Last week the UCC Environmental Society hosted a public information evening on fracking. Speakers were:
Jeremy Gilbert, BP’s chief petroleum engineer from 1989-2001, and now managing director of Barrelmore Ltd in West Cork;
Dr. Aedin McLoughlin and Liam Breslin of Good Energy Alliance Ireland, (GEAI) a Leitrim-based anti-fracking activist group.
Bernie Connolly from the Cork Environmental Forum chaired the discussion.
Gilbert- who regulars here will remember from his chapter in Peak Oil Personalities gave a very solid technical discussion of fracking based on his 37 years in the oil industry. “Fracking should be welcomed… shale gas is much better than coal.”
He told us that the technology has been around for over 60 years, with 1.1million wells- oil and gas- drilled worldwide. He referred to the chemicals used, saying they include innocuous viscosifiers made from Guar Gum, and others being common under the average kitchen sink.
As regards sealing the wells, we have been successfully cementing oil and gas wells for over 150 years. There are fears of the methane escaping, but apart from the fact that this would lose the companies money of course, Gilbert emphasized that this happens naturally all the time: hydrocarbons are lighter than the water that fills the pore space and so over time migrates upwards- this is how the tar sands of Alberta have been formed over the ages.
In terms of public impact, Gilbert had himself been involved with the development of the Wytch Farm Oil Field, south of Poole Harbor in Dorset. The same techniques have been used there for many years, albeit in less tight formations, but while there was tremendous opposition at the time, by working with the public the company was able to address their concerns- at considerable extra cost to themselves- and Jeremy says that today, 20 years later, the vast majority of residents in the area are unaware of the development, and that it would be hard to even find any sign of it (Wikipaedia states it is mainly hidden in a forest).
He concluded his presentation with a stern reminder: the default is coal.
Dr. McGloughlin spoke next, running through the usual expected catalogue of impacts, and taking issue with Gilbert’s assurances of this being an established technology with proven safety record: water contamination, leaking wells, no acceptable disposal route for produced water, compulsory purchase orders, massive number of truck journeys, visual impact across lovely Leitrim, the need for a moratorium on drilling until a Health Impact Assessment is done. McGloughlin lives in Leitrim herself and made no secret of the fact that this ia a local NIMBY issue, but wants us all to be afraid: the same companies are also looking at coal seam gas with fully half of Ireland being targeted for one or the other.
The climate change issue was mentioned, highly ironic since the US shale revolution has already lead to significant CO2 reductions there through substituting coal with gas.
Instead, Good Energy Alliance Ireland advocates renewables: wind, solar, tidal, hydro: anything but fracking. McGloughlin made a couple of eye-brow-raising claims on this: firstly that that Leitrim is already self-sufficient in energy from renewable sources, presumably mainly wind- which seems unbelievable (renewables always need some back-up, usually gas) and with no mention being made of the burgeoning anti-wind movement that is growing up in Ireland as elsewhere. She also talked solar up to the point of claiming that the technology has improved so much that “you dont even need sun anymore” for it to work- truly fantastic!
Some good questions from the floor put pressure on McGloughlin and Breslin to say what assurances would they accept that fracking would be done safely? It all comes down to trust in the authorities: but then, do we trust the wind companies? we do of course trust regulatory authorities in many other areas of our lives, because we have to, and despite sometimes failing,on the whole they do a good job it would seem. A geography student was concerned about getting a job (imagine!);
Gilbert repeated very strongly that if so many other countries are apparently happy to go ahead, and if we are otherwise unconcerned about where our gas comes from, why can it not be done safely in Ireland? Breslin repeated something like, if it can be done safely, why is he getting so many reports about people’s dogs getting asthma from living near frack sites- Jeremy Gilbert objected that this is an industry he has spent nearly 40 years of his working life around- “and he looks healthy!” called a voice from the back of the room: into his 70s and cutting a powerful figure of about 6ft 6, he certainly does.
Overall, good fun but the anti-frackers came out looking pretty out of touch with the informed audience- “we need jobs! we need energy!”- and frankly clueless next to a seasoned industry man.
The whole issue is very topical across the water as well of course and just the night before there had been an equally entertaining live debate on fracking between Josh “Flaming faucet” Fox of Gasland fame and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute, hosted by Salon.
Fox is also living in the heart of fracking country surrounded by thousands of shale gas wells. I have no doubt that this must be disruptive- but while the two participants traded studies on just how much methane leakage there actually is (Nordhaus adamant that the clear scientific consensus is very much on the low side) the key issue came down once again to: what do we use instead?
Josh, please tell me how your going to fix the intermittence problem with renewables. Or tell me you are pro-nuclear. If not then anti-gas = pro-coal.
Perhaps giving McGloughlin her cue for the “solar without sun” comment in Cork the next night, Fox comes up with a gem:
Well, it is true that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. But based on physical laws of nature, the wind is blowing harder when the sun isn’t shining. By bundling renewable resources we can solve the problem.
Nice try, but no there is no such physical law unfortunately, nor do we currently have large-scale compressed-air storage technology which he then goes on to talk about as an “alternative”, which would not be relevant anyway in terms of replacing gas for electricity.
In response to my surprised tweet about this, @pdiff1 offered an explanation:
@skepteco Maybe he was trying to say the wind blows harder where the sun don’t shine
— Pdiff (@pdiff1) March 4, 2013
That pretty much says it all. Fox never did come back to answer his position on nuclear; but anti-fracking activists share in common with the anti-nuclear movement (often one and the same of course) a complete lack of understanding of the fundamental limitations of diffuse renewables. Once that is exposed, as both Fox and McGloughlin showed themselves only too happy to do for us, the rest of their position is revealed as just hot air.