Fracking free-for-all threatens Wales

Gareth Clubb says test drilling in the Vale of Glamorgan has opened the flood-gates

The recent decision by the Planning Inspectorate to uphold the gas and oil fracking test-drilling application in the Vale of Glamorgan has opened the floodgates for a fossil fuel free-for-all in Wales. No planning authority in Wales will risk refusing permission to a test drilling application. And so we’re left just one step away from fracking operations across much of Wales.

I say ‘much of Wales’ reservedly. The map below, kindly supplied to Friends of the Earth Cymru by the Department of Energy and Climate Change, speaks for itself. But it’s clear that areas that are either already licensed for fracking or that could be licensed in the near future include:

  • All of Bridgend, Neath Port Talbot, Vale of Glamorgan, Cardiff, Newport and Flintshire.
  • Vast swathes of Swansea, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Caerphilly, Merthyr, Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen, Monmouthshire and Wrexham.
  • Parts of Denbighshire, Powys and Carmarthenshire.

It means that well over half of the population of Wales is living in areas where fracking could take place. And given that the actual footprint of a fracking operation on the surface is always smaller than one hectare (the minimum size of operation for which an Environmental Impact Assessment is required), this is of as much concern to people in city centres as it is to rural dwellers.

But why should fracking bother the public at large?

Firstly, fracking involves the injection of fluid into the rock strata sitting underneath us. The single existing fracking site in the UK (the one that caused earthquakes in Blackpool) provides good clarity on that fracking fluid (see ExxonMobil, Composition of components in Bowland Shale hydraulic fracturing fluid for Preese Hall-1 Well, 2012). But let’s bear in mind that this is a hyper-scrutinised site and that Cuadrilla have plans to drill as many as 800 wells in Lancashire alone (Guardian, Gas ‘fracking’ gets green light 17 April 2012). Will companies be so careful to ensure the non-toxicity of their fracking fluid when there are thousands of wells operating? And will the Environment Agency be in any position to monitor them?

The US House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy and Commerce found fracking fluid in the USA to contain chemicals that are highly toxic and cause cancer, such as benzene. (United States House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, April 2011, Chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing). The UK’s Tyndall Centre, which conducted a study of fracking fluids used in New York State, found that of the 260 registered components of fracking fluids, 58 have properties that could give cause for concern, including known and suspected carcinogens (14 chemicals), mutagens (7 chemicals), teratogens (5 chemicals) and acute toxins to human health (38 chemicals) (Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, January 2011, Shale gas: A provisional assessment of climate change and environmental impacts, p.56-57)

The Tyndall Centre also deduced that 20-85 per cent of fracking fluid remains underground. In addition to the fracking fluid itself, the ‘flowback’ fluid that returns to the surface can include:

  • Chemical transformation products that may have formed due to reactions between fracturing additives.
  • Substances mobilised from within the shale formation during the fracturing operation.
  • Naturally occurring radioactive materials.

According to the Tyndall Centre, the toxicity of the flowback fluid is “likely to be of greater concern than that of the fracturing fluid itself, and is likely to be considered as hazardous waste in the UK”. The radioactive component should not be understated. One report indicates that 15 gas wells in the Pennsylvania and West Virginia area produced fracking wastewater with radioactivity thousands of times higher than drinking water standard. The study acknowledges that people are unlikely to drink the fracking fluid, but uses this standard because there is no standard for the safe level of radioactivity in drilling wastewater (New York Times, 26 February 2011, Regulation lax as gas wells’ tainted water hits rivers).

Contamination of groundwater or of water-bearing aquifers is a known impact of shale gas exploitation in the USA (USA Environmental Protection Agency, EPA releases draft findings of Pavilion, Wyoming ground water investigation for public comment and independent scientific review 12 August 2011). If contamination of water supplies or of water-bearing aquifers were to happen in Wales it could have a severe impact on those using private boreholes and on the water supply generally.

Secondly, the greenhouse gas implications of fracking are of great concern. The conclusions of the Tyndall Centre’s report on the climate change impacts of shale gas are (Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, January 2011, Shale gas: A provisional assessment of climate change and environmental impacts, p.6):

  • There is little to suggest that shale gas will play a key role as a transition fuel in the move to a low carbon economy
  • Without a meaningful cap on emissions of global greenhouse gases, the exploitation of shale gas is likely to increase net carbon emissions
  • Rapid carbon reductions require major investment in zero-carbon technologies and this could be delayed by exploitation of shale gas.

The relative emissions of shale gas as compared to other fossil fuels are not known – estimates range from 20% greater than conventional gas to twice as great as coal, depending in part on the amount of methane leaking from the wells. So even in the best of circumstances, the only climate benefit that can possibly arise from the use of shale gas is if it replaces coal altogether as a fuel. But in the global energy market, shale gas will in all probability be additional to coal – and the Tyndall Centre has concluded that “large scale extraction of shale gas cannot be reconciled with the climate change commitments enshrined in the Copenhagen Accord” to keep global temperatures to no greater than 2oC above pre-industrial levels.

Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre, in evidence to a House of Commons Committee Inquiry into shale gas, noted that “there simply is not the emission space available in the timeframe that we have to utilize shale gas”. I’d recommend everyone spare ten minutes to read a graphic account of how our current emissions trajectory – we’re on course for 6oC of warming – will “create a planet straight out of science fiction”.

Hazardous waste squirting from the rock beneath our feet, bringing to the surface a fuel that will leave our climate change targets in tatters and delay investment in renewable energy. That’s why fracking has been banned in France, Bulgaria and Vermont in the USA. And that’s why we’re calling on the Environment Minister to kill the fracking industry stone dead in Wales by requiring industry to prove that no harm will come to the environment as a result of their developments.

Gareth Clubb is Director of Friends of the Earth Cymru. Its petition to the National Assembly on fracking is open for signatories until 24 September, and can be accessed here.

11 thoughts on “Fracking free-for-all threatens Wales

  1. Great article Gareth, be interested to know your view on legislating for the precautionary principle within the SD Bill? This is one of the best live examples for me of why that approach needs to be adopted.

  2. It has been proved and demonstrated that fracking causes earthquakes and that the horrendous chemicals used to dissolve the oil in the rock leach out into water sources – we will not put up with this. Please ban fracking in the whole of the UK – plenty of power can be generated to take its place from wind power, solar power, tidal power, wave power and geothermal power. France has banned fracking – are we to be left behind and with our houses round our ears and being poisoned from tainted water supplies?

  3. Why doesn’t fracking work just using water under high pressure? Why are other fluids necessary? If fracking were restricted to water use only, would it still operate? If so let’s not get hysterical about a minor earth tremor. As a kid in the Valleys I saw whole streets of houses having to be propped up against subsidence.

    To make use of Wales’ hydrocarbon assets without threat to the climate we need to develop economical carbon capture techniques. We’ve plenty of disused mines in which to bury sequestered carbon dioxide. Why not a stonking fee for fracking licences, proceeds used to develop carbon capture techniques, which could then be licensed around the world?

    Geothermal power is underexploited in Wales but if we started to exploit that you can bet there would be objections. I know people who say they worry about global warming but object to nuclear power and the Severn Barrage on environmental grounds. Sometimes you have to pick the least evil.

  4. Hi Chris,
    This has been the subject of some discussion. We would like to see the precautionary principle as an overarching principle, along the lines that it should always be applied by Ministers in the exercise of their powers.

    The First Minister has already made known his desire for the precautionary principle to apply to fracking in Wales:

    “The licensing for onshore oil and gas is regulated by the Department for Energy and Climate Change, which has responsibility for that. In terms of other areas such as offshore oil, again, these are matters that are primarily within the purview of the UK Government. However, we take the view that it is important that where new sources of fuel are being examined and drilled for, a precautionary approach should be taken.”

    Given this strong level of support from the First Minister we’re hopeful that the precautionary approach will be incorporated into the SD Bill.

  5. I agree that fracking should be banned, along with other very dangerous modern inventions like a) railways, b) aircraft, c) gm food etc. The greenies are worrying themselves into an early grave but without cheap energy how in our climate are we going to maintain decent standards of living. If the ‘ordinary’ people like myself were told about the REAL costs of green/renewable energy it would come to an end tomorrow. I am sure that virtually everyone in mid wales would have voted for re-newable energy, however when they see the reality of wind farms/electrity etc they change their minds very quickly. If fracking can be ‘controlled’ to release safe/cheaper energy then so be it, as there is a price to be paid for everything. I genuinely wonder if the exploration/exploitation of north sea oil would have got going today as it did in the 1970’s which has been the main ‘driver’ of our economic wealth for 30-40 years. The real question is how are we in the UK going to fund a lifestyle of benefits/free NHS etc without great wealth, and energy is the basis of all that stuff.

  6. Howell,
    I’m afraid your vision of ‘cheap energy’ just doesn’t wash anymore. We’ve been riding the crest of an easy-oil fuelled development bonanza and now we have to recognise that energy’s going to get much, much more expensive over the years to come. Either we commit to a 100% renewable future from which we’ll derive an increasing stream of jobs and income, or we commit ourselves and future generations to increasingly expensive fossil fuels from places other than the UK. It’s our choice.

    You’re right to be concerned about ‘standards of living’, if by that you mean no limits on driving and flying about the place and living in ways that are wasteful of energy. However there are lots of upsides to the expensive energy future that – like it or not – is coming our way. It means that community life will get appreciably stronger as the energy costs of shifting ourselves and goods over long distances start to put pressure on how we organise ourselves. It means that we’ll learn to ‘make do’ a bit more, and there’ll be a reappraisal of our way of life that materialism has seen create a huge burden of obesity ( and mental health problems (
    I can tell you all about the REAL costs of green/renewable energy. I suspect you’re not prepared to listen. But here’s the link to a document bang up-to-date (published just 2 weeks ago). Enjoy.
    I do agree with you that energy is the basis of all that stuff that makes up society. And I’m delighted therefore that you agree that fracking should be banned.

  7. Tredwyn,
    The major objection to fracking is the greenhouse gas issue. If that can be fully resolved then there are probably ways in which human ingenuity will sort out some of the pollution/contamination issues too. We’d all be a whole lot happier as a result. But we’re looking at projections of temperatures 6oC higher by the end of this century as a result of climate change. That means we can’t possibly tolerate opening up new forms of energy that are even more polluting than what’s currently on offer. I agree that carbon capture and storage is theoretically a way of getting round this problem. But it’s currently a theory only. We’re talking about a form of energy where you can’t even control all the methane coming from the ground, let alone take the carbon from the stuff that’s being captured and store it safely underground. Let’s not allow these developments on some future promise of technological breakthrough that might never happen.

    Geothermal power is something rather different. The geology of Wales is pretty poor for geothermal – which you’ll see if you click on the map on this website:
    Friends of the Earth Cymru does object to nuclear power. But the lesser of evils in the case of energy is an all-out determination to power Wales 100% renewably (and eventually to profit from it by exporting). Any other ambition is paucity of ambition.

  8. Methane is combustible. The ideal would be to capture and burn the methane, trap the resulting carbon dioxide and pump it underground to push out more methane, I agree absolutely about the threat to the climate and the need to stop producing atmospheric carbon. But renewables can’t possibly power Wales on their own, not at least without a big barrage or two. If wind supplies 20 per cent of our needs we’ll be more than lucky. You can’t afford to be sniffy about nuclear or carbon capture. One or both will surely be needed.
    I’m told the Taff vale has geothermal capacity but I don’t know how much.

  9. Fracking is a disturbing prospect. I doubt it will will deliver on promises of cheap energy, Energy companies have a poor track record in passing on price reductions to consumers. I am not convinced from what I have read that it is a cheap process anyway. Then there is the risk of seismic disturbance. From the USA, there are accounts of insurance companies withdrawing cover from householders in affected areas. There is the possibility of property blight. But, these are only the short term effects, above all one fears long term or permanent environmental damage such as the pollution of ground water which will be suffered by generations to come..

  10. Typical. Wales has little to offer in the way of new economic activity – except we do have reserves that fracking alone will liberate. Fracking is an approved approach now being allowed by democratic governments all over the world subject (correctly) to safety and environmental restrictions. So bad luck for Wales to have chattering classes who exaggerate all threats from fracking – earthquakes on a scale so small Richter would have been ashamed to count ’em – and concede none of the benefits. Not least for Welsh jobs and technology spin offs.

    The bad faith at the heart of this debate is the unholy alliance between greenies and nimbies in the Vale of Glamorgan who care more about property values than creating and spreading wealth. I come from a mining village on the edge of the Vale which at its peak brought 1000 miners. They both despoiled the environment and created wealth. It’s a lot greener now; and a lot poorer. A Wales as green as the greenies want it will be impoverished. And that won’t help their property values in the long run either.

    Fracking properly managed is totally acceptable in Wales: and can bring much needed investment. Get over the hyysteria. Blackpool was shaken and not stirred by it’s ‘earthquake’.

  11. A few months ago I phoned caerphilly and cardiff council and asked if there was any plan for fracking in the areas. I was told no, there is no plans whats so ever to frack in south wales.

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