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No Fracking Clue!

By: , Posted on: November 23, 2016


Without coming down on one side or the other, I cannot be the only person with a technical background who despairs at the standard of evidence in the debate around issues like fracking.

There is however a current engineer’s view on fracking: The Royal Academy of Engineering concluded in 2012 that shale gas extraction by fracking could be managed safely in the UK if best practice was followed.

As discussed in a previous post, in sustainability issues, all too often on one side we have pressure groups who believe in the strong form of the precautionary principle and on the other, the sort of free-wheeling capitalists who would like us to just trust them to care more about the environment than profit.

The alliance of NIMBYs, muddle-headed arts graduates, and clicktivists who seem to make up the bulk of those who oppose fracking seem willing to believe any propaganda which they think might support a return to an imagined past of gentle people with flowers in their hair.

On the other side, the companies with strong links to our party of government who want to carry out fracking seem equally willing to twist facts to suit their case, in order that they can make pots of money in a lightly regulated, and ideally subsidised environment.

So let’s look at the claims made against fracking. Greenpeace’s website says that fracking operations are always aesthetically unpleasing, cause earthquakes, water pollution and climate change. Let’s take these in turn.

Plants can be made as unobtrusive as designers would like them to be, it just cost money.  A balance has to be struck between the duty of the directors of fracking companies to maximise company profit and the reasonable expectations of those who live near and visit the areas in which fracking will take place. This is a feature of every development in an area with any aesthetic value, with a well-established control mechanism. Status: a reasonable concern, but capable of management through existing processes.

Earthquakes sound exciting, but the tremors which happened after fracking at the Preese Hall site in Lancashire were very weak, caused no damage, and were not out of the ordinary for the UK. Cuadrilla’s website dispute that the fracking caused the quakes, and quote the British Geological Survey as saying that tremors capable of causing damage cannot be produced by shale, as it is too weak a rock to build up significant stored energy. The BGS are however reported elsewhere as saying that further small quakes might occur at the site, so monitoring should be undertaken, and injection rates reduced if necessary to control any quakes which occur. Status: scaremongering with emotive language about a small and manageable risk

There are a number of water pollution concerns. Pollution of groundwater, aggravation of water shortages, and discharge of untreated fracking fluids to environment. To take these in reverse order:

Fracking companies will not be allowed to discharge untreated fracking fluid or any other pollutant to the environment at levels which will cause harm. They will be regulated just like every other business in the UK, even those owned by people who went to school with government ministers. Status: reasonable concern, but we have it covered.

Water shortages? Have these people been to the North-West of England? This is a reasonable concern elsewhere in the world, but it does not apply in the UK. We have no overall shortage of water in the UK, though we do sometimes have areas with local shortages. Status: Not generally applicable to the UK.

Pollution of groundwater is clearly something we might be concerned about, but the Society of Petroleum Engineers stated in their investigation of the issue based on thirty years of experience of fracking that

“Downhole  environmental  risks  to  fresh  water  supplies  from  fracturing  in  shale  development  greater  than  500ft  below  the  water  sand  is  literally  as  close  to  zero  as  can  be  established from  engineering   analysis  using  the  reported  and  documented  results  available  from  at  least  10,000  shale  wells  covered  by  the  literature  and  searched  for  this  paper.”

Status: theoretical concern, practical non-issue when managed properly.

Will fracked gas cause climate change? Sure it will. Will it cause more climate change than if we didn’t obtain it? Why would it? Even Greenpeace admit that it will burn cleaner than other fuels.   They just want us to leave all fossil fuels in the ground. Status: Trojan horse for another argument.

So as an engineer, I am personally agnostic on the issue. If it is properly managed, and meets the IChemE sustainability guidelines at a particular site by bringing jobs and other benefits, why not frack for gas?

Both that is of course just my opinion. People can believe anything they like, but I would argue that engineers are obliged to look beyond surface appearances, and to arrive at logically defensible positions, even on issues such as this.

Read more posts from Sean Moran, The Voice of Chemical Engineering

About the author

sean moranProfessor Moran is a Chartered Chemical Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting and is regarded as the ‘voice of chemical engineering’. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants.

Whilst Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, he co-ordinated the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. Professor Moran’s university work focused on increasing industrial relevance in teaching, with a particular emphasis on process design, safety and employability.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn here, check out his Facebook page here and stay up-to-date on his thoughts, research and practice at his personal blog here.

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