A number of Member States of the European Union are actively pursuing shale gas extraction using fracking, including Poland and England, while France has banned it, at least for the moment, and others like Ireland and Northern Ireland are still assessing fracking.
The European Parliament Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety issued a study of fracking in June 2011. While some in the press suggested that “European Union report says ban fracking,” the report was not so direct or unambiguous. Indeed, in the “Executive Summary” the authors made a set of Recommendations that focus on what steps need to be taken if fracking projects are permitted, not an argument that fracking should be banned. The authors also noted that, “The recorded violations of legal requirement amount to about 1 – 2 percent of all drilling permits” (in the US). On the other hand, the study also noted that many accidents do happen and they are harmful to the environment and human health. Causes of these accidents include blow out with frock-water spills, leakages from wastewater or from fracture fluid ponds or pipes, groundwater contamination due to improper handling or unprofessional cementing of the well casing. The report suggested that many of these risks can be reduced and probably avoided with adequate technical directives, cautious handling practice, and supervision by public authorities.
In the “Conclusions,” the authors of the 2011 EU study raised serious questions as to whether fracking makes sense for EU energy policies. The argument rested on the analysis that fracking leads to a short-lived gas supply with substantial risks to ground and surface waters and with elevated GHG emissions, in some ways equal to or even greater than coal. Instead, the authors suggested, efforts should concentrate on reducing dependence on fossil fuels through renewable and efficient energy.
The EU report concluded, “Whatever reasons for allowing hydraulic fracturing exist, the justification that it helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are rarely among them. On the contrary, it is very likely that investments in shale gas projects – if at all – might have a short-living impact on gas supply which could be counterproductive, as it would provide the impression of an ensured gas supply at a time when the signal to consumers should be to reduce this dependency by savings, efficiency measures and substitution.” See “New York Plans to Frack, The Public Reacts: Implications for Fracking on the Island of Ireland” in the Report section of irish environment (May 2012).
Against this background, the European Commission (EC) commissioned three studies of the impact of unconventional gas, primarily shale gas, extraction on environmental and health risks, on climate change, and on EU energy. See description of “Unconventional Gas” in the iePEDIA section of irish environment (July 2012).
We will focus on the study of the environmental and health risks, but also highlight the study on climate change and energy markets. The studies rely heavily on the US experience as it has more than fracking than any EU country.
EC STUDY NO 1: ENVIRONMENTAL AND HEALTH RISKS
This study concentrated on the direct impacts of hydraulic fracturing and associated activities such as transportation and wastewater management. The study did not address secondary or indirect impacts such as those associated with materials extraction (stone, gravel etc.) and energy use related to road, infrastructure and well pad construction.
The authors duly acknowledge the limits of this risk screening exercise, considering the absence of systematic baseline monitoring in the US (from where most of the literature sources come), the lack of comprehensive and centralised data on well failure and incident rates, and the need for further research on a number of possible effects including long term ones.
The usual litany of risks from fracking is included, namely:
• High volumes of water and chemicals, some of which are toxic
• Lower yield from unconventional gas extraction
• Difficulties in ensuring the integrity of the well
• Difficulties in ensuring no spills of chemicals and wastewaters
• Difficulties in ensuring correct identification and selection of geological sites for fracking
• Toxicity of chemical additivies
• Traffic impacts
• Air and noise impacts
Other, specific, risks are outlined below.
Surface and Groundwater Contamination
If the natural gas well is properly constructed, and if there is a large distance between drinking water sources and the gas producing zone, and if geological conditions are adequate, then the study suggests that the risks are considered low for both single and multiple installations.
At the same time, given all the circumstances and past experience of well construction, fracking, and production, the study bluntly concludes, “… that there is a high risk of surface and groundwater contamination at various stages of the well-pad construction, hydraulic fracturing and gas production processes, and during well abandonment. Cumulative developments could further increase this risk.” While some of these risks are associated with traditional mining and extraction activities, fracking carries its own enhanced risks because of the high-volume fracking and multiple installations per well pad.
The water contamination arises from various activities associated with fracking, from runoff and erosion, traffic accidents, drilling, fracking, extraction, production, handling wastewater or flowback, and abandonment of wells. As other studies of fracking have concluded, the core problem is that, “Poor well design or construction can lead to subsurface groundwater contamination arising from aquifer penetration by the well, the flow of fluids into, or from rock formations, or the migration of combustible natural gas to water supplies.” Industry keeps denying any such possibilities; all others acknowledge them.
Adverse impacts from air emissions from fracking come from a variety of sources. Such operations can result in significant effects on ozone, which in turn can have an adverse effect on respiratory health. This is considered to be a risk of potentially high significance.
Fugitive losses of methane and other trace hydrocarbons, from well completion, fracking and production, are also likely to occur during the production phase that can exacerbate local and regional air pollution, again with the potential for adverse impacts on health. The more wells, and the more re-fracking that occurs, the greater the health risks. Further exposure to toxic materials can, and likely will, occur after wells have been abandoned.
On the island of Ireland these risks are compounded by the very high methane emissions coming from the agriculture sector, with even greater levels of methane expected with the planned significant growth in dairy herds starting in 2015, as reflected in the Harvest 2020 government policy in the Republic of Ireland.
The impact of fracking on water supplies is considerable, and will get more considerable as climate change heightens the potential for water scarcity in many regions where fracking is proposed. The impacts include a decrease in the availability of public water supply; adverse effects on aquatic habitats and ecosystems from water degradation; reduced water quantity and quality; changes to water temperature; and erosion. And the competition between users of water — agriculture, industry, tourism, and small businesses, not to mention residences — will intensify. In some parts of the United States, licenses for water usage for fracking recently have been withdrawn because of intense competition from other users.
Fracking requires much more land than conventional gas drilling, about 3.6 hectares (8.9 acres) versus 1.9 hectares (4.7 acres) per well pad. When a comparison is made using units of energy extracted, it is estimated that approximately 50 shale gas wells might be needed to give a similar gas yield as one North Sea gas well.
The evidence also suggests that it may not be possible fully to restore sites in sensitive areas, particularly in areas of high agricultural, natural or cultural value, following well completion or abandonment. If fracking is allowed over a wide area, this loss of amenities, recreational facilities, farmland and natural habitats could have a significant cumulative effect.
Biodiversity can be affected by fracking in a variety of ways, including from excessive water abstraction, as discussed above, splitting habitats by road construction, invasive species carried to an area by operations, noise, sediment runoff into streams, incidental spills, and inadequate treatment of flowback or wastewater. Clearly, as noted above, if land cannot be returned to its natural uses after well abandonment, biodiversity losses are disturbing.
Well drilling and the hydraulic fracturing process itself are the most significant sources of noise. For an individual well the time span of the drilling phase may be relatively short (around four weeks in duration) but it will be continuous 24 hours a day and noise pollution will be significant. Each well-pad (assuming 10 wells per pad) would require 800 to 2,500 days of noisy activity during pre-production, covering ground works and road construction as well as the hydraulic fracturing process. The effect of noise on local residents and wildlife will be significantly higher where multiple wells are drilled in a single pad, which typically lasts over a five-month period.
The study concludes that these noise levels would need to be carefully controlled to avoid risks to health for members of the public. Unfortunately, nobody tells us how these risks will be moderated or abated or lessened. Importantly, where will the resources come from to monitor and enforce against these risks.
Many local residents of areas where fracking is being considered are deeply concerned about the quality of life issues that arise from fracking. Certainly the dramatic increase in traffic figures prominently in these concerns. The EC study suggests that “Total truck movements during the construction and development phases of a well are estimated at between 7,000 and 11,000 for a single ten-well pad,” and that during the most intense phases of development that constitutes about 250 truck trips a day for an individual site. Such an increase in heavy truck traffic obviously is noticeable for local residents, dangerous for the children of these families, and susceptible to increased chances of spills of fracking materials, including toxic chemicals. The emissions from the diesel-engine trucks create health concerns, and the heavy trucks will also wreck havoc on local roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
Visual Impacts and Seismic Activity
The study considers visual impacts and seismic activities from fracking to be minor concerns. Fracking presents visual intrusions not unlike other industrial activities — unsightly but manageable — and many of the worst visual impacts will be of short duration. Seismic effects are considered, by the EC study, to be minor, up to a magnitude of 3 on the Richter scale, a level not detectable by the general public. The study does not address what, if any, impact seismic activity for fracking might have on subsurface infrastructure. In New York’s fracking assessment, still in progress, the City of New York has objected to fracking in areas of the New York City watershed in part based on potential impacts from fracking on underground pipelines carrying water to New York City.
Adequacy of Existing EU Environmental Legislation
The study identifies 19 pieces of EU legislation that could be relevant to shale gas development. The study also acknowledges that there is much uncertainty about what applies to fracking. Apparently, the most applicable legislation is the Directive concerning minimum requirements for improving health and safety of workers in the mineral-extracting industries through drilling (Directive 92/91/EEC). The public does not fare as well as it appears that very little of the existing EU legislation actually applies to wider impacts of fracking. For instance, there does not appear to be clear authority for requiring an Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA] (Directive 2011/92/EU) for fracking, either under Annex I or Annex II, although there may be room for individual Members to interpret the EIA as being applicable to fracking. The absence of an EIA would undermine public confidence that the risks identified in this study would be addressed in fracking operations. Other Directives, such as the Water Framework, Mining Waste, Air Quality, IPPC, and Environmental Liability likely might have limited application, or none. A Strategic Environmental Assessment (Directive 2001/42/EC) is at the discretion of the Member States, although the report suggests it would be obligatory for public plans and programmes related to shale gas projects which might have significant environmental impacts. Certainly the assessment of risks throughout the report substantiates significant impacts from fracking.
There is no analysis of what, if any, national legislation might apply to fracking in the Member States.
In light of the risks identified in this study, and in others, a clear legislative act seems necessary to resolve all the uncertainties over what, if any, of the various stages of the fracking process are subject to regulation, monitoring and enforcement within EU Member States.
Based on the assessment of risks, and gaps in EU legislation covering fracking, the study offers a series of recommendations. The bottom line is the conclusion that developing unconventional fossil fuel resources, such as through fracking, poses greater environmental risks than for conventional gas development. Citing other studies, including the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas, this EC study calls for “robust regulatory regimes” to mitigate risks and create public confidence in shale gas fracking. See “International Energy Agency’s Golden Age of Gas and Golden Rules on Fracking” in the Report section of irish environment (June 2012).
The overview for addressing the well-documented risks include: assessing important landscapes, habitats and other areas that would require reclamation; establishing effective field monitoring and enforcement of cumulative community and land use effects; restricting or preventing fracking in areas of high value or sensitivity. In New York, as an example, it seems clear that the state will ban fracking in the watershed that supplies New York City and in other areas that would threaten drinking water resources.
The study also discusses specific recommendations on risk management measures for fracking, covering sitting, land use and disturbance, air releases, noise, water depletion, well integrity, pressures on biodiversity. Other recommendations are offered to address much of the uncertainty surrounding fracking, including micro-seismic monitoring, chemical interactions between fracking fluids and shale rocks, developing less toxic fluids, better well casing and cementing, and methane migration research.
Like other institutional assessments, it is invariably concluded: There are many, serious risks but tight regulations can abate these risks – while we all know that all the tight regulations are worthless without aggressive enforcement, and yet few offer any realistic assessment of where this enforcement will come from, either legally, institutionally, or financially.
EC STUDY NO 2: CLIMATE CHANGE IMPLICATIONS
Uncertainty dominates estimates of the GHG emission footprint for fracking for shale gas. Any estimate depends in large part on assumptions about how fracking is operated, e.g., do you vent methane from flowback or store flowback in surface ponds or lagoons; is gas transported or distributed directly by pipeline or by truck. This critical data is in the hands of the industrial operators and they have been less than forthcoming.
Another key factor in any estimate is the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of methane, the chief component of shale gas. See “Global Warming Potential” in the iePEDIA section of irish environment (December 2011). The IPCC 4th Assessment in 2007 uses a value for methane of 25 over a 100-year period, i.e. methane is 25 times more potent over a 100 year period than CO2. Some scientists argue that one considers the interaction of methane with aerosols, the more accurate GWP of methane is 33 over a 100-year period. This difference is being reviewed by the IPCC.
An early study by scientists at Cornell University, using the GWP of 33, found shale gas to be much higher in GHG footprint than coal or oil. The EC study relies on estimates from a handful of US peer-reviewed or government agency studies or modeling, and much of the data derives from industry. Based on those studies, and assuming a GWP of 25, the EC report estimates that the GHG emissions per unit of electricity generated from shale gas is 4% – 8% higher than for conventional gas within Europe (as opposed to gas imported). Reflecting the continuing uncertainty over such estimates, a recent study in Germany, funded by Exxon Mobil but conducted by independently-chosen scientists, concluded that the GHG footprint of shale gas is anywhere from 30 to 183 percent greater than that for conventional natural gas.
The EC report also indicates that with mitigation the differential can be reduced to 1% – 5% of conventional gas. There are Best Available Technologies (BAT) that can affect emission levels, e.g., efficient compressors, leak detection, better well cementing and casing, but the report points out that there are many inadequacies as to what BATs apply to fracking and much clarification is needed.
In comparison with coal, shale gas is 41% – 49% lower than GHG emissions from electricity generated from coal, assuming methane has a 100 year Global Warming Potential of 25.
While shale gas seems to come off well in such comparisons, they are inadequate, if not misleading. What is required is also a comparison between GHG emissions from shale gas and renewable energy sources in which comparisons shale gas will not look so attractive.
Perhaps the most telling sentence in the EC report on the climate change implications of fracking is the opening to the report which states: “As readily accessible oil and gas reserves are becoming progressively limited the energy supply industry is increasingly turning to unconventional reserves which were previously too complex or too expensive to extract.” At 1. Perhaps the “energy supply industry” should instead turn to renewable energy supplies instead of to yet another fossil fuel supply, or perhaps the relevant governmental authorities should point the way to renewable energy supplies and away from fossil fuels, through tighter regulation and enforcement and price mechanisms.
EC STUDY NO 3: ENERGY MARKET IMPACTS
Another study commissioned by the EC addresses the potential impact of shale gas on EU energy markets. While the first study covered the risks from fracking, this one highlights the economic benefits from tapping into this shale gas resource.
Relying on the earlier IEA study, “Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas,” the EC estimates that unconventional gas could supply more than 40% of the increased global demand for gas by 2035. See “International Energy Agency’s Golden Age of Gas and Golden Rules on Fracking” in the Report section of irish environment (July 2012). In the US, unconventional gas production accounts for almost 60% of domestic production.
The benefits of a new substantial supply of natural gas are fairly clear: security of a supply of domestic source of energy; lower natural gas prices; a more diverse mix of energy sources; a more expansive global energy market. It is also argued, in some circles, that natural gas produces lower GHG emissions than other fossil fuels such as coal and oil and that it can serve as a transition fuel while non-carbon renewable sources of energy are developed. As we point out above, in the discussion of the EC study on climate impacts, there is deep controversy about the GHG footprint of shale gas versus other forms of fossil fuels.
In any case, the GHG footprint of shale gas is significantly larger than renewables, and encouraging, even subsidizing, investment in shale gas can undermine investments in renewable sources of energy. A recent report also indicates that the global use of coal has risen to its highest level since the 1960s, in large part because the US factories are switching to cheap shale gas which in turn has dropped the price of coal world-wide and factories in Europe and elsewhere are switching to coal. See Fiona Harvey report in The Guardian, cited below in Sources. Such behavior strongly supports the view that one cannot address shale gas without considering the context of a comprehensive energy policy.
How much shale gas can be found in Europe is open to question. Estimates by industry representatives of the size of the gas resources in any locale are often significantly at odds, and much higher, than estimates by independent experts. So one always needs to treat estimates of the volume of gas with caution as the higher estimates are used to suggest that more jobs will come with fracking as well as greater income for owners of gas rights and small businesses and higher tax revenues, where applicable, in fracking areas. For a comparison of what might be available, the estimated volume of shale gas in the United States in between 13 and 47 trillion cubic metres (Tcm) of “technically recoverable resources “(TRR); for China it is between 1.6 and 40 Tcm; whereas it is about 12Tcm for Western Europe and 4Tcm for Eastern Europe. To show how much uncertainty there is in these estimates, in the other EC report on “Climate impact of potential shale gas production in the EU,” the EC says there are approximately 18Tcm of recoverable shale gas in Europe. At iii.
And of the shale gas that can be found, only some of it is recoverable. Fracking for shale gas usually results in a recovery rate of only about 15-30% of the gas resource, in contrast to a recovery rate of 80% for extracting conventional natural gas.
What shale gas is recovered then has to get to the markets for consumption. Several critical differences between the US and EU markets may make fracking in Europe more difficult, or at least more expensive. In the US, there are 53km of transmission pipeline for every 1000km2 compared to only 29km per 1000km2 in the EU. Moreover, the US is characterized in the report as a “liberalized and competitive” market that dominates the regulatory regime, while the EU is still some distance from such a market, suggesting more ease of getting to and delivering the shale gas in the US. The description of the US market is probably more accurate for states like Texas and Pennsylvania, under free-market Republican administrations, and less accurate in places like New York under a Democratic administration. In any case, whether the “liberal competitive market” is a model to follow is an entirely different issue.
And as for the implication that the economic markets in the US “dominate” the regulatory regime, the EC report is clear that there is a tight relationship between the economic benefits and the social, regulatory, and environmental challenges. The EC studies and the IEA Golden Age study make the point that none of the benefits from shale gas will accrue unless the risks are avoided and the public is convinced that fracking is safe, and that drilling and producing natural gas will not destroy the quality of life of people in fracking areas.
Another market difference for tapping into shale gas is that in the US individual landowners typically own both surface and mineral rights, so fracking can be very lucrative for big land owners, including farmers, creating local allies in the fight over fracking. In Europe the subsurface rights are often owned by the state, in effect an absentee landlord for mineral rights, with fewer benefits for local landowners. There remain legal issues about landowners’ rights to restrict getting access to the land for gas operations.
Another market factor is the rapidly declining price of natural gas. In the US, spot prices for natural gas fell from a peak of $13 per million British thermal units (MBtu) in 2008 to $2/MBtu in 2012. In Europe, long-term gas contracts typically have been indexed, or based, on the price of oil in the future. With the rapidly increasing supply of shale gas many companies are beginning to switch to paying for gas at current or spot prices. It remains to be seen if the falling prices of natural gas will impede the development of fracking for shale gas in the EU.
The high prices for natural gas a number of years ago accounted for the explosive growth in fracking for hard-to-get and costly unconventional shale gas, in comparison with conventional sources of gas. As the natural gas market gets glutted, and prices fall, fracking for gas becomes less attractive, at least for some investors.
The EC report concludes that, “Shale gas production will not make Europe self-sufficient in natural gas,” but likely replace some conventional gas and allow Europe to keep fuel imports to about 60%.
European Commission DG Environment, Support to the identification of potential risks for the environment and human health arising from hydrocarbons operations involving hydraulic fracturing in Europe. A Report by AEA Technology (2012). ec.europa.eu/environment/integration/energy/studies_en.htm
European Commission DG CLIMA, Climate impact of potential shale gas production in the EU. A Report by AEA Technology (30 Jul 2012). ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/eccp/studies_en.htm
European Commission, Unconventional Gas: Potential Energy Market Impacts in the European Union. A Report by the Energy Security Unit of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (2012). ec.europa.eu/dgs/jrc/index.cfm?id=1410&obj_id=15260&dt_code=NWS&lang=en&ori=HLN
ECOWATCH, “New Report Confirms Fracking is Reckless,” ecowatch.org/2012/safe-fracking-a-fairy-tale/ The article refers to a number of recent assessments of fracking including a German study, Hydrofracking Risk Assessment, funded by ExxonMobil but undertaken by independent experts.
Colorado Department of Health, “Community Health Risk Analysis of Oil and Gas Industry Impacts in Garfield County” www.garfield-county.com/environmental-health/human-health-risk-of-oil-gas.aspx
Natural Resources Defense Council, “Safe Fracking is a Fairy Tale – The Latest Science from Europe,” EcoWatch ecowatch.org/2012/safe-fracking-a-fairy-tale/
“Drought and low stream flows suspends Pennsylvania fracking operations,” The Watchers thewatchers.adorraeli.com/2012/04/20/drought-and-low-stream-flows-suspends-pennsylvania-fracking-operations/
Fiona Harvey, “Coal resurgence threatens climate change targets,” The Guardian (28 Oct 2012). www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/oct/29/coal-threatens-climate-change-targets
Material on fracking in irish environment:
“International Energy Agency’s Golden Age of Gas and Golden Rules on Fracking” in the Report section of irish environment (July 2012).
“The Irish EPA Preliminary Assessment of Fracking: A Good Start but a Long Way to Go,” in the Report section of irish environment (June 2012).
“New York Plans to Frack, The Public Reacts: Implications for Fracking on the Island of Ireland” in the Report section of irish environment (May 2012).
“Fracking in New York: accidents, spills, releases, ETC,” in the Report section of irish environment (January 2012).
“The Pennsylvania Experience With Methane Extraction, or Fracking,” in the Commentary section of irish environment (November 2011).