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.

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As children face a mental health crisis, should schools take the lead in fighting it?

There is a crisis affecting the mental health of England's young people. As Children’s Mental Health Week gets underway, the government must put schools at the heart of mental health services.

Three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health condition. Half of these are conduct (behavioural) disorders, while one third are emotional disorders such as stress, anxiety and depression, which often becomes outwardly apparent through self-harm. There was a staggering 52 per cent jump in hospital admissions for children and young people who had self-harmed between 2009 and 2015.

Schools and teachers have consistently reported the scale of the problem since 2009. Last year, over half of teachers reported that more of their pupils experience mental health problems than in the past. But teachers also consistently report how ill-equipped they feel to meet pupils’ mental health needs, and often cite a lack of training, expertise and support from NHS services.

Part of the reason for the increased pressure on schools is that there are now fewer ‘early intervention’ and low-level mental health services based in the community. Cuts to local authority budgets since 2010 have resulted in significant erosion of these services, despite strong evidence of their effectiveness in reducing escalation and crises further down the line. According to the parliamentary Health Select Committee, this has led specialist child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) to become inundated with more severe and complex cases that have been allowed to escalate through a lack of early treatment.

This matters.  Allowing the mental health of children and young people to deteriorate to this extent will prevent us from creating a healthy, happy, economically productive society.

So what part should schools play in government’s response?

During the last parliament, the government played down the role of schools in meeting pupils’ mental health and wider emotional needs. Michael Gove, during his tenure as education secretary, made a conscious decision to move away from the Every Child Matters framework, which obliged local authorities to work with schools and health services to improve the ‘physical and mental wellbeing’ of all children in their local area. He argued that schools policy needed to focus more heavily on academic outcomes and educational rigour, and references to children’s wellbeing were removed from the Ofsted framework. This created a false dichotomy between academic standards and pupils’ mental health - why can’t a school promote both?

But since Gove was replaced by Nicky Morgan, a new window of opportunity for meaningful reform has opened. Following her appointment in 2014, Morgan has called on schools to promote resilience and protect pupil’s mental health when problems first arise. The Department for Education has made tentative steps in this direction, publishing advice on counselling in schools and announcing a new pilot scheme to link schools with NHS services.

However, much more needs to be done.

The only way to break the pressures on both mental health services and schools is to reinvest in early intervention services of the kind that local authorities and the NHS have been forced to cut over the last few years. But this time around there should be one major difference – there is a compelling case that services should be based largely inside schools.

There are strong arguments for why schools are best placed to provide mental health services. Schools see young people more than any other service, giving them a unique ability to get to hard-to-reach children and young people and build meaningful relationships with them over time. Studies have shown that children and young people largely prefer to see a counsellor in school rather than in an outside environment, and attendance rates for school-based services such as those provided by the charity Place2Be are often better than those for CAMHS. Young people have reported that for low-level conditions such as stress and anxiety, a clinical NHS setting can sometimes be daunting and off-putting.

There are already examples of innovative schools which combine mental health and wellbeing provision with a strong academic curriculum. For example, School 21 in East London dedicates 2.5 hours per week to wellbeing, creating opportunities for pastoral staff to identify problems as early as possible.

There is a huge opportunity for Nicky Morgan – as well as Labour’s shadow mental health minister Luciana Berger – to call for schools to be placed at the heart of a reconstructed early intervention infrastructure.

This will, though, require a huge cultural shift. Politicians, policymakers, commissioners and school leaders must be brave enough to make the leap in to reimagining schools as providers of health as well as education services.

Craig Thorley is a research fellow at IPPR, where he leads work on mental health. Follow him @craigjthorley