16Nov 2016

Myths & Facts – Shale Gas


No Hot Air is not a site of climate change skeptics. We believe both climate change and safe shale energy are scientifically proven concepts.

Unfortunately, both are also open to misinterpretation by those prone to conspiracy theories, who selectively cherry pick the contradictory data that naturally occurs in any large data-set, and who often have completely unconnected political agendas.

A key principle of NHA is to concentrate on the scientifically proven. We understand 100% risk free doesn’t exist in real life and hope you do likewise. Shale gas is not perfect. But neither is it perfectly evil. Which is why we always try and put things in perspective.

Perspective, and context matter.That’s why we always seek answers to the big questions: How big a problem in real life is that? How big a number is that actually? Can we learn from accidents? Or are we condemned to repeat them? If something good happened in North America, what is stopping it happening elsewhere? If something bad happened out of the North American experience, how can we prevent it happening in the rest of the world?

We don’t pretend to have all the answers. But it’s important to keep asking. These are bite size nuggets on various shale issues. Please don’t hesitate to ask if you want to see any particular issue discussed here.

Myth 10:  Shale takes up a lot of space


A. Advances in drilling multiple wells from one pad, combined with longer and longer underground horizontal drilling wells, mean the modern shale technology that will be used in Europe will see a 2.5 hectare or less well pad covering 5 sq km or more.That isn’t an industrialized landscape by any stretch. We certainly won’t see a sea of natural gas derricks as in old movies. The action takes place underground, not over it and most people will be unaware of it happening at all. The actual distance between pads can be several kilometres.

B. Due to  the flexibility provided by horizontal drilling, well pad surface locations can be placed in an area that will minimize disturbance to local agriculture or private residences. Why put a well pad at the bottom of your garden when explorers can reach under it from several miles away? Thus, they’ll want to use a site you won’t be bothered by. The perfect site would be an existing brownfield (abandoned industrial) location with good transport links. Ultimately, a drill site could remove an existing eyesore and replace it with a landscaped alternative.

C. Europe is perceived as a crowded continent, but population is concentrated in urban areas. There is a surprising amount of empty space in Europe, with shale drilling in Poland taking place in areas with lower population densities than similar shale areas in Texas. In the UK for example, 85% of the population lives on 7% of the land. For another example, the most crowded country in Europe is the Netherlands – yet is also the second largest exporter of agricultural products in the world, and site of the largest onshore natural gas field in Europe.

D.  In the UK, the hydraulically fractured Wytch Farm Oil field has been producing up to 100,000 barrels of  oil per day since 1992 but from only two well pads. Try to find them in the pictures here of homes selling for over £7 million. Shale gas could make large parts of the UK, not into Texas, but into Dorset.

E. The modern shale era started in Fort Worth Texas, the 17th largest city in the United States, where shale wells have been drilled in parks, university campuses and even on the local airport. Currently there are no plans to drill in European urban areas, but the US experience shows that it is possible for shale to coexist with very close neighbours. We know of exploration sites in European urban areas that neighbours were completely unaware of for example.

i. Each well can take as little as three weeks to drill. European operations could have an ultimate spade to seed, first dig to final cover time, of sixty days or less.

ii. After construction is complete, above ground impact of valves and possible separation tanks will take up the space of a shipping container or less. Equipment can also be buried and sites landscaped to restore the ground in many cases to original – or better -condition.

iii. Natural gas is lighter than air and naturally flows to the surface with little or no noisy pumping required.

Myth 9:  European shale is only a short term stopgap that will not provide energy security


A. We hope to see the first concrete results of actual European resources shortly. But a number of independent reports predict that even conservative figures means that the UK for example, would not need any LNG imports at all for several decades thanks to shale. Importing energy is exporting money.

B.Similarly, predictions of Polish shale resources show a resource equal to over a hundred years at existing gas levels and several decades even accounting for a total substitution of coal with natural gas

C.Poland, France, Germany, Spain, Netherlands and the Ukraine may well have substantial volumes of gas available to export throughout the EU.

D.  According to the US Energy Information Administration World Shale Resources report of June 2013, Shale oil and shale gas resources are globally abundant. The report notes the EU has potential recoverable resources equal to those of the United States.

E.  The same report noted the largest potential is in China. We all share the same atmosphere, and substituting natural gas for coal in China effectively solves the world climate problem. It also solves their air pollution problem even if natural gas is currently more expensive than Chinese coal.

Myth 8:  Shale uses a lot of water


A. Shale does use a lot of water. The question is, compared to what? The 18,000 cubic metres of water needed for drilling a well with a life span of up to ten years is equal to the volume used to irrigate a 3 hectare corn field in one season or an 18 hole golf course in one month.

B. The entire volume of water used, over a projected life span of 10 years at the Cuadrilla Resources’ well in Lancashire UK, is less than half of the water lost through leaking pipes in Manchester in one day.

C. In Louisiana USA, several hundred shale wells use less than one half of one percent of total water resources.

D. Estimates from Quebec predict a shale impact of 2.4% of water resources compared to 4% of all water used in the province’s car wash industry.

Myth 7:  Water that flows back from the wells is contaminated and enters rivers, streams and drinking water


A. Flow-back water in Europe must be recycled according to a standard which means it is equal to existing water supplies in rivers or lakes

B. Untreated water cannot be disposed of in rivers, streams or anywhere above ground according to current EU wide laws.

Myth 6: Chemicals used in fracking are secret


A. In Europe there will be 100% visibility of the contents of fracking fluid under a combination of local regulations and via the EU regulatory body the European Chemical Agency (ECHA).

B. Existing best practice in the USA is moving towards 100% transparency of fracking fluid via sites such as www.fracfocus.org. We can anticipate similar visibility will be the norm in Europe through both government and private sites such as NGS Facts.

Myth 5: There are over 500 dangerous chemicals in fracking fluid


A. There are generally only a handful of chemicals in fracking fluid. In the example of Cuadrilla Resources in the UK, they are only using three,two of which only have to be revealed as they already exist in the public water supply of local supplier United Utilities. The third, polyacrylamide is widely used in water treatment and agriculture. In this case, polyacrylamide is used at a concentration of less than 0.25%, whereas the same “chemical” is used at a 2.5% solution in disposable contact lenses among other uses.

B. Drillers have an incentive to use less fluid both on cost grounds and for environmental risk abatement.

C. Many chemicals are already present in far greater concentrations under a kitchen sink in common household cleaners. A common chemical is also used in lipstick and many foods (sorbic acid) or in plastic containers (polypropolene).  One of the chemicals most often used in the highest concentration is hydrochloric acid, naturally occurring in stomach acid. Hydrocholoric acid is present in higher concentrations in swiming pools than that found in fracking fluid.

D. Fracking fluid is over 99.85% water and sand. Fracking fluid serves to act as a proppant so that gas can flow into the well bore and to the surface. Chemicals are necessary to keep the process going. Consider as well that chemicals are more expensive than water or sand, providing an incentive to use as little as possible.

Myth 4:  Drillers will always try to save money by shortcutting regulations which protect water:


A. Any extra regulatory costs involved in water protection are a fraction of the total well costs of up to €8million. Contamination would result in substantial fines, civil damages, reputational risk costs and even loss of license that would have an impact far in excess of any possible advantage.  The International Energy Agency published a set of standards they call “Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas” in May 2012.  They estimated that the maximum expense the standards would cause producers would be a maximum of 7%.

B. The extra cement casing of the well has a different original purpose than to protect ground water aquifers from contamination, which is to prevent contamination of the gas in the well bore by ground water. Mixing gas and water in the well bore is far more dangerous and expensive for drillers to repair than saving a few thousand on a cheap cement job. Any gas producer is far more worried that water could pollute the gas, making it unsaleable.

C. The European Union has produced several reports including this one, which find existing regulation is sufficient for shale gas extraction in Europe. To be polite, the EU is not known for light touch regulation in many other sectors!

Myth 3 : Shale gas will prevent the emergence of renewable technology


A. Investing the savings provided by shale gas in research and development of next generation low carbon alternatives provides a continuing opportunity for shale to promote energy alternatives.

B. Natural gas can help the development of solar and wind projects by providing a low cost scalable and proven back up for nightime hours and when wind is not blowing.

C. In Texas, gas and renewables live together side by side and Texas generates over 30% of electricity from on shore wind generation.

D.  Citibank published a report in September 2012 called Shale & renewables: a symbiotic relationship which proposed that “shale gas and renewables could be the making of each other”.

Myth 2: Shale Gas will poison the water supply


A. Firstly let’s remember that  the overwhelming majority of Europeans, 99% in the case of the UK, get drinking water from the public water supply, not the private wells at the centre of any US controversy. Public water supply is constantly monitored and has many redundant sources, few of which are from ground water aquifers. Even the most rabid shale opponents have never even insinuated that fracking contaminates public water supply.

B. Fracking fluids cannot flow up 3,000 meters from where gas is extracted anymore than a stream can flow uphill.

C. The US Ground Water Protection Council, a group of public water regulators in various states has said that they have not seen a single instance of contamination of water by fracking fluid. The Canadian Federal Department of Natural Resources said the same thing in 2013.

D.  Lisa Jackson, head of the US Environmental Protection Administration, told the US Congress in May 2011 “There have been no proven cases of ground-water contamination”

Myth 1: My water will catch on fire


A. Anyone who has seen the US Movie Gasland, and even worse many who haven’t, knows the scene where someone lights up water coming out of a tap.

B. Methane in water supply is a rare but widely documented phenomenon. Methane itself is not considered dangerous enough to even rate a drinking water standard, but, it’s certainly alarming and definitely entertaining. But it has no connection to shale gas. If it did, this official document from 2006, before the start of widespread fracking in Pennsylvania wouldn’t have been published when it was. I’ve set the water on fire myself in Montrose Pennsylvania.

C. Similarly, this newspaper report on water on fire in Tennessee dates from 1987

D. Or gas in the water in Pennsylvania in 1983 twenty years before modern shale gas.

E. Or Alberta 1973.

F. Finally the investigation by Colorado of the homeowner in the Gasland scene dates to before the movie was made, but revealing that the official investigation blamed the pyrotechnic display on naturally occurring methane unrelated to gas drilling wouldn’t have made good art by injecting good science.

If we want to have absolutely no risk whatsoever, perhaps we should just give up and stay in bed. Or perhaps not.


Nick Grealy
Principal and publisher of No Hot Air since 2008
Nick Grealy is director of the energy consultancy No Hot Air, specialising in public perception and acceptance issues of shale energy worldwide. Born in the UK, Nick moved to New York City in his teens and lived in the United States for over two decades. A graduate of New York University, Nick’s US based career included working for utility Con Edison, Chase Manhattan Bank North African Finance and the City of New York Home Energy Assistance Program.


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