Fracking: Just what are the risks?

Shale gas: mining the data.

In the early 1990s the oil and gas industry in Texas started to produce gas by drilling into deeply-buried shale layers. They found that creating underground fractures in the layers, later coined ‘fracking’, increased the rates of production and their investments started to make money. This was the start of the shale gas industry in the USA which may now grow in Europe, China and elsewhere around the world.

Hydraulic fracturing is far from being a new technology; it’s been carried out in many wells since the 1940s. But in the last 10 years, its widespread use for recovering gas from shale has led to it becoming extremely controversial.  A tipping point may have been when the filmmaker Josh Fox was asked to lease his land for drilling, it resulted in him making the documentary ‘Gaslands’ (2010), with footage of gas coming out of taps being ignited. The potential link between fracturing and the contamination of water supplies with methane was thus made.  More followed in 2011 when the UK’s first shale gas well was drilled near Blackpool in northwest England and triggered earthquakes up to 2.3 in magnitude. ‘Fracking’ has quickly become a catch-all term for any shale gas operations. 

But what do we actually know about the geological risks? Can fractures created underground really travel much further than we anticipate, intersecting water supplies and polluting them as ‘Gaslands’ suggested? Could the pumping of thousands of cubic metres of water underground cause damaging earthquakes? How much of what we read in the press is scientifically sound?  The debate is polarised with claim and counter claim. 

There is a lot we already know. Hydraulic fractures can form entirely naturally when pressure builds up as rock is buried over millions of years. Underground seams of minerals in fractures have of course been mined for centuries and the processes involved in fracture formation have been well understood since the 1960s.  In the last decade, chimney-like subterranean hydraulic fractures extending vertically for hundreds of metres have been found in many parts of the world. 

‘Unnatural’ or stimulated hydraulic fractures are generated by pumping water and chemical additives into rock layers. The orientation of fractures that grow can be predicted approximately. But it’s a little like smashing a pane of glass: where exactly the cracks occur is different every time. It is difficult to predict whether a fracture will extend beyond the intended geological layer.  Nor is it feasible to calculate whether or not pumping fluid underground to create fractures will cause small earthquakes that could be felt at the surface.

But what we do have is data – and lots of it.  Thousands of fracturing operations have already been completed in the United States and the dimensions of the hydraulic fractures recorded at least for the last ten years. So we can adopt an empirical approach to understanding the chances of a fracture extending further than ever before.  Our analysis shows that the chances of a fracture extending further than 500 metres vertically are very small. There are also hundreds of examples of induced earthquakes caused by activities other than ‘fracking’: the filling of dams, fracturing for geothermal energy, injecting water to maintain oil fields pressure and because of subsidence triggered by mining of oil and gas.

It is claimed that companies involved in shale gas are not releasing data about operations – but in fact there are hundreds of papers in the public domain that can be accessed and I’ve spent months pouring over them while producing a paper on the topic.  The compilation and reviewing of 20 years of shale gas activity will give us a pretty good steer on the chances of something extraordinary happening. It is the sort of data mining task one of our undergraduates would excel in – some studies have been published, but in the surrounding media hysteria, a lot of basic information has been missed. This would go a long way to informing not just the broader public who are often misinformed by the media, but also industry, academic geoscientists and engineers, regulators, non government organisations and publics about safe shale gas operations in a hyperbole-free way.

Richard Davies is Director of Durham Energy Institute.

Fracking vehicles, Getty images.

Richard Davies is Director of Durham Energy Institute.

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage