Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Fracking Under National Parks

One noted the care taken in the choice of words from the government spokesman when he talked about "horizontal shale layers".  This was in reference to the government vote today on whether to allow fracking underneath environmentally sensitive sites.  The spokesman went on to mention that the limit on measured hydraulically-induced fractures (or fracks, as I shall call them for the rest of the piece) is 600m, so that a safety limit of double that difference, 1200m, will be safe enough.

The aforementioned horizontal shale layers imagine the geology of the UK as some kind of layer cake, with one layer of sediment being deposited upon another.  There are such places on Earth where this does occur (Permian Basin in Texas is a good example) but the UK is not one of them.

The cross section above shows the structure of some of the geological basins that are potential targets for fracking in the north of England (Copyright DECC, 2013).  Even at this simple level, the potential complexity of the basins can be made out.  As one investigates on the local level, the complexity increases.

As always, the devil is in the detail.  Or facts, as they are otherwise known.  The fact is that every geological prospect is different and without having the geophysical data, and the knowledge of how to interpret it, it is not possible to know whether this 1200m safety limit is enough.  For example, if the fracks reach a porous layer of rocks above, there will be nothing to stop fluids reaching higher levels or even the surface.  This is where good surveying and the highest of standards come in.  In my long experience of working in the industry, most companies and individuals I have had the pleasure of working with have excellent standards.  Things can and do go wrong however, despite the best of measures.  This is why that, in the previous Coalition, the Liberal Democrats introduced the ban on fracking within national parks and under environmentally-sensitive sites.  It is this ban that the government is due to overturn in a Commons' vote today.  The 1200m safety limit is a barely minimum standard anywhere, never mind a national park.

Out of interest, what will the effect of drilling from outside the nation park actually allow?  Most people outside the industry may imagine that well bores go straight down.  This has long not been the case.  Drilling strings are steerable, allowing wells to be drilling even horizontally, should that be necessary.  The advantage to this, especially for fracking, is that a hole can be drilled along the target formation, maximising hydrocarbon production.
There are technical limits to horizontal drilling.  The longest wells rarely go past 8000m so, if one were to site a drilling rig just outside a national park and the geology allowed, this would be roughly the maximum extent of intrusion possible into the park.  However, if a combination of wells are used, it would be possible to set up network of interacting wells underneath a given target, allowing for large areas of fracking to take place under any given terrain.   This would effectively negate any benefit of national park protection if they become ringed with heavy industrial sites.

The government has announced that allowing fracking under national parks will "kickstart" the industry in the UK.  This is rubbish: what will kickstart any oil and gas exploration is the market price of energy.  That's it.  There is effectively nothing that any government can do to encourage fossil-fuel exploration while energy prices are low.  These prices are not due to recover until towards the end of the current parliament's term.

What are the Conservatives doing then?  They understand how markets work.  The measures are preparing the groundwork for when the oil and gas prices recover.   Oil companies obey the rules though: if they are told not to drill under a national park, they won't.  They will explore areas open to them.  Therefore by opening up the national parks to development, Conservatives are following another agenda, that of deregulation of the state over corporate action.

I have blogged before on the continued deregulation of the UK's energy markets by the Conservatives and it is disturbing that while they talk about energy security, in reality they are doing absolutely nothing about it.  The opposite in fact: by ending subsidies for renewable energy, they also prove that they care nothing for CO2 emissions or the resulting climate change.

I see nothing particularly wrong with fracking but it has to be regulated and monitored.  Instead the Conservatives are turning towards deregulation and free markets, regardless of the possible consequences for either the UK or the rest of the world.

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