Let’s start fracking

Former fracking tsar Natascha Engel says shale gas has economic and environmental benefits.

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As the General Election began, the Conservative government introduced a moratorium on fracking – aka, hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method of drawing shale gas from the ground. The Labour Party has gone further and has promised to ban fracking outright if it is elected. In the popular imagination, fracking is dangerous and dirty. But is this fair?

Natascha Engel is an outspoken defender of fracking. She was a Labour MP and was also the government’s fracking tsar. spiked caught up with her to find out more.

spiked: Does fracking have a future in Britain?

Natascha Engel: It should do. If what we care about is reaching our carbon-emissions targets, then we would be much better off getting gas out of the ground in the UK than we would be importing it. The thing with ‘fracking’ is that it’s a process by which we get oil and gas out of the ground. It’s been around for half a century so I’m a bit baffled why this one process has been so demonised.

The real problem is that there has been an embedded, organised campaign against fracking for years. All of the scare stories were being passed about and nobody was countering them. And so most people, even though they don’t really know what fracking is, just don’t like the sound of it.

If we want to have a sensible debate about energy policy, I think we need to make people understand where gas fits into that wider picture. At the moment, we are importing over 50 per cent of all the gas that we use. And that’s going to increase massively over the next couple of years. Once, we were getting all of our gas out of the North Sea, but this is rapidly depleting. We’re getting quite a lot of gas from Qatar now, but we’re going to be increasingly reliant on Russian gas, which is something that worries me. The UK economy is heavily dependent on gas: 85 per cent of us heat our homes with gas, and over 60 per cent of us use it for cooking. Industry is also very dependent on gas.

spiked: What about climate change?

Engel: In the long term, the further gas has to travel, the greater its carbon footprint. So if you’re getting gas out of the ground in the UK, it goes out of the ground and straight into the network, so transporting it has a carbon footprint of zero.

In comparison to other hydrocarbons, shale gas produces far fewer carbon emissions than coal or oil. It really makes sense to use gas as a bridge between where we are now and where we all want to go, which is using more reliable renewable sources of energy.

As for renewables at present, I think what people really don’t realise is that renewable energy only makes electricity and electricity just 20 per cent of all the energy that we use. If you look at wind, which is what most people associate with renewable energy, it produces less than three per cent of all the energy that we used last year. And it doesn’t matter how big the wind farms are – it’s going to be difficult to get above that amount. Even if we build more wind farms, more solar farms and use more biomass, renewables can only make a relatively small contribution. Even if we end up decarbonising all of our electricity, it’s still only electricity. So we would also need to find ways of expanding the electricity network at the same time. Even most of the electricity we use is generated using gas.

By switching from coal to shale gas, America has dropped its carbon emissions by more than any other country on the planet. Carbon emissions have reduced by more than 10 per cent since the introduction of shale gas. That’s absolutely phenomenal. In the UK, we are reducing emissions but all we are really doing is shutting down industry here and importing everything. We’ve still got a huge carbon footprint.

I think there is a big job to do to inform people about this, but that is difficult when you have campaigners with slogans that say all fossil fuels are bad. Not only are fossil fuels not bad – they are absolutely essential if you want to keep alive during the winter.

spiked: Is fracking dangerous? Lots of people are worried about earthquakes and water contamination. Viral videos show people living near fracking sites setting fire to their tap water. Are these fears justified?

Engel: Any kind of mineral extraction – civil-engineering project, lorry movement, trains moving past or anything like that – causes small tremors on the surface. And fracking is no different. These are very, very small movements underground that sometimes can be felt on the surface. But most of the time [they] can’t be felt. This isn’t really what most people would understand by an ‘earthquake’. And even if you can feel it, it isn’t anything more than standing by a road and having a big bus or lorry passing by. You can feel the ground beneath your feet vibrate, but it’s not something that would cause any damage to your home.

Again, this wasn’t something that was put into context when it first happened, and therefore it allowed campaigners to tell horror stories about earthquakes. If a supermarket, a school or houses were being built, it would be pretty much the same sort of tremors. If you take quarry blasting, for example, this has a significantly greater impact, but people don’t really worry about that unless they live very close by. Part of it is that people worry about what’s going on under the surface because they didn’t know what’s down there.

The other big thing that people are worried about is water contamination. In over a million wells that have been fracked in America, there hasn’t been any water contamination from fracking. What sometimes happens is that there have been spillages on the surface in certain states which have regulations that aren’t as tight as they are here.

Then there are the videos of people setting fire to water taps. That’s been massively discredited and was actually nothing to do with fracking. People in America were drilling boreholes to access water and were going through pockets of methane. As the water comes up, it ends up with very high methane content, and so you can set the water on fire. But that methane is naturally occurring in the ground. It has nothing to do with fracking, but it makes for great pictures.

That goes back to the earlier point that what there hasn’t been is a concerted campaign to explain to people why getting gas out of the ground in Britain is a good idea. It’s not just about carbon emissions or not relying on Russia. There is also a massive potential for jobs and local prosperity in parts of the country that really need it. If you look at where the fracking applications were, it’s the North West, North Yorkshire, North Derbyshire – all ex-industrial areas that really want jobs.

It’s not really about fracking per se – it’s about having a domestic gas industry that makes us energy-independent while we try to find reliable renewable sources of energy in the future. We have to get the gas from somewhere. I just think it makes more sense to get it out of the ground here rather than import it.

Natascha Engel was talking to Fraser Myers.

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Comments

Marvin Jones

10th December 2019 at 10:58 am

What amazes me is, how easily and quickly the average person forgets what a rip off this country is.
The ordinary person is conned and exploited no end by the essential utilities we cannot live without in our daily lives. THIS IS NOT THE USA! the ONLY people that will ever benefit and prosper from massive projects like the HS2, fracking for oil and gas, water, all utilities we use, commuting ETC, are the share holders and the Board of Directors. The little person is collateral.

Riverside Clunster

9th December 2019 at 2:14 pm

The UK has always had a very different approach to hydraulic fracturing and well integrity issues than our US colleagues for all sorts of reasons. In the UK we have ‘fracked’ over 3000 wells in the UK since the mid-60’s and I cannot remember a well-related problem, pollution incident etc. The main ‘eco’ issue with fracking is site traffic to and from often isolated places but that’s far too mundane for the wannabee eco-heroes to be concerned about.

gatite gatite

8th December 2019 at 5:34 pm

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michael savell

8th December 2019 at 4:52 pm

Well,I hope it works better for the UK than it has for the USA.Not one company in the states has made any profit but,of course,similar to the zombies the insiders are gone faster than a deerbot fly
leaving you know who to clean up all the mess and damage they have done,not to talk of the catastrophic financial result.The answer will come from south Africa very shortly so,in my opinion fracking should be shelved indefinitely.Nobody with any money wants a massive loss leader like this.

Lord Anubis

8th December 2019 at 12:01 pm

Not just fracking, But in-situ coal gasification too. And we can carry it all out under the North Sea where nobody is likely to be adversely affected.

While not eliminating carbon emissions, This, combined with a substantial Nuclear program could reduce carbon emissions to a minimum level necessary for synthetic liquid fuels

Compared to petrol and Diesel. Synthetic LPG manufactured from a combination of coal/shale gas and nuclear generated hydrogen is a low carbon fuel that can be produced locally and also in a manner that could ensure the UK’s energy supplies, independent of any reliance on imports, for literally tens of thousands of years!

There are estimated to be trillions, perhaps even tens of trillions of tons of Coal under the north sea.

And Uranium can be extracted from seawater, while this is an expensive process, it would still only represent a couple of percent of the cost of the overall nuclear cycle. The only reason why it isn’t done now is that, for now, conventional mining is cheaper. Where mined supplies are less readily available these other sources become viable. The Norks, for example, extract Uranium from coal to supply their weapons program. !

What is more, In the meantime, most current vehicles can be easily and cheaply converted to run on synthetic LPG without having to spend just shy of a Trillion pounds (!) completely replacing the existing vehicle fleet with EV’s, not to mention the additional costs, on top of that, of providing the, very complex, additional electrical infrastructure for charging points.

It would also be a policy that could be started small and ramped up over time since the existing fuels/transport infrastructure is already compatible with LPG use and distribution with little additional expense.

Of course, if we are able to crack commercial fusion in the near future, then we wouldn’t need to rely on fission reactors any more. And with unlimited access to cheap energy, Synthetic LPG could be manufactured directly from atmospheric gasses.

(Combustion engines using a liquid fuel, synthetic or otherwise, are still hard to beat for providing mobile power, Far superior in all ways to the battery/electric motor combination.)

But it is nice to have a policy that will provide security under any circumstances rather than one that just hopes something will turn up some point in the future.

zack smith

7th December 2019 at 11:34 am

I would have agreed with you a few years back but now I view fossil fuels as yesterdays tech. It would be like basing our economy on textile mills.

What we need to do is get a march on other countries when it comes to new green tech. Can’t see our idiot government being competent enough to do that.

Jerry Owen

7th December 2019 at 12:00 pm

‘Green tech’.. that’s an oxymoron!

Andy Healey

7th December 2019 at 10:23 am

“Carbon emissions”, I didn’t know power stations emitted lumps of black carbon crystals!

Mike Stallard

7th December 2019 at 7:08 am

I was chatting to a Vice President of a national oil company in the Middle East (as you do).
I asked him about fracking – is it dangerous?
He looked at me as if I was mad. “We do it every day”.

Norfolk King

6th December 2019 at 5:28 pm

The National Audit Office’s latest report on fracking highlights:
a) no evidence that prices would be lowered,
b) uncertainty as to whether it could viably produce gas in meaningful quantities,
c) no plan for clean-up if a fracking firm were to go bust,
d) serial breaches of agreed limits on earth tremors, e) strains on local authorities in fracking areas, and
f) plummeting public support.

The Government has confirmed that fracking will be halted over earthquake fears, and because of new scientific analysis.
The announcement comes after a report by the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) found it is not currently possible to predict with any accuracy the probability or magnitude of earthquakes linked to fracking operations.

The Government has now said it will end its support for the process, and further proposals to change the planning process for fracking sites will no longer be taken forward.

At one point, there were 57 tremors during 60 days of fracking, the latest and largest of which registered 2.9ML

So whom would we rather believe? Ms Engel, whose home is presumably nowhere near any of the fracking sites, and who fails to address any of the above concerns, or the NAO and the OGA, whose combined reports are unequivocal?

Fracking’s time has already passed – Britain should be focused on clean energy.

Jerry Owen

7th December 2019 at 9:39 am

Hogwash.
Give me an example of an earthquake due to fracking.
Cleaning up ! How are we going to clean up after millions of solar panels become redundant ?

Puddy Cat

6th December 2019 at 10:03 am

How odd. We hear so many stories about government inactivity and yet when they do act, as with fracking, we hear a lot of stories about government activity. The suspension of fracking, along with so many other interventions, is the work of a ghost state that was not voted to lead or to formulate policy, has no known leader or general platform for social or economic advancement. Yet, despite its anonymity and lack of diversity of opinion, it rules the country in many aspects of daily life.

If a few thousand people went to their MPs and asked for representation on fracking then all of us could be said to be involved and an opinion formed that was representative. Yet it is a subject best kept out of Parliament as far as those in opposition to the scheme are concerned because they are the only ones that seem united and to have a manifesto.

Government has become powerless by employing democracy against the majority and just because those who favour lower energy bills do not march they are ignored. If you can get your face on the television and conjure some Deccan Traps vision of hell you nullify any truth or general purpose. It hardly seems worthwhile voting we should just attach to globules of detractors where we can be assured our misanthropy will find a fertile home, unlike Parliament who, rather, who should be deploying plans, its accessing expertise, using financial clout, only seem concerned with re-election and being seen to be in the tribe, your mate, sensitive and confiding.

Bollocks to that! A bit of hard love would be far more purposeful and admirable. Tell them what you are going to do and carry it out, a sure way of letting numpties know that their wailing will be in vain, try Christianity a far better way to connect with our sensibilities. Democracy is dead if those of an artistic bent are left to conjure an alternative world unchallenged.

Jerry Owen

6th December 2019 at 8:55 am

20%of energy is from renewables… Be truthful the majority of that 20% is from biomass, burning wood !
Our carbon emissions are not as dramatically high as claimed.
Lastly does she not see the plank in her eye, she wants to extract gas from the ground yet her party wants to build gas free homes dependant on insulation and heat from bore holes.

Ven Oods

6th December 2019 at 10:46 am

I’m not sure she’s missed that plank, Jerry. He’s the party leader.
Give the woman her due; she seems to be a sensible MP whose party has been driven into a ditch (apologies to Boris, there). Doesn’t make her a bad person.

Dodgy Geezer

6th December 2019 at 1:47 pm

“…Be truthful the majority of that 20% is from biomass, burning wood !…”

Um. I suspect that the majority is actually from Hydro – which is held to count as ‘renewable’. But all of this is just playing games with names. The truth is that CO2 has not been proven to cause any issue in the real world whatsoever, that the human contribution is insignificant when matched against natural outputs, that the Earth’s observed temperature does not rise in line with CO2 concentrations (natural or man-made) and that the scare stories we are constantly bombarded with are predictions based on models – which have already been shown not to describe the real world accurately….

Ven Oods

6th December 2019 at 8:55 am

Gor blimey! A Labour politician who seems knowledgeable about her subject and argues it sensibly.
She’s got no future while Jezza’s around.

Jerry Owen

7th December 2019 at 9:41 am

If she slips in the odd anti-semitic comment occasionally she’ll be fine.

Philip Humphrey

6th December 2019 at 8:13 am

There is a precedent of a campaign by ” environmentalists” and Greenpeace in particular having a disasterous effect on the environment. Remember their campaign against nuclear power and close down Windscale/Sellafield? They were successful and shut down the building of new nuclear power plants, and more important it had the effect of shutting down the development of advanced ones that could burn nuclear waste and use safer fuels such as thorium. Net result is that billions of tons of coal has been burnt instead by the western and other economies instead of very low CO2 emissions from nuclear power, and atmospheric CO 2 is consequently considerably higher than it needed to be. The development of nuclear power is now decades behind where it should be.

I’m sure the greens are wrong on the subject of shale gas as well. Gas is an excellent domestic fuel, it is also perfect for standby electricity generation when renewables fail. It has much lower CO2 emissions per unit energy than coal or oil. And more to the point, if the greens get their way and ban domestic gas supplies to new housing, it is likely to be replaced by fossil generated electricity (and air grounded heat pumps don’t work well in very cold weather). Or we’ll have an outbreak of people buying polluting wood burning stoves in our towns and cities doing heaven knows what to the air quality.

And I cannot be the only one not happy with the country depending on imported gas/fossil fuel from places like Russia and the Middle east.

Jim Lawrie

6th December 2019 at 2:06 pm

One of the stimulants to modern fracking efficiency has been the Americans’ drive for energy security.
Money has been allocated to developing technology for the clean, efficient incineration of waste plastic. There is a market there for whoever cracks it for small scale applications.

Harry Bottomface

7th December 2019 at 11:30 am

Or Norway. Nearly half our imported natural gas comes from a pretty secure state, who we’ve had interconnectors via Yorkshire for a long and stable time. Poor excuse to ‘go all out’ for an untried and tested technology in the UK, and the energy security threat argument also works in favour of domestic renewables – so why is the same government’s planning policy position stopping wind tubines coming forward?

Agree in part renewables on their own cannot sort out heating needs at present, but at 30% of electricity supply (fact) massive progress has been made and why can’t we keep such momentum going? Because such growth is a threat to vested tory fracking interest – which has manifested in the heavily redacted Cabinet Report from 2016 from last week. Why let renewables ruin their investment returns.

Engel’s remarks are naive and stink of someone having been ‘got to’. Fracking has not been going on for years in the UK. While some acid washing to clear borehole heads may have taken place, lateral drilling, ‘associated hydraulic fracturing’ (ie the government’s own statutory definition of using more than 10000m³ fluid (chemicals, sand and water)) and removal of property rights for UK citizens when the drills and wells go beneath your property so u can’t be compensated (opposite to the US) strongly suggests a game changing methodology and Engel suggesting otherwise (its fine, we’ve been doing it for years) IS HOGWASH.

Engel is also lying – and that’s what it is – about job creation opportunities, suggesting permanent local job creation in post industrial areas where such employment is needed. This is in part a byproduct of fracking agents choosing to launch planning applications to frack in some of the most underresourced and deprived local authority areas to try and ensure permission goes through (Ryedale excluded) via legal, Inquiry attrition. Ineos focused two applications in Rotherham and wore the council down however local resident resilience was underestimated. Engel also knows that these fracking firms are buoyed up by investment capital, meaning ‘companies’ are forged with fancy names out of nowhere, with no job security or even local direct employment – notwithstanding some minor supply chain/logistics opps. Cuadrilla laid of a lot of its staff following the seismic event and moritorium, proving there is no reward for loyalty or commitment. Free market rules apply everywhere and Cuadrilla brought lots of its staff in to Preston when it set up PNR so claims of local jobs = rubbish.

‘Let’s frack the north’. The tories mantra all along and as long as its out of sight and mind its seen as a clean, transition panacea fuel when in fact with our geology and fault make-up there are so many known unknowns it’s criminal that the OGA sanctioned HFC (hydraulic fracturing consent) for PNR knowing the risks at stake. Yes, 2.9Ml isn’t San Francisco but in an English context its pretty huge. Saying or suggesting it had nothing to do with pumping crap loads of fluid at high-pressure into the ground wasn’t related is ridiculous.

Presidents of national oil companies will care very little and almost 99% certain won’t live anywhere near his company’s industrial creations that blight landscapes, risk surface and groundwater contamination, cause disturbance to protected species, craate levels of noise that wake people at nights (u think those massive pumps are silent? Light up the skies of dark sky reserves at night due to 24 hour operation (also impacting on bats), pollute the air (diesal generators), emit massive amount of methane through infrastructure degradation (pipelines don’t last forever), increase risks to cyclists and walkers of the very narrow lanes HGVs use to deliver water and take waste fluid (which contains Norms and water chemicals to send to our WWTWs that usually process faeces) all the while bringing uncertainty as to who will clear up their mess as they file for bancruptcy once th has is gone and the government fails to ensure sufficient financial bonds in the first place – so as to not scare off these brilliant fossill fuel entrepreneurs who are for some reason seen as better and all knowing compared to those scientists, social scientists, professionals and surprisingly decent people who make up the green alliance.

Fracking is dead in the UK – just get used to it.

Riverside Clunster

9th December 2019 at 2:39 pm

Harry – The UK has been ‘fracking’ since the late 50’s (Kimmeridge Basin) and since then about 3000 wells have been ‘fractured’.
The definition you site is incorrect, by a factor of 10 and misleading (quite an achievement!), the 2015 Infrasture Act introduced a system of classification which sought to define fracking sites for a number of purposes. It settled on one involving 1000m3 of fluid per well stage.

Can I suggest you find a chum with a Chemical Engineering degree and a good few years experience in oil and gas E&P to talk you through the basics before you start spouting.

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