British government fracking fan fracked

In November 2019 the Conservative government of Boris Johnson declared a moratorium on development of shale gas by hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) in England. This followed determined public protests at a number of potential fracking sites, the most intransigent being residents of Lancashire’s Fylde peninsula. They had been repeatedly disturbed since mid 2017 by low-magnitude earthquakes following drilling and hydraulic-fluid injection tests by Cuadrilla Resources near Little Plumpton village. Their views were confirmed in a scientific study by the British Geological Survey for the Oil and Gas Authority that warned of the impossibility of predicting the magnitude of future earthquakes that future fracking might trigger. The shale-gas industry of North America, largely in areas of low population and simple geology, confirmed the substantial seismic hazard of this technology by regular occurrences of earthquakes up to destructive magnitudes greater than 5.0. The Little Plumpton site was abandoned and sealed in February 2022.

Cuadrilla’s exploratory fracking site near Little Plumpton in Fylde, Lancashire. (Credit: BBC)

On 22 September 2022 the moratorium was rescinded by Jacob Rees-Mogg, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in the new government of Liz Truss, two weeks after his appointment. This was despite the 2019 Conservative manifesto pledging not to lift the moratorium unless fracking was scientifically proven to be safe. His decision involved suggesting that the seismicity threshold for pausing fracking operations be lifted from magnitude 0.5 to 2.5, which Rees-Mogg claimed without any scientific justification to be ‘a perfectly routine natural phenomenon’.  He further asserted that opposition to fracking was based around ‘hysteria’ and public ignorance of seismological science, and that some protestors had been funded by Vladimir Putin. In reality the Secretary of State’s decision was fuelled by the Russian Federation’s reducing gas supplies to Europe following its invasion of Ukraine, the soaring world price of natural gas and an attendant financial crisis. There was also a political need to be seen to be ‘doing something’, for which he has a meagre track record in the House of Commons. Rees Mogg claimed that lifting the moratorium would bolster British energy security. That view ignored the probable lead time of around 10 years before shale gas can become an established physical resource in England. Furthermore, an August 2018 assessment of the potential of UK shale-gas, by a team of geoscientists, including one from the British Geological Survey, suggested that shale-gas potential would amount to less than 10 years supply of UK needs: contrary to Rees-Mogg’s claim that England has ‘huge reserves of shale’. Indeed it does, but the vast bulk of these shales have no commercial gas potential.

Ironically, the former founder of Cuadrilla Resources, exploration geologist Chris Cornelius, and its former public affairs director, Mark Linder, questioned the move to unleash fracking in England, despite supporting shale-gas operations where geologically and economically appropriate. Their view is largely based on Britain’s highly complex geology that poses major technical and economic challenges to hydraulic fracturing. Globally, fracking has mainly been in vast areas of simple, ‘layer-cake’ geology. A glance at large-scale geological maps of British areas claimed to host shale-gas reserves reveals the dominance of hundreds of faults, large and small, formed since the hydrocarbon-rich shales were laid down. Despite being ancient, such faults are capable of being reactivated, especially when lubricated by introduction of fluids. Exactly where they go beneath the surface is unpredictable on the scales needed for precision drilling.  Many of the problems encountered by Cuadrilla’s Fylde programme stemmed from such complexity. Over their 7 years of operation, hundreds of millions of pounds were expended without any commercial gas production. Each prospective site in Britain is similarly compartmentalised by faulting so that much the same problems would be encountered during attempts to develop them. By contrast the shales fracked profitably in the USA occur as horizontal sheets deep beneath entire states: entirely predictable for the drillers. In Britain, tens of thousands of wells would need to be drilled on a ‘compartment-by-compartment’ basis at a rate of hundreds each year to yield useful gas supplies. Fracking in England would therefore present unacceptable economic risks to potential investors. Cornelius and Linder have moved on to more achievable ventures in renewables such as geothermal heating in areas of simple British geology.

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s second-class degree in history from Oxford and his long connection with hedge-fund management seem not to be appropriate qualifications for making complex geoscientific decisions. Such a view is apparently held by several fellow Conservative MPs, one of whom suggested that Rees-Mogg should lead by example and make his North East Somerset constituency the ‘first to be fracked’, because it is underlain by potentially gas-yielding shales. The adjoining constituency, Wells, has several sites with shale-gas licences but none have been sought within North East Somerset. Interestingly, successive Conservative governments since 2015, mindful of a ‘not-in-my-backyard’ attitude in the party’s many rural constituencies, have placed a de-facto ban on development of onshore wind power.

Fracking check list

Bergung der Opfer des Grubenunglücks
Aftermath of the 1906 mine explosion at Courrières, northern France; the largest mining disaster in Europe with 1099 fatalities. Image via Wikipedia

Britain is on the cusp of a shale-gas boom (see Britain to be comprehensively fracked? : EPN 14 October 2011) and it is as well to be prepared for some potential consequences. In extensively fracked parts of the US – the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Colorado – there are reports of water taps emitting roaring flames after dissolved methane in groundwater ignites. This is largely due to common-place household water supplies from unprocessed groundwater, which are rare in Britain. But there are other hazards (Mooney, C. 2011. The truth about fracking. Scientific American, v. 305 (Nov 2011), p. 62-67) that have enraged Americans in affected areas, which are just as likely to occur in Britain. In fact the nature of shale-gas exploitation by horizontal drilling beneath large areas poses larger threats in densely populated area, as the people of Blackpool have witnessed in the form of small earthquakes that the local shale-gas entrepreneur Cuadrilla admit as side effects of their exploratory operations .

Chris Mooney succinctly explains the processes involved in fracking shale reservoirs; basically huge volumes of water laced with a cocktail of hazardous chemicals and sand being blasted into shales at high pressure to fracture the rock hydraulically and create pathways for natural gas to leak to the wells. One risk is that this water has to be recovered and stored in surface ponds for re-use. About 75% returns to the surface and also carries whatever has been dissolved from the shales, which can be extremely hazardous. By definition a shale containing hydrocarbons creates strongly reducing conditions, which in turn can induce several elements to enter solution as well as easily dissolved salts; for instance divalent iron (Fe2+) is highly soluble, whereas more oxidised Fe3+ is not, so waters having passed through gas-rich shales will be iron-rich. But that is by no means the worst possibility; one of the most common iron minerals in sedimentary rocks is goethite (FeOOH), which adsorbs many otherwise soluble elements and compounds. In reducing conditions goethite can break down to release its adsorbed elements, among which is commonly arsenic. The blazing faucet hazard results from hydrocarbon gases leaking through imperfectly sealed well casings to enter shallow groundwater, where the gases can also create reducing conditions and release toxic elements and compounds into otherwise pure groundwater by dissolution of ubiquitous goethite, as in the infamous arsenic crisis of Bangladesh and adjoining West Bengal in India where natural reducing conditions do the damage.

What is not mentioned in the Scientific American article is the common association of hydrogen sulfide gas with petroleum, produced from abundant sulfate ions in formation water by bacteria that reduce sulfate to sulfide in the metabolism. This ‘sour gas’, as it is known in the oil industry, is a stealthy killer: at high concentrations it loses its rotten-eggs smell and in the early days of the petroleum industry killed more oil workers than did any other occupational hazard. Visit the spa towns of Harrogate in Yorkshire and Strathpeffer in northern Scotland and sample their waters for examples of what Carboniferous and Devonian gas-rich shales produce quite naturally: noxious stuff of questionable efficacy. The environmental effects of such natural seepage from gas-rich rocks tell a cautionary tale as regards fracking. The highly reducing cocktail of hydrocarbon and sulfide gases in rising, mineral-rich formation water kills the microbiotic symbionts that are essential to plant root systems for nutrient uptake die and so too do trees. The onshore Solway Basin of Carboniferous age in NW England illustrates both points, having many chalybeate springs as the sulfide- and iron-rich waters are euphemistically known and also a strange phenomenon in many of the deep valleys cut by glacial melt waters as land rose following the last glacial maximum. Once trees reach a certain height – and correspondingly deep root systems – they die, to litter the valley woodland with large dead-heads.  Also leaves on smaller trees turn to their autumnal colours earlier than on higher ground. Both seem to be due to minor gas seepages from thick sale sequences in the depths of the sedimentary basin. Indeed, both are botanical indicators to the hydrocarbon explorationist.

To recap, a common size of a fracking operation using several horizontal wells driven from a single wellhead is 4km in diameter entering gas-rich shales at up to 2 km depth. Each well can generate fractures of a hundred metres or more in the shales and surrounding rocks, as they have to for commercial production. In Britain, most of the sites underlain by shales with gas potential are low-lying agricultural- or urban land. The producing rock in the Blackpool area is the Middle Carboniferous Bowland Shale that lies beneath the Coal Measures of what was formerly the Lancashire coalfield, now a patchwork of expanding urban centres. On 23 May 1984 an explosion occurred in Abbystead, Lancashire at an installation designed to pump winter flood water between the rivers Lune and Wyre through a tunnel beneath the Lower to Middle Carboniferous Bowland Fells. The Abbystead Disaster coincided with an inaugural demonstration of the pumping station to visitors, of whom 16 were killed and 22 injured. Methane had escaped from Carboniferous shales to build up in the flood-balancing  tunnel soon after its construction. Methane build-ups were by far the worst hazard throughout the history of British coal mining, thousands dying and being maimed as a result of explosions. One of the largest death tolls in British coal-mining history was 344 miners at Hulton Colliery in Westhoughton, Lancashire in 1910 after a methane explosion; the methane may well have escaped from the underlying Bowland Shales.