The case for a frack-free Irish Sea

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The case for a frack-free Irish Sea – http://www.iomtoday.co.im/news/columnists/the-case-for-a-frack-free-irish-sea-1-6461136

It was gravely concerning to read, this week, of plans for a UK company to start shale fracking in the Irish Sea.

And these concerns were all the greater because it’s a firm related to accident-prone Cuadrilla that’s been granted the exclusive two-year licences over sections of the seabed.

These licences are provisional, in that Nebula Resources has to prove it has the necessary finance before it can start test-drilling; and that’s a proviso well-worth imposing, since the fracking industry is rife with over-estimates and guesstimates, and has been described by several alanlysts as a ‘massive Ponzi Scheme’.

Nebula is a new company, and it’s been set up by one Dr Chris Cornelius, the founder of the aforementioned Cuadrilla. Dr Cornelius sounded optimistic as he spoke to the BBC about his plans: ‘We’re very comfortable that the resource is there and the numbers are absolutely ginormous. Is any of that exploitable? That’s the billion dollar question and we won’t know that for many years.’

Well, that IS the billion-dollar question; and so far, experience in other countries has shown that the fracking industry has a solid track record of completely over-stating potential gas flows.

You might recall our column last year (‘Sub-Prime Energy’, http://www.iomtoday.co.im/news/columnists/sub-prime-energy-situation-1-5796335), in which we showed that if you get behind the figures – and they’re very uncertain figures – a rather unpalatable picture emerges.

And that’s even before we get to the environmental damage (under a ‘good’ fracking scenario, if such a thing exists), and thence to the potentially shocking outcomes if something goes wrong. Cuadrilla and its associates know all about that – it was their drilling activity that almost certainly caused a number of earthquakes in Lancashire, in 2011, as they themselves have admitted.

Cuadrilla’s still gamely trying to start fracking operations under way in the county, of course, much to the alarm of many of its residents.

Dr Cornelius is well aware that this is a new technology for the UK’s coastal waters, and that it may or may not be profitable; but again, talking to the BBC, he seemed sanguine. He told the BBC: ‘Certainly offshore shale gas is a new concept, and there’s no reason with the UK’s history of offshore development that we can’t develop these resources offshore.’

Others from the scientific community, interviewed for the same piece, were less confident. Professor Richard Davies, director of the Durham Energy Institute and leader of the European fracking research consortium ReFINE, told industry magazine The Engineer: ‘The cost of an offshore well is dramatically higher than an onshore well and shale gas wells produce quite small volumes of gas. The economics of drilling offshore when you’re likely to get less gas don’t stack up.’

Onshore, where there’s at least some experience of the impact of fracking, the process has been linked to water contamination, air pollution, earth tremors, health problems and climate change.

This is why communities across the UK are protesting in the strongest terms about the threat to their lives and livelihoods.

But, and here’s the rub, the pound signs that so often persuade politicians to ignore these issues are largely illusory. Fracking isn’t likely to bring down energy prices, nor can it create sustainable jobs. UK Energy Secretary Ed Davey has said ‘we can’t expect UK shale production alone to have any effect [on gas prices]’.

And leading climate change economist Lord Stern has described claims of fracking cutting gas prices as ‘baseless economics’.

The timelines involved – a decade or more – also mean that fracking operations won’t help keep the lights on in the imminent UK energy crisis. And in any event there’s no guarantee that any gas extracted won’t be exported to the highest bidder – so no energy security there.

If you want to look for experience in the offshore fracking industry, you need to look to the US – it’s an unedifying story.

There’s evidence that the extraction industry has engaged in more than 200 unlicensed fracking activities off the coast of the US (mainly the West Coast), and this with almost no safety or regulatory oversight.

Wastewater, replete with contaminants, is freely released into the sea – there affecting both marine species, and people enjoying leisure pursuits, including fishing.

We’re told that the UK’s offshore fracking industry would be much more responsible, and better regulated.

But that seems hard to believe.