In the second of a two-part debate, Dr Jeremy Leggett, author of The Energy of Nations and Entrepreneur of the Year at the New Energy Awards, makes the case against a technology that’s been presented as a rich new source for fossil fuel.

Fracking: Too risky by farHydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, is a mining technology in which hydraulically pressurised liquid is used to crack rock, thereby allowing the recovery of hydrocarbons such as gas and oil. Almost no issue of our times has aroused as much heated debate as fracking, to the point where the real issues are almost overwhelmed by Hollywood films, lobbying groups and geo-political arguments. Here we present the second half of a two-part debate.
 

AGAINST: Jeremy Leggett


Fracking: Too risky by far

Dr Jeremy Leggett (pictured right; DPhil in earth sciences, Wolfson, 1978), author of The Energy of Nations, is founder and chairman of Solarcentury and founder and chairman of SolarAid, a solar lighting charity set up with five per cent of Solarcentury’s annual profits, itself parent to a social venture, SunnyMoney, that is the top-selling retailer of solar lights in Africa. He is an Entrepreneur of the Year at the New Energy Awards.


I am opposed to fracking in the UK for five main reasons: economic risk, local environmental cost, global environmental cost, social cost and opportunity cost. All the evidence for what follows is in the log of events on my website, www.jeremyleggett.net.

First, the economic risk. The US ‘shale boom’ looks as though it will turn into a bubble. The oil and gas industry is losing cash by the tens of billions, because high drilling costs mean most companies are spending more than they are earning from fracked gas and oil. Wider US industry may have benefited from cheap gas in the short term, but production from all shale gas regions save the Marcellus has peaked already, and many of us watching the detail see little prospect of the gas industry delivering growing production far into the future.

Second, the local environmental cost. Once Dick Cheney freed fracking from scrutiny under the Safe Water Act (the so-called ‘Halliburton Loophole’), bad news about contamination and health impacts should have been predictable. It has been slow to emerge, in part because of widespread use of gagging orders by the industry as part of compensation payments for wrecked farms and impaired health. But now a regular drip of bad news has started, soon likely to snowball as ever more people realise the reality behind the industry’s insistence that all is well.

Third, the global environmental cost. Gas industry operations can leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from wellhead to hob. Early research by the rare university teams not cowed by oil-industry funding are very worrying when it comes to fracking. Fracked gas may well prove to be worse than coal in greenhouse terms, over the full-life-cycle. And British shale basins are far more faulted than US shale basins.

Fourth, the social cost. It is likely that few British people as yet fully appreciate the industrial infrastructure, waste disposal challenges and lorry movements that are required for a typical US shale ‘sweet spot’, and what the social cost of that would be if superimposed on rural Britain. Yet already local opposition is severe, even against single vertical unfracked test wells. Planning for the first such was recently rejected by a council in Sussex for the first time, with objectors ‘weeping with relief’ in the chamber on hearing the decision.

Many such objectors are Conservative voters. The Prime Minister says he wants to deliver sufficient shale gas to drive down the gas price enough for manufacturing to return to the UK. He has little or no chance of getting that past his own voter base without committing political suicide, even if much gas proves extractable by fracking — which the British Geological Survey clearly has doubts about.

Fifth, the opportunity cost. There is a shovel-ready alternative over time that can be developed surprisingly quickly: a power source that is infinite and easy to tap. Politically, the government’s own opinion polls show that solar is outstandingly the most popular energy technology with the British public, year after year, miles ahead of fracking — even now, so early in the game. The opportunity cost is that many leaders in the oil and gas industry, and their supporters in government, want actively to suppress this fast-growing global industry, with its fast-falling cost base — along with other clean-energy industries — so as to not put investors in gas off.

 

 

This article first appeared in the Michaelmas 2014 issue of Oxford Today. Read the full issue online here, or download in pdf, iPhone/iPad or Android format. Image of fracking protest © Randi Sokoloff via Shutterstock.com.

Comments

By Finn Jackson (T...
on

Very good.
(And Anthony Ingraffea's data already shows that shale gas is more GHG-polluting than coal.)

You can add to this list the health impacts (from airborne pollution and poisoned water) on those living nearby, the dramatic reduction in house and property values, the destruction of farm land (when we already grow little enough of our own food), and the landscape impacts of eight well pads per square mile (with up to twenty wells per pad). England does not want to look like a Texas oilfield, or North Dakota.

On the gas price issue, I thought this had been resolved a long time ago. The USA is a long way from anywhere, so any oil & gas produced locally affects local prices. The UK on the other hand is part of the European market, so production volumes would have to be big enough to affect the whole European market. That isn't going to happen. (Even assuming that enough gas to supply the whole of the UK could be fracked cheaply here, which it cannot, that gas would immediately be in demand by our neighbours, pulling the price back up again.)

Meanwhile the oil price has dropped through the floor, because the Saudis know that we can only burn so much of our remaining fossil reserves and avoid Really Bad climate change, and they want to make sure that as much of that as possible is theirs.

And solar electricity is forecast to reach grid parity, even in the cloudy UK, by 2020. So by 2021 it will be cheaper to get electricity from a solar panel than from a gas fired power station.

1) It doesn't make sense financially
2) It doesn't make sense geologically
3) It doesn't make sense for the health, well being, livelihoods, house prices, farming, and landscape of Britain.
4) Cheaper, less harmful alternatives are easily available

There is no rational basis for fracking. We should give it up and pursue the alternatives with alacrity.

By Steve Jepps
on

If Joe Cartwright's article in favour of fracking came under fire because of that author's links to the oil industry, how much less credence should we place in the views of Jeremy Leggett, the chairman of a company producing solar energy in direct competition with fracked gas. It would be nice to hear the views of an expert in the field who has no particular axe to grind.

By Giles Clarke
on

Jeremy Leggett's arguments lack fact and high on emotion. The exaggerated claims on losses,"tens of billions", are simply fallacious. Alan Greenspan sets out the fracking economics far clearer in the FT today. it is a simple fact that fracking projects are swift results in volume terms compared to traditional wells,and they decline equally swiftly without constant new investment. Rapid high return tailing off.
To ignore such assets and employment potential in economies that need both is foolish. Furthermore,just how much taxpayers money( rather than risk investors) has been squandered in the appalling subsidies for solar power? And what are the ecological costs of creating solar ?
Time to acknowledge all those as well.

By Chris Southworth
on

This to me is a considered response - which to an extent suprised me (until I realised it was written by Jeremy). I had expected the usual false science about the cataclismic 'dangers' of fracing. Don't disagree in principle with some of what he said - which just goes to prove that like many such things its a risk/reward balance and depends where you personally feel comfortable on that spectrum. I did feel though that the comment about research teams 'cowed by oil-industry funding' was a bit of a cheap shot given that Jeremey through his company has a vested interest in keeping energy costs to users high to make solar economic.

By Dr. Martin Shaw
on

So we have a case FOR put by a DPhil in rift systems, ex employee of Shell and Honorary Professor of the Institut Français du Petrole. And a case AGAINST by a DPhil in earth sciences, Entrepreneur of the Year at the New Energy Awards and chairman of a company specialising in solar installation & PV systems.

I look forward to part 3, the balanced case brought by someone with no invested interests either way, other than the long term future of our country.

By Paul Beckwith
on

All of Dr Leggett's comments are easily refuted:
1) Economic risk - even if he is right, so what? The private sector is bearing all the capital risk. The industry will succeed or fail but no public monies will be lost. My view is that it will continue to succeed, not least because the cost of drilling shale wells is dropping very fast as the technology improves.
2) As even you admit, there has been little or no bad news regarding local environmental impacts. Notwithstanding enormous scrutiny by the media, and numerous very passionate academics and NGOs
3) Any well can leak methane, but if they are drilled and finished properly they don't. The regulatory regime in this country is more than robust to guard against this
4) Britain is blessed by having shale beds which are several thousand feet thick, vs the 100 ft thickness of typical US beds. Also, the technology now allows much longer horizontal sections.This means that several dozen wells can be drilled from one well positioned site. The density of development will thus be much lower than in the US. And the overall disruption to the landscape, per quantum of energy produced, will be dramatically lower than from solar or wind power.
5). Energy from solar is much more expensive, requires huge subsidies, is produced only when the sun shines which is when the grid least needs it and cannot be stored. And the local environmental damage is huge.

Perhaps you should have asked someone to argue this side that is not conflicted by economic interest. Solarcentury is a significant for profit business of which it seems Dr Leggett is a major shareholder. The fact that the business gives 5% of its profits ot charity does not absolve this conflict.

By Ian Facer
on

Fracking puts toxic liquid in pipes through the water table and argues that these pipes will not leak and there is no risk to the water table, What happened to BP drilling in the Gulf of Mexico was that a pipe that 'could not fail' failed.
Would the developers of fracking be prepared to back their confidence by putting £20 billion into an account to be held against the risk (returnable when the fracking has completely ceased) to cover the potential pollution of the water supplies or insure for at least this sum? Would £20 billion be sufficient if the water supplies for lancashire (for example) were polluted by a leak?

By RH Findlay
on

As a geologist with a PhD in structural geology and no vested interested interests in a career anywhere anymore with anyone, since I am just about retired, and as a geologist interested in the socio-political ramifications of geological discovery, the American experience with fracking seems to have been far less than ideal, to be polite to the companies involved in fracking.

Our most important mineral resources are water, soil and air; not gold, not the rare earth minerals and indeed not the hydrocarbons which we waste in a most profligate manner.

There are 7 billion people on the planet and irrespective of our petty nationalisms, we are now a global civilisation highly dependent in the first instance on local clean water and fertile local soils all of which depend on local climate. Should any of these fail, wars civil and uncivil, follow.

Anthropogenic Global Heating is real, irrespective of the assorted pundits in high places who would rather not deal with the full ramifications of the matter. The unlimited dumping of CO2 into the atmosphere is indeed affecting local climates across the world and we have to curtail the use of hydrocarbons as a primary fuel if we are to preserve what remains of a civil global society. This naturally means that we have to curtail our own desire for cheap and unlimited petrol and gas and our desire to squander plastics. There are alternatives, and only 50 years ago we lived with some of those alternatives quite comfortably. No TV, no 2 or 3 cars per family, no motorways, very few plastics, glass milk bottles, the local corporation bus/trolley bus transport, the once excellent British Railways, bicycles, shops one could walk to rather than supermarkets and shopping centres one has to drive to, delivery of food by one's local grocer and butcher thus reducing use of the car and perhaps the "need" to own one or more, laundry done by a centralised laundry service with efficient delivery and return services etc......Thus fracking is quite probably unnecessary for the maintenance of a livable and comfortable society. It would be very interesting to compare the use of energy in 1959 (before Dr Beeching and motorways) when I recall that the British population numbered around 56 million and there was still a powerful British manufacturing industry, and now, when it numbers around 60 million and British manufacturing seems to have moved to the sweat-shops of Asia. Granted that Mr Cameron might see fracking as stimulating British manufacturing, but who in the UK will, or is able to, work for $1USD per day?

And as a structural geologist, one thing I do know; no geologist can guarantee 100% the structural integrity of the ground under their feet. Thus no geologist can promise that the assorted chemicals involved in fracking, the hundreds of thousands of gallons of polluted waste water produced by fracking and the gases released by fracking cannot enter the water table. The American experience has demonstrated this beyond any shadow of doubt.

By Mike Goode
on

So we require anyone carrying out fracking to monitor methane losses and impose severe penalties for any methane lost to the environment. You also impose penalties if there is any seismic movement affecting local communities. If you strip away the emotional nonsense, then these two simple steps would give the UK all the benefits and none of the risks.
Preventing climate change is too important for these polarized views to hold sway. Solar can have it's place, but full life cycle analyses are required to verify a net benefit. Meanwhile keep supporting tidal, other hydro and offshore wind - those things the UK is naturally strong at. Also continue to support additional insulation and heat exchangers in public and private buildings. Lowering CO2 and methane emissions by >50% is well within our grasp.

By Grant A. Brown,...
on

Let's face it, fossil fuels are the worst form of energy, except for all the others. Wind and solar, in particular, are much more destructive of the environment than gas and oil ever was. Baoding, China (pop. 12 million) is a case study: the "greenest city in the world" and purportedly the first large city to be "carbon neutral." Baoding provides the world with solar power, yet it ranks among the worst in air quality in all of China - which is saying something. When you have finished studying Baoding, go check out how the rare-earth metals required for the production of permanent magnets for wind turbines are mined in China. "Mountain-top removal" is not a pretty sight. I guess as long as the environmental destruction by "green" energy occurs in China, to assuage the consciences of the preening elites in the western world, it doesn't matter. Out of sight, out of mind. For my part, I'll take the hypothetical risk of a more pleasantly warm planet that atmospheric CO2 threatens. As a bonus, it is an important plant food, responsible for improved growth the world over...

By Jim Buckee
on

Fracking has been normal practice since 1940. Alberta and Texas are the most fracked places on earth, with no observable detrimental effect. This emotional outburst is not based on reality. The only true element is that lots of equipment and space is needed, which the UK does not have. And, importantly, landowners in the US get the royalty- a great incentive.

By Allan Lees
on

Leggett's case seems to fall apart on two fronts. On the most trivial, it's not clear that dreary cloudy Britain is exactly an optimal location for generating solar power. On the more serious side, all he's really saying is that he wants pollution to occur in some far-away place about which he knows little and cares less. The manufacture of solar panels creates a significant amount of pollution. But presumably Leggett doesn't care about this so long as it doesn't get created anywhere near his back yard.

In other words, Leggett's argument is just the classic spoiled middle-class NIMBYism we've seen so many times before.

By David McAvoy
on

Now that we have heard the case for fracking and the case against fracking and for solar could we have an authoritative statement of the case for wave energy? I seem to remember that the original plans were very promising but were then spiked on the basis of some very dodgy mathematics..

By Michael Carpenter
on

It is a typical British attitude to pretend to have a so-called balanced debate rather than engaging the brain to address the real issues. As an admirer of Leggett's scientific contribution to the ecological debate, rarely have I heard such specious arguments in an attempt to discredit his opinions. For example, the drawbacks of, extracting rare earths from China do not change the case against burning fossil fuels when we can do so.

Now is the time to grasp the opportunity to spur green growth via the diversification of renewal energy development. By such a process, we would also protect the environment and enhance the public good represented by honest labour - man cannot continue to live by tricks alone. Even if we are proved wrong in our estimates of global warming, we would have achieved some other worthwhile objectives along the way.

Add new comment