Fracking can plug the power gap

The following article appeared in the Sunday Times on 11 August 2013.

OFGEM, the energy regulator, has warned that the UK’s current surplus generating capacity of 14% will sink to a wafer-thin 2% by 2015 as we continue to shut our old, coal-fired power stations to meet EU CO2 emission targets. A 2% surplus would place Britain on a knife-edge. Any surge in energy consumption during a severe cold snap would plunge the country into blackouts.

The reason for this catastrophic energy shortfall is not difficult to find; no new nuclear plants are being constructed, due to the high cost of nuclear power and hysterical opposition from the Greens and their fellow-travellers who think the next Fukushima-style tsunami is about to hit the UK. Instead, driven by the new renewables religion, our country is being blighted from top to toe with gigantic steel and concrete wind turbines. Already 5,000 have been installed across the UK at a cost of £7 billion, the same cost as a new, state-of-the-art, safe, third generation nuclear power plant; the only difference being that wind turbines will produce an unreliable and intermittent trickle of electricity for around 15 to 20 years, while a new nuclear plant will work at 90% efficiency, producing electricity day in and day out for the next 80 to 90 years.

If we are going to tackle the looming energy crisis then we must exploit our massive reserves of shale gas, which would help us to reduce our dependency on expensive imported gas. With an estimated 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas deposits discovered in Lancashire alone, enough to power Britain for 65 years, we could be looking at the biggest energy find since North Sea oil in the Sixties. But it is typical of the feverish nature of the climate change debate in Britain that this massive find has been either entirely ignored or robustly attacked as anti-green.

Shale gas emits about half the CO2 that burning coal produces, which is why the US has managed to reduce its CO2 emissions by 450 million tonnes in the past five years, while EU greenhouse gas emissions continue to soar, as we pursue the ludicrous and almost entirely useless strategy of building giant windmills. Carbon emissions in America per capita are now below the levels they were in 1963 and meanwhile gas is at almost give-away prices, kick-starting the US economy, boosting jobs and prosperity. Here, because of huge subsidies for wind turbines, which are passed straight down the line to the consumers, average electricity and gas bills have soared to over £1450, driving almost one million Scottish households into actual fuel poverty. Business and industry are reeling from spiralling fuel bills, hammering jobs.

In the UK, several areas have already been identified as having large potential shale gas reserves. Last Friday, exploratory drilling began at a site in West Sussex, but already a large protesters’ camp has been erected nearby, causing a bigger nuisance than the drilling rig. Meanwhile, an Australian company - Dart Energy, has been granted two licences to carry out exploratory drilling in Dumfriesshire, although work has not yet started. It has also identified two major shale gas fields at Airth, near Falkirk, although even its attempts to begin extracting coal-bed methane in the area has been robustly attacked by the Greens, despite the fact no fracking will be involved. The British Geological Survey suggests that UK offshore reserves of shale gas could be five to ten times the size of onshore, perhaps in excess of one thousand trillion cubic feet, which would put the UK in the top 20 countries with shale gas reserves worldwide.

Hydraulic Fracturing or fracking, involves pumping tens of thousands of litres of water mixed with salts, soap and citric acid, into deep wells under high pressure. The mixture causes rock formations to fracture and release stored gases. It is this process that has caused hysteria amongst the Greens who are determined to stop shale gas extraction in its tracks. Their ‘Frack Off’ bandwagon is now rolling out across the country. Incredibly, they argue that shale gas rigs will destroy our landscape, then in almost the same breath they support the construction of thousands of giant wind turbines, pylons, overhead lines, service roads, borrow pits and quarries in some of our most iconic and stunning countryside.

WWF Scotland said it has concerns around the process, including the contamination of water supplies by the "fracking" fluids and from gas leaking into water supplies, creating risks of explosions. But boreholes for shale gas extraction commonly are drilled down to 2000 metres or more underground, thousands of metres below the aquifer. The risk of water contamination is negligible. Similarly, the opponents of shale gas point to news reports of methane leaking through the water supply so that in some cases in America, people have actually been able to set fire to water coming from bathroom taps. However, this phenomenon was first observed in 1932, decades before shale gas was even thought of. It is a natural occurrence in certain parts of the USA, where methane gas has saturated the rock strata and entered the aquifer. This has nothing whatsoever to do with fracking, but provides nevertheless a convenient photo-opportunity for the ‘Frack Off’ brigade, who trot out film footage shot in Dakota 40 years ago as evidence of the dangers associated with shale gas exploitation.

Critics also claim that "fracking" caused a 1.5 Richter scale earthquake during exploratory drilling near Blackpool in 2011. But shale gas producers in America, like Royal Dutch Shell, claim that they know how to avoid and control these risks. They say that so long as well-shafts are properly sealed with steel and concrete, there is a negligible risk that "fracking" will cause tiny earth tremors or contaminate groundwater.

So the shale-gas revolution has not only shamed the wind industry by showing how to cut carbon emission for real, but it has also blown away the last vestiges of credibility in the argument that says supplies of fossil fuels will soon disappear, leaving no alternative but renewables, no matter what the cost. Even if the price of oil remains above $100 a barrel, it looks like supplies of cheap and plentiful gas are here to stay for many decades to come….but only if we tell the Greens and their supporters to “Frack Off”!