Business

Tuesday 25 July 2017

Greens have got it wrong: fracking rocks!

The tree-huggers are just plain wrong about shale gas, says Oisin Fanning

DID you hear about the man who struck gold in his back garden then said "Not In My Back Yard" when trucks came to take it away? How about the quiet country people who couldn't afford to put petrol in the car, but refused an oil well in their backyard? Of course not.

But this is happening in Europe, with the commodity being just as valuable natural gas. Natural gas is used to generate 54 per cent of Ireland's electricity, but 27 per cent of our power is still generated using coal. Natural gas is a fossil fuel, but far less polluting. If we used natural gas instead of coal for generation, it would save at least 50 per cent less CO2. The reason we still burn coal is that it has been considered cheaper, more secure and easy to store. But changes in natural gas extraction technology this century have completely changed the energy game.

Shale gas is gas stored in shale rock about 3km below ground, and until this century was inaccessible using traditional gas techniques. The first breakthrough was to use horizontal drilling, where the drill goes sideways for several miles, enabling gas to be drained from a far greater area than before. The higher production cancels the extra cost. The other breakthrough was to combine horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Fracking pushes a mixture of water, sand and a few chemicals into the rock at high pressure. Some see this as a violent invasion of the earth, but the reality is that the fractures are 2mm or less. Propping open the fractures allows gas to do what comes naturally and rise to the surface.

Shale gas is produced in massive quantities moving from two per cent to 14 per cent of US gas production in less than 10 years and forecast to be 45 per cent by 2035. The big change is also a big problem: natural gas is far more prevalent than previously thought and as production moves into areas unfamiliar with oil or gas production, people have legitimate questions sometimes confused with inaccurate and alarmist narratives.

San Leon Energy is active in shale gas in Poland and public acceptance of the reality of development has been a key issue from us from day one. We are lucky in that the government and people of Poland are welcoming, but elsewhere in Europe that has not always been the case. Gas drilling is a slow process that needs years of planning, but various stages of operations are under way in every country in Europe, including the Lough Allen area of Ireland.

It is now obvious that hundreds of years of gas are available almost everywhere. Shale gas has been discovered in massive quantities in Australia and Argentina; while China is thought to have far more gas than Saudi Arabia has oil.

Why should anyone object to the promise of energy independence and the benefits it could bring in jobs, taxes and economic growth? When shale was first developed, many green groups in the US were enthusiastic supporters, as they saw the promise of replacing dirty coal with imperfect, but far cleaner natural gas. What happened?

The answer is Gasland. The film was nominated, but did not win, in the 2010 Best Oscar Documentary category. Released near the time of the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010, the press made the erroneous connection between onshore and offshore gas production.

The one image of Gasland that spread throughout the world is of someone lighting their tap water on fire. It's certainly different, but impossible to occur in Europe where water comes from mains supplies and contamination is impossible.

Another unrealistic fear of communities is of a sea of derricks spoiling the landscape. Modern technology means one well pad serving an area of five square miles or more. The construction is admittedly hectic for a few months, but once it is finished, it can be barely noticed.

It is worth noting that the largest onshore oil field in Western Europe is in the Sandbanks area of Poole, Dorset, which has the highest property values outside of London.

Opponents also highlight the five million gallons of water used per well, but that is a literal drop in the ocean. It is the volume used to irrigate a three-hectare cornfield in one season, or an 18-hole golf course in one month. New York State recently published a study clearing objections to fracking and noted a full-scale drilling programme would mean extra water use of one-quarter of one per cent. Shale gas is not the choice between water and energy that some say.

Another concern is over the make-up of chemicals in fracking fluid. Water and sand make up over 99.85 per cent of the fluid on average. Any chemicals used in Europe will be publicly revealed, and technology is developing that they will only be food grade E number chemicals. Fracking fluids cannot flow up 3,000 metres from where gas is extracted anymore than water can flow uphill. The US Ground Water Protection Council, a group of public water regulators in various US states, has said that it has not seen a single instance of contamination of water by fracking fluid. People often don't understand energy, chemicals or water and it is unfortunate that scare stories about the impact of shale-gas drilling bear no relation to future reality.

The reality of a cheap, low carbon energy source literally under our feet providing jobs, taxes and royalties as well as billions of euro removed from the balance of payments has to be balanced against short-term disruption that can be increasingly minimised. Gas is available, low carbon and cheap. Why does it have so many opponents? Put simply, it disrupts the narrative of insecure, high priced oil-linked gas that makes fuels as varied as nuclear, coal carbon capture, Russian gas or renewables competitive. The WWF, for example, says that a full-scale renewable-only fuel structure can give 90 per cent carbon reduction by 2050 for €1 trillion. Every cent of that comes directly from taxpayers or indirectly from gas and electric bills. Natural gas can only provide a drop of about 50 per cent by 2030, but it can do so for a net gain of several billion euro.

This is the reality that Europe must concentrate on.

Shale gas can be one of the few bright spots in Europe's future. Let's stop looking this gift horse in the mouth.

Oisin Fanning is chairman of San Leon Energy

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