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UN urges caution on fracking

Image: Jose Luis RDS

A United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) report released last month has urged countries outside the USA to be cautious about fracking.

In addition to warning about the excessive water consumption and potential for earthquakes, the report highlights the many commercial advantages the US frackers enjoyed that are not available elsewhere.  According to UNCTAD Sec.-Gen. Mukhisa Kituyi:

“Climate change means that all countries must, as a matter of strategic urgency, move away from burning fossil fuels, including shale gas.  But given that energy is needed to end poverty and boost development, countries with potential shale gas resources should understand the pros and cons when they make policy decisions about the short-term energy mix.”

The report will make uncomfortable reading for a UK government that appears to be flip-flopping back in favour of fracking, having toned down its support for financial reasons last year.  According to the report, the geology of the British Isles will restrict the amount of gas that can be recovered if fracking is given the go-ahead:

“According to EIA, the United Kingdom holds 25.8 TCF of TRR of shale gas, about 5.5 per cent of the resources in the European Union and about 0.3 per cent of the world total. Shale gas potential resources in the United Kingdom are almost exclusively concentrated in the north (98 per cent), at a depth ranging from 5,000–13,000 feet (1,520–3,960 m), with an average of 3 per cent TOC. According to EIA (2015g: 11), the geology in the United Kingdom is considerably more complex than in the United States, ‘while drilling and completion costs for shale wells are substantially higher’. Geological structures appear to be carved, with numerous faults.”

The report also raises questions about how much of the gas in formations like the Bowland will actually be accessible for social and geographical reasons:

“High population density in some potential areas and anti-hydraulic fracturing campaigns, among others, combined with low levels of knowledge of the geology of the various shale plays, may be major impediments to further developments. According to estimates prepared by the Oil and Gas Authority of the United Kingdom, the production of natural gas is expected to continue to decline up to 2022 (-13 per cent) and 2035 (-60 per cent), compared with the level in 2016.”

The report – which barely received a mention in mainstream UK news outlets – raises doubts about the profitability of fracking across Europe because of the high population density.  For example, almost all of the shale deposits in France are beneath Paris – perhaps explaining why France was able to quickly implement a ban on fracking.  Moreover, even if fracking does take place, it may not be able to compete with shale gas produced in countries with low population density and few geological impediments such as Algeria, Argentina, Canada.

Irrespective of whether some shale gas is recovered in the UK or not, the UNCTAD report provides further evidence that the David Cameron government’s dream of a UK shale boom to match that in the USA was a miasma.  The money wasted on fracking has brought forward the day when Britain’s lights go out because we didn’t get around to investing in the alternatives.

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