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Nottingham Secular Society Fracking Debate: INEOS Shale Vs Frackfree Nottinghamshire

28 February 17 words: Gav Squires

With the news that there might be fracking potentially starting in Sherwood Forest still fresh in the mind, Nottingham Secular Society hosted a debate on the subject. Garry Harwood, CEO of INEOS Shale, and Dennis May from Frackfree Nottinghamshire were invited to debate the motion, "This house believes that fracking is intrinsically safe and will be of great benefit to the country"

Garry kicked off the debate with a definition of what fracking actually is – the technique of hydraulic fracturing, before moving onto why it's necessary. UK gas production is in decline and our reliance on gas imports has grown so that it is now over 50% of demand. This is predicted to rise to 85% by 2035 so there is an issue of energy security there. We are currently paying £7billion per year overseas, often to countries that do not have the best human rights records. 84% of houses in this country rely on gas for heating and gas is used in the manufacture of a wide range of things from clothing to packaging to cosmetics to electronics among others.

Local shale gas results in the emission of 10% less greenhouse gases than imported gas, and less than half that of coal. Gas can help support the growth of renewable energy resources. As an industry, fracking could provide around 64,000 new jobs. INEOS have also promised 6% of revenues (up to £1million per well) to local communities.

The wells are located in "pods", where each pod contains ten wells. The pod is smaller than a football pitch and there is a pod every 10-15 square kilometres. The wells go down 3km and the fractures extend out around 150m from the bore. These fractures are made by pumping in water to make tiny cracks in the shale, which then allows the gas to flow out. The build phase for the pod is temporary and then you get around twenty years of silent gas production.

Garry isn't ignorant to the objections around fracking and so answers some of them. Fossil fuels are bad for climate change – clearly he can't dispute this, but 84% of homes use gas for heating and 61% use it for cooking. To electrify these house that they can be powered by electricity would cost £250billion and would take several decades – even if we could convert 2,000 houses per day it would take until 2050. It's not a gas versus renewables debate, we are going to need both, and even in NGO scenarios we are still going to need gas for decades. So the question is then all about where the gas is going to come from.

Fracking causes water contamination. This isn't the result of fracking, but the result of well failure. It has happened in the US where their regulations are not as stringent as they are here in the UK.

Fracking risks causing seismic activity. The 2011 tremors in Lancashire are often mentioned with regard to this but they were actually very minor and caused no damage. The seismic activity is only detectable by very sensitive instruments in a majority of cases. There is also a lot of minor seismic activity in this country anyway.

There are negative health impacts caused by fracking. A Public Health England report says that the risks are low if sites are properly run and regulated.

Of course there is some risk in fracking. Should we be looking for 100% guarantee? It's no more dangerous than any number of things that we do every day. A number of independent regulators including the Oil and Gas Authority, The Health and Safety Executive and the Royal Society all say that fracking can be done safely as long as best practices are followed.

Then it's time for Dennis to present his side of the argument, focusing on the safety case. Risks have to be calculated, controls put in place. Hazards have to be identified and we have to look at the severity and the likelihood. Controls have to be applied and hazards have to be isolated. Then behavioural controls and personal protection have to be put into place.

How many wells will there be? It would take 33,000 to extract 15% of the shale gas in this country. Even just one exploratory site leads to around 9,000 vehicle movements, including 6,000 road tankers of water.

Regulations are based on standards for the offshore industry and they will not control subterranean phenomenon. The Royal Academy of Engineers produced a report that said that the probability of failure of a single well was very low but nine out of ten of the recommendations in the report weren't implemented. The Public Health England report didn't consider the health impact on communities and the British Medical Journal said that the PHE's report was a leap of faith and more study was required. A report by DEFRA contained 61 redactions.

There is a threat to our water supply from well integrity. Water UK says that our water supply must be protected at all costs. Professor Tony Ingraffea, a geologist, says that all wells will eventually fail. In May 2011, processing was suspended in Lancashire after two earthquakes. The larger of the two caused a well failure. Larger quakes are not always preceded by smaller ones and seismic events can be delayed.

There is the risk of air pollution from Benzene and other compounds or even Radon gas. Benzene is a major public health concern. In the literature there are more than 1000 peer-reviewed articles on fracking. 84% contain findings with an adverse outcome. No-one really knows what the long term health effects of fracking are either as we've only been doing it for around twenty years. Will there be analogies with asbestos where everyone thinks it's safe but only later is it realised how dangerous it is?

As well as the risks of water contamination and air pollution, there is also noise, dust and light pollution. There is site traffic and the stress and psychological impacts. There is the loss of amenities and also the effects on and of climate change.

What about those gold standard regulations? One company in America had nineteen breaches of their permit conditions between July and October 2014. Their drilling rig had even been certified. All nineteen breaches were raised by the public.

What about the benefits? Are they justified? It's unlikely that there will be sufficient gas to meet demand and we can't guarantee that some of it won't be exported. INEOS also want to use it to produce plastic products, but last year Adidas made a million pairs of trainers using plastic reclaimed from the ocean. Meanwhile, robust home insulation could cut gas imports by 26%.

Do the finances even stack up? The break-even price for shale gas is between $7.50 and $15.50 but the price of gas is actually $5. INEOS have also moved their corporate HQ to Switzerland, saving them £450million in tax between 2010 and 2015.

Following a brief break, the two speakers returned to offer their rebuttals with Garry going first again. He says that INEOS can't export profits due to ring-fencing of taxation rules. All INEOS gas will be used in this country. The industry will not be creating 33,000 wells – there are only 2,000 regular onshore gas wells in the UK today. A lot of "exported" gas wasn't actually headed to the UK anyway. As for benzene, you have that in your petrol tank in your car. All industry is built on an element of risk.

Then it's Dennis's turn again – the risks from petro-chemicals are a legacy that we're trying to move away from. Just because it is our gas, is not an excuse to take it out of the ground. The risks are being brought into our communities. By the time that fracking gets going it will be fracking versus renewables since all of the coal will be gone. The safety case is based on poor risk assessment – INEOS have had eleven improvement notices over the last few years.

Personally, I thought that they both made good points. As per Dennis, we should be spending more money on making properties more energy efficient and as per Garry, our infrastructure isn't ready for a completely renewable power supply unfortunately. The anti-frackers came across a bit NIMBYish, as though they'd have similar concerns about wind turbines and were oddly happy to keep sending money to Putin and his ilk. On the other hand, there was no guarantee that fracking can actually become a proper industry any time soon and rather than spending twenty years of time/effort/money exploring this, we could be investing in renewables and infrastructure instead.

Nottingham Secular Society website

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