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Fractured views

Posted 03/09/2013 by sevans

Although the debate about shale gas and hydraulic fracturing, better known as ‘fracking’, has disappeared from the headlines in the UK, due mainly to the debacle over the UK’s response, and now doubts in the US about its response, to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, there are still heated discussions going on at every level right up to the UK parliamentary level about whether exploration and exploitation should continue or even start.

The main concerns about an expansion of fracking centre on its potential for environmental impacts, such as water pollution, and the perceived destruction of swathes of the countryside, apart from any possible influences in terms of earthquakes, such as those experienced in Lancashire, which set the entire UK debate running in 2012.

There are similar pictures emerging across Europe, driven by the higher energy prices experience here and the perception that the US has gained a competitive advantage as a result of its own ‘dash for gas’. As many observers have pointed out, fracking is not new – it has been around for a number of decades although only recently has the technique been incorporated into the mainstream energy supply with the well-known results in terms of low gas prices and a boom for the US chemical sector. And that boom is continuing with new chemical plants being announced on an almost daily basis. 

The net result has been a major competitive advantage for US producers, particularly those producing  methane- and ethane-based final products such as fertilisers, olefins and polyolefins, to the dismay of European producers, who have been among the loudest voices clamouring for European shale gas development.

The major obstacle to European development continues to be the lack of supportive regulatory frameworks; and there has been little prospect of the reform of these frameworks. But it is also public concern that has had a major effect in slowing, and even preventing, further progress.

But these voices of concern have now begun to be heard in the US as well, all the way up to the US Congress. That is not to say that there haven’t been environmental and health concerns all through the US fracking boom – there can hardly be anyone who hasn’t seen the video of flames coming out of a water tap, and there is plenty of evidence about the increased levels of earthquake activity in areas around fracking sites and shale gas deposits.

But now many US organisations have also been questioning the safeguards that have been proposed by the US administration. One might say that it is a little late to start discussing such safeguards given the progress that has already been made in exploiting this new gas supply �0;0;1F;– phrases like shutting the door after the horse has bolted come to mind, but then this would appear to be a common issue across the Atlantic as C&I points out in its September issue with a look at the well-overdue reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act.

So what will be the final outcome? Will the North American fracking boom continue, or will it too succumb to public, and the resulting political, pressure?

One thing is certain: our world needs increasing amounts of energy, and that energy has to come from somewhere. Whether it is biomass- or fossil-based – and let us not forget that shale gas is effectively a fossil fuel and therefore a limited resource – when the lights start going out it will be too late to be complaining about the visual impact of gas structures in the landscape!

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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