Dr Cartright and Dr Leggett argue passionately for and against ‘fracking’ respectively (Oxford Today, Michaelmas 2014, pp. 16–17). They both make good points, but this debate can be put on a more rational basis.
The first step is to use the right terminology. ‘Fracking’ is short for ‘hydraulic fracturing’ which is a technique for stimulating well production, which was developed by Haliburton in the 1940s. When campaigners object to ‘fracking’, people in the industry smile and even laugh, because it is just a technique which has been widely used for more than 60 years in both conventional and unconventional hydrocarbon production. The campaigners are objecting, not to the technique, but to the new industry to extract hydrocarbons from shale. This involves not only multi-stage fracking, but also horizontal drilling, with wells every 1.5 miles plus considerable infrastructure, and it industrialises the countryside.
An expert speaking on Radio 4 recognised that ‘fracking’ does not properly describe this industry, and proposed ‘horizontal drilling’ instead. But this is not very specific. We propose that this new industry should be called ‘shale fracking’ of ‘shracking’ for short. ‘Shale fracking’ is the industry to force hydrocarbons out of shale by unconventional means, as opposed to the conventional industry, where the hydrocarbons are pumped out.
The main driving force behind shale fracking in the UK is the economic argument, that since it has transformed the economy in the USA (with lower energy prices and increased industrial competitiveness), therefore it can do so here. We argue that this is unlikely to be the case. Conditions are very different.
Firstly, the US has 40 times the land area of the UK, and so they can afford to loose a few million acres. They have vast open spaces, relatively uninhabited, where the adverse consequences of this new industry (which the Government's chief scientific advisor recently warned could be on a par with thalidomide, asbestos, dioxins and many pesticides) will not affect many people. Furthermore, our population density is eight times theirs, so every square mile shracked affects eight times as many people.
Secondly, we use 2.5 times as much oil per square mile as they do. Thus to get the same economic impact as they have had, we would have to shrack proportionately 2.5 times as many square miles as them. Furthermore, this would affect eight times as many people per square mile on average as them, and so the total number of people adversely affected by shracking, to get the same economic impact, would be 20 times as great as in the USA. Some people might find this acceptable if one could achieve significant economic benefits, but even this is unlikely in the UK.
Supply and demand requires that one has to produce a surplus to get the prices to come down significantly, but in practice this is unlikely. For example, the recent British Geological Survey Report states that there are two billion to eight billion barrels of oil in the shale beneath the Sussex Weald, which sounds a lot. However, Professor Aplin of Durham University points out that shracking is notoriously inefficient at extracting oil and gas. The most one can expect, based on US experience, is to extract five per cent, which brings these figures down to 100 to 400 million barrels. In practice Aplin says the extraction efficiency is likely to be less, maybe only one per cent, because Weald shale contains clay which makes it harder to fracture. So if the Weald was shracked from end-to-end, it would produce 20 to 80 million barrels, which is about two to eight weeks supply for the whole of the UK (100 to 400 million barrels is only 10 to 40 weeks supply). This is unlikely to affect market prices. Furthermore many will ask, do we want to destroy the Weald for the sake of a few weeks supply of oil?
It seems highly likely that this is a financial ‘bubble’ where we are being asked to gamble the British countryside for the sake of long-term energy supplies which cannot be achieved.
An alternative, tidal power, has not received the attention it deserves, and as a maritime nation we could excel in it. Unlike shracking, tidal power does not produce CO2 or poison the earth. Furthermore, unlike shracking wells, which usually dry up after a year or two, tidal power will continue to be available as long as the moon goes round the earth, and so will produce clean energy for centuries to come.