Climate Change allows you to view every commissioned oil well in the UK and find out more about it. Friends of the Earth have recently proposed a ban on all unconventional oil and gas extraction in Scotland due to the risks involved for the environment and local communities. It should be noted though that there are many people who are confident that the risks to communities can be managed through appropriate regulation and engineering.
So, that’s the history lesson. Why is fracking being talked about just now? Well you may have seen in the news that the Coalition Government in Westminster want to make it easier for fracking and unconventional gas extraction to happen. They want a shale gas bonanza to kickstart the economy and ensure energy security for the UK, with David Cameron making a landmark speech in New York last week in which he bizarrely claimed that fracking was an important way to tackle climate change (burning fossil fuels is not an effective way of tackling climate change). They’re so excited about this that they want to remove a homeowners right to object to any drilling 300m underneath their own property. The SNP government in Scotland are naturally incensed by this and have spoken out, urging this power to be devolved back to Scotland. And going by social media, it seems they have the support of most of the country in opposing this change in the law.
The problem is that there is also a lot of talk about fracking or unconventional gas extraction only happening because we voted No in the referendum. I’m sorry to say, but that just isn’t true. As we’ve already established, there are numerous CBM sites operating in Scotland already. I’ve even seen well informed, educated SNP activists claiming their party is against fracking based on the recent opposition to the change in homeowner rights, but this isn’t true either. In his response to the proposed changes to homeowner rights, Scotland’s Energy Minister Fergus Ewing stated:
“Whatever your view on the issue of unconventional oil and gas […] it is clear that there are both opportunities and concerns.”
He also listed five changes they have made to the planning framework which will enable fracking and other forms of oil and gas extraction to proceed under appropriate regulation – so the Scottish Government are very much in favour of onshore oil and gas developments, but with robust regulation. The question is, should they be?
Well, no… they shouldn’t. Leaving aside the risks to water sources, earthquakes and pollution in communities, we just have better things to be spending money on. Scotland has 25% of Europe’s tidal and offshore wind potential, 10% of its wave potential and already produces half of its energy from renewable sources. We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to renewable energy and should be investing as much as possible in developing this industry, not pursuing further ways to ring hydrocarbons out of our soil. The argument against investment is usually that it’s too expensive just now, oil and gas technology is so advanced it makes it immeasurably cheaper to develop those projects. Well it might be cheaper in the short term but the cost of dealing with cataclysmic climate change is vast – it is simply the destruction of all we know. We can’t afford to continue down this path when we could be leading the world in renewable energy – it makes environmental sense, industrial sense and economic sense to place a moratorium on any new unconventional oil and gas projects and to encourage renewable energy investment instead. A position echoed by the European Renewable Energy Council who found that developing shale gas would have little downward effect on gas prices and would divert investment from renewable energy.
The Scottish Government has the power to do this too. While it can’t control licensing, it can create the planning framework which guides local authorities (as has been shown by Fergus Ewing’s announcement of buffer zones etc), effectively banning any development of fracking sites regardless of the license they hold. This would put them at odds with Westminster and show that Scotland is truly able to take a different path and live like the better nation we know we can be. Earlier this week Scottish Greens co-convener Patrick Harvie urged the Scottish Government to take a tougher stance on fracking and to ban it using their planning powers.
So, if you’ve recently joined the SNP, put your new found empowerment to good use and speak up at branch meetings, go to your conference and urge a change in policy. If you’re outwith the party you can still make a difference by writing to Fergus Ewing MSP and your own elected representatives urging them to fight for a ban on unconventional oil and gas extraction in favour of renewable investment. Raise awareness, tell your friends that the Scottish Government can ban fracking in Scotland and get them to act. Let’s fracking do this.
Image: Public Herald (the photo consists of a list of emissions found in the air after a well is fracked and ‘vented’)