Shale Gas: Saving Us from High Petrol Prices or Killing the Environment?
In a small Sussex village called Balcombe, the CEO of Cuadrilla was subjected to intense scrutiny as he explained his company’s reason for prospecting for shale gas and oil in the financial center of the village. Not only was Mark Miller confronted by angry townspeople shouting, “Go away!”, he was closely questioned by experts, including an environmental scientist. This is a battle that is playing out all over the UK as traditional sources of oil diminish and alternative routes are sought. Will shale gas be the answer to depletion and high prices, or just another environmental headache?
Cuadrilla, just one of the companies interested in prospecting for shale gas and oil, says that the reserves of the Blackpool area of Balcombe would yield enough gas to meet the UK’s demand for decades. Other reserves are as promising. Many hail it as a “game changer.” But how exactly will the game change?
Cuadrilla maintains a drilling site near Blackpool Lancashire. According to the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research, exploiting even some of the shale gas found there means that the UK would not meet its target CO2 emissions. The UK has set aggressive new targets that would cut CO2 emissions by 80 percent by 2050. If just 20 percent of the Lancashire shale oil is used, it would make those standards unreachable. And remember, this is just one well; several sites around England, Wales, and Scotland are believed to contain large shale reserves.
Proponents of the drilling and exploration counter that use of shale resources will cut dependency on “dirty” diesel and petroleum. According to the International Energy Agency, shale is much cleaner than oil or coal and could supply the world for 250 years. Cuadrilla says it can save as many as 6500 UK jobs and provide a secure domestic energy source. There is little doubt that there is great economic benefit to fracking, and even many environmental ones as well. But do those outweigh the problems presented?
The carbon emissions of shale oil and gas are just one concern. Some others include:
- Seismic activity. Since tapping into the Blackwell pool, the area has experienced two minor earthquakes (between 1.5 and 3). While they did not impact residents, Cuadrilla admitted that their fracking operation was the likely cause of the activity.
- Fracking uses large amounts of water and it could potentially pollute underground supplies. This is the case in France, where shale resources are closer to the surface, and therefore affect ground water. In the UK, the shale is much deeper, far below the water table.
- The money that the UK needs to invest in shale resources would be enough, according to the Guardian, to build 2300 offshore wind turbines. Renewable energy would also support more jobs than shale exploration, which depends on “minimal manpower.” Friends of the Earth campaigner Tony Bosworth says, “David Cameron must free us from the shackles of the big energy companies keeping us hooked on dirty fossil fuels – and support clean British energy providers instead.” Companies like Ecotricity, Clean Energy UK, and Good Energy are leading the way in clean, renewable and/or sustainable energies.
France and Bulgaria have already banned fracking. French president Nicolas Sarkozy says, “Development of hydrocarbon resources underground is strategic for our country but not at any price. This won’t be done until it has been shown that technologies used for development respect the environment, the complex nature of soil, and water networks.”
Other countries, including Poland, have largely embraced exploration. Poland wants to start tapping into the estimated 5.3 cubic meters of reserves by 2014. Not only would this provide the country with more than 300 years of domestic energy demand, it would break a costly and insecure dependency on Russian energy. Here, over 70 percent of the population approves fracking, and only four percent outright opposes it.
As the issue of energy grows more pressing, environmental concerns continue to battle with economic ones. The ideal solution would be a source that satisfied both, but that does not look likely as tensions rise around shale gas and oil. Do the benefits outweigh the risks? No one really knows yet.