You’ve probably come across fracking in the news and wondered if the reality is as ugly as the word. Maybe you’ve heard about the new natural gas boom and wondered what shale gas and coalbed methane mean for our energy needs.
We are in the middle of a big push to exploit what’s known as unconventional gas, as more convenient, conventional sources run out. However, even though natural gas burns with lower emissions than dirtier fossil fuels like coal, the means of getting at these new sources of gas are far from clean.
There is a growing body of evidence from the USA and Australia, where the unconventional gas industry is far more developed, that there are inherent and unacceptably high environmental and health risks associated with coalbed methane and shale gas extraction.
Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, is a controversial technique often used to exploit unconventional sources of gas, such as shale gas and coal bed methane. It is an expensive process that is only economically viable when the price of fossil fuels are high. It involves drilling up to several kilometres deep and pumping gallons of water, proppants, and toxic chemicals under high pressure into the borehole to open up fractures and ease the flow of gas for extraction.
Shale gas is a form of gas trapped inside shale rock, while coalbed methane is trapped inside coal seams. They are known as 'unconventional' because of the novel techniques - like fracking - used to extract the gas.
Unlike shale gas, coalbed methane extraction doesn’t always involve fracking – at least not in the early years of a development. Instead, coal seams are de-pressurised by pumping out large volumes of water. But as gas flow starts to decline after a few years, wells are often fracked to increase productivity. In Australia the industry estimates that up to 40% of coalbed methane wells end up being fracked.
However, there are serious environmental problems associated with coalbed methane extraction regardless of whether fracking takes place.
In addition to the highly toxic chemicals used in drilling muds and fracking fluids, the drilling and fracking processes mobilise dangerous chemicals and radioactive substances naturally occurring in the coal and shale, which can contaminate groundwater and soil, and leak into the atmosphere with consequences for public health and the climate. Communities in Australia are already suffering from symptoms associated with exposure to these chemicals, and a growing body of research points to devastating longer term impacts such as birth defects and cancers.
Many of these risks apply to coalbed methane whether or not fracking takes place. In fact, because coalbed methane is significantly shallower than shale rock certain risks, such as groundwater contamination, are increased, and fracking simply exacerbates these impacts.
Even if it was safe to extract this gas (and it is increasingly clear that it isn't), if we want to prevent the worst impacts of climate change it isn’t safe to burn it. Investing in unconventional gas now will lock us into to dangerously high greenhouse gas emissions and make it extremely difficult to meet our legally binding carbon reduction targets in 2050.
That’s why Friends of the Earth Scotland is calling on the Scottish Government and Parliament to ban all unconventional gas and fracking. Both the precuationary principle and climate science demands that we leave this gas in the ground.
We are fighting alongside the community in Falkirk to stop the UK's most advanced unconventional gas project: Dart Energy's plans for commercial coalbed methane extraction at Airth. The application is going to be decided by Public Inquiry, and we will be there raising arguments against the development on climate change grounds, and exposing the inadequacy of the regulatory framework to protect communities and the environment. Help support our legal battle - make a donation online.
The Inquiry runs from 17 March for three weeks, in Stirling. Come along and be part of the frontline fight against unconventional gas! If you can't make it, don't worry we'll be there blogging and tweeting (as well as all the legal stuff) so follow us on @foescot and keep an eye on our news page for updates.
Download our Policy Briefing.
Download our Unconventional Gas Free Zone resource pack: this will provide you with all the information you need to find out more about the industry, and help you set up your own community resistance group.
If you are concerned about any coal bed methane or shale developments in your area, please get in touch.