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.

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