Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, is a controversial technique often used to exploit hard-to-get fossil fuels, such as shale gas and coal bed methane. It is an expensive process that is only economically viable when oil and gas prices 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.
The term unconventional gas is used to describe shale gas, coalbed methane, tight gas and sometimes the process of underground coal gasification. Shale gas and coalbed methane are known as 'unconventional' because unlike conventional sources which are found in larger, easier to access reservoirs, the gas is trapped in tiny little pockets in the shale rock or coal seams. They are also known as unconventional because of the novel techniques – like fracking and horizontal drilling – 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.
Underground coal gasification - sometimes known as deep gas winning - involves partially combusting coal in place underground and capturing the syngas byproduct for use at the surface. UCG is highly experimental, and far less developed than coalbed methane drilling and shale gas fracking.
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 much more serious 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. Underground coal gasification has been tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully over the past 80 years, with recent experiments in Australia releasing toxic pollutants into the environment.
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. Gas is not a low carbon energy source, and the problem of methane leakage from unconventional gas operations means the industry could be as bad as or even worse than coal in climate terms. Underground coal gasification could lead to the use of huge coal reserves that must remain untouched if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. 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.
In January 2014 the Scottish Government announced a moratorium on onshore unconventional oil and gas extraction. The Government are using planning and environmental powers to stop shale gas fracking and coalbed methane developments from going ahead, pending a full public health impact assessment and public consultation on the industry. Work is also being carried out to assess the adequacy of environmental and planning regulations.
Currently the UK Government’s Department for Energy and Climate Change issues Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences (PEDLs) throughout Britain, which give companies exclusive rights to exploit onshore oil and gas resources. The 14th onshore licensing round, which offers 20,000 square km of central and southern Scotland for license, was launched earlier in summer 2014. The UK Government plans to announce the results of this round - which companies have been granted licenses and where - sometime in 2015, probably after the Westminster election. However, under Smith Commission proposals, onshore oil and gas licensing powers will be devolved to Scotland in the next couple of years, therefore it is unlikely that the UK Government will issue new licenses under the 14th round in Scotland. Unconventional gas drilling has already taken place however in a number of areas which were licensed under previous rounds.
Frack Off have produced an interactive map showing UK sites, PEDL licences, and active local groups who are opposing unconventional gas projects.
And this UK Government PDF details the 'blocks' under offer in the 14th licensing round.
In January 2014 four years of campaigning alongside grassroots and communities paid off when the Scottish Government announced a moratorium on shale gas and coalbed methane!
Now our job is to turn this moratorium into a ban, and ensure that it encompasses underground coal gasification too. We are convinced that a full and thorough assessment of the public health, climate and environmental impacts of this industry will lead to a full ban. But the industry will be gearing up with the opposite aim in mind. Its very important that the public momentum behind this campaign does not stall at this crucial stage, but keeps the pressure up to ensure the most robust assessments and consultation are carried out.
Campaign to date:
We fought alongside the community to stop the UK's most advanced unconventional gas project: Dart Energy's plans for commercial coalbed methane extraction at Airth. The application was heard by a Public Inquiry earlier this year, and we were there raising arguments against the development on climate change grounds, and exposing the inadequacy of the regulatory framework to protect communities and the environment. The Airth Public Inquiry has now been ‘called in’ by Scottish Government ministers, and we are calling on them to reject the planning permission. You can download our submissions and evidence to the Inquiry here.
Our campaign for better planning protections for communities facing unconventional gas extraction resulted in changes to Scottish Planning Policy that require would-be developers to undertake a risk assessment in consultation with communities and propose buffer zones to protect people and sensitive ecological sites. Thanks to vocal public opposition and strong campaigning, the Scottish Government also stood up to UK Government plans to remove peoples' rights to object to - or even be notified about - fracking underneath their homes. As a result, Scottish communities are now exempt from this regressive law, and operators will have to negotiate property-owner by property-owner to frack underneath peoples' homes.
Throughout our campaign, we have produced high-profile photo stunts and public actions, including building a ‘fracking rig’ outside the SNP party conference in Perth in 2013, and bringing a 10ft-tall ‘frackhead’ puppet to the Scottish Parliament in October 2014. These activities help keep unconventional gas in the Scottish media. We are also working with colleagues throughout the UK, and within the wider European Friends of the Earth network, sharing expertise and strategy in order to strengthen our campaign.
We welcome the more cautious approach of the Scottish Government, which stands in contrast to the enthusiasm of their UK counterparts. However, we continue to push for a ban to protect communities and live up to our world leading climate commitments.
Our vital campaigning on unconventional gas is only possible thanks to the support of our members. A small regular donation each month will help ensure we are a strong, independent voice for the environment here in Scotland.