The truth about shale: it’s a fracking nightmare

The oil business disinformation campaign about hydraulic fracking continues apace

There is a hilariously unintended irony in an FT (£) headline to the Editorial on its website about shale fracking. The article – pure pro-shale propaganda from tip to toe – begins, ‘Ignorance is the biggest enemy in the shale war’. It then goes on to show that fracking doesn’t cause earthquakes. Er, that’s it.

Informed observers have never really taken that charge seriously, so the ignorance irony is indeed pretty major. But this seems increasingly to sum up the FT these days: it reads more like a trumpet than a magnifying glass. When it runs editorials like this one, it’s more strumpet than trumpet.

There are really only two critiques of Shale fracking which, for my money, remain compelling.

The first is that shale gas well production tends to drop by 50% or more after the first year, and the reason is simple: the first year gets out all the easy stuff: after that, it’s more haystack and fewer needles until it’s not worth carrying on. Early last year, shale gas production in the U.S. was at 27 billion cubic feet per day….and its share of energy production was rising steeply. But even with new fields coming on stream, as US States scramble to solve their fiscal problems via fracking finds – that production has continued to level off.

In this context, FT boldly asserts that ‘The US shale boom has brought natural gas prices down by two-thirds in four years’. Has it? The gas price dropped close to $2 per MBTU last year, but has doubled since then to just under $4 today. Ignorance is bliss. Or PR.

The oil business loves technologies like fracking, because it’s another exploration solution that plays to its strength: drilling. But best estimates now suggest that fracked gas will keep the planet energised until about 2030…after which, we ‘ll be right back where we started again.

The second issue is not so much ecological as conservationist and communitarian. Shale gas reserves are vast, with especially large deposits in China, the U.S., and Russia. However, the environmental and social impacts of shale gas extraction have been skirted over. High levels of drill-site emissions are causing concerns about local air. Many communities are also worried about the immediate ‘industrialisation’ of their landscape that results. The process also involves vast levels of water consumption – a much more precious resource for the planet than shale gas – and the reversal of consequent water contamination is not always as diligent as it should be once the work is finished. For something that is a dead-end, short-term solution, these represent problems that are too big to ignore.

The human race is doing what it always does in the absence of new ideas: scrambling around for the miracle fix. The long-term answer to our energy problems is the sun: not solar power working by direct heat conversion (it’s very effective, but weak in its output) but solar energy being harnessed in a revolutionary manner. Four years ago this month, engineers discovered that the use of molten salts to store the heat from solar radiation many hours after the sun goes down means solar thermal power can be used to generate electricity nearly round-the-clock. (Geothermal heating also offers 24/7 access to either heat or chill). In southern Spain, Andasol 1 – the first plant using this technique – began operating in November 2009, quickly generating enough clean electricity to supply 50,000 to 60,000 homes year-round. It now provides all the electrical energy needs of 200,000 homes.

“Ah but,” say the guys in Texas, “it can’t drive cars”. No longer true: BMW, which last year struck up an agreement with a Colorado company to facilitate solar-powered charging for its upcoming plug-in vehicles, is now working with Dresden-based Solarwatt to provide solar-panel systems on the home roofs and carports of its electric cars. The partnership’s 360° ELECTRIC-branded systems make for an “aesthetic solution with innovative glass-glass modules” that efficiently garner sunlight and turn it into vehicle juice. Twenty years ago, diesel cars were truly awful to drive: now they’re everywhere and just as pokey as lead-free vehicles. In time, the same will happen with plug-in cars.

The big leap in sun-harnessing still hasn’t arrived….and its emergence will only be delayed if all the money and research is ploughed into a con like fracking. Sovereign States need to invest heavily in the physics of solar solutions: but the Sovereigns are almost all broke, and the guys making the large electoral campaign contributions tend to be in the drilling business. So as long as that pertains, the debate will be disinformed by the usual grubby methods.

Related: the rise and rise of disinformation