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The environment halts UK fracking

Image: Nuala

We have become accustomed to the claims and counter-claims about the damage hydraulic fracturing (fracking) may or may not do to the environment.  Earthquakes, polluted water and methane gas emissions are the most obvious.  However, concerns have also been raised about birth defects, cancers and declining bird species in areas where fracking has taken place.  Against this, the fracking companies and their supporters are quick to claim compliance with European environmental regulations that are far stricter than those that govern fracking in the USA.

Heated as this debate is, we rarely consider the possibility that the environment might just prove to be the biggest threat to fracking rather than the other way around.  However, alongside the many issues that threaten to sink the UK fracking industry, two environmental problems could prove to be show stoppers.

The global collapse in sand supplies was reported primarily in terms of its impact on construction.  However, as Aurora Torres, Jianguo Liu, Jodi Brandt, and Kristen Lear report:

“Sand and gravel are now the most-extracted materials in the world, exceeding fossil fuels and biomass (measured by weight). Sand is a key ingredient for concrete, roads, glass and electronics. Massive amounts of sand are mined for land reclamation projects, shale gas extraction and beach re-nourishment programs…

“In 2010, nations mined about 11 billion tonnes of sand just for construction. Extraction rates were highest in the Asia-Pacific region, followed by Europe and North America. In the United States alone, production and use of construction sand and gravel was valued at US$8.9 billion in 2016, and production has increased by 24 percent in the past five years.”

It isn’t just that fracking uses a lot of sand – although it does – but that as the technology has been improved in recent years, the amount of sand used has risen more than threefold.  As Christopher M. Matthews and Erin Ailworth in the Wall Street Journal explain:

“In the quest to find efficiencies of scale during the two-year downturn, producers have been drilling megawells, which run underground for more than a mile horizontally, and blasting larger quantities of sand down them to unleash more fossil fuels.

“The biggest U.S. shale fields get fracked with about 30% more sand every year, according to Phillip Dunning, a technical adviser at Drillinginfo, which tracks oil-field supply use.”

In the face of growing supply shortages, the cost of a ton of sand has risen from $15 in the second half of 2016 to $40 today.  In addition:

“The expense is compounded by the logistics of moving sand from mines to well sites thousands of miles away. Drillers don’t use sand found on a beach. They prefer fine white silica, much of it found in northern Midwest states. Shipping 5 million tons of sand can require 200,000 truck loads, according to a 2013 study by the University of Wisconsin.”

Insofar as a relatively mature US fracking industry will get first pick on global sand supplies, these shortages, rising costs and transportation issues spell disaster for an undeveloped UK fracking industry that has yet to bring a single profitable Btu of shale gas to the surface.

Nor is a shortage of sand the only means by which the environment may put a stop to UK fracking.  Water may prove to be an even bigger headache.  In a 2015 article for Scientific American, Bobby Magill documented a similar rise in water use to that of sand:

“Oil and natural gas fracking, on average, uses more than 28 times the water it did 15 years ago, gulping up to 9.6 million gallons of water per well and putting farming and drinking sources at risk in arid states, especially during drought.”

At first glance, water should not be a problem in the UK, where large volumes of water are blown in off the Atlantic Ocean.  However, a large part of that water is either held in upland soil or washes back to sea through our rivers and streams.  According to an article by Gemma Holmes for the Committee on Climate Change:

“In England and Wales, we use 16 billion litres of clean drinking water every day – that’s equivalent to 6,400 Olympic sized swimming pools. Currently, water companies can provide slightly more than we need – 2 billion litres are available above and beyond what we’re using.”

This raises the question of how many fracking wells we could operate using that 2 billion litre excess capacity.  Assuming that UK fracking wells will be similar to those in the USA, it turns out that just 55 fracking wells would be enough to use up all of that extra water.  Given that it will take at least 200 test wells to determine whether UK fracking can ever be profitable, that 55 well limit may prove to be a problem.  Concerns do not stop there, however.  According to Holmes:

“The north west of England and the Yorkshire and Humber region are projected to be highly susceptible to supply-demand deficits, as well as London and the south-east. However, deficits are projected in other parts of the UK as well, including areas of south Wales and the central belt of Scotland.”

That is, most of the areas with the best chance of extracting shale gas are in regions that are already experiencing water stress.  As with sand, whichever way you cut it, shortage of a key material will inevitably drive up the cost of a UK fracking industry that is already haemorrhaging money.

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