When the British charity CHEM Trust published a major new scientific study in June, it concluded that the controversial gas extraction technique known as fracking posed a “significant” risk to human health and British wildlife, and that an EU-wide moratorium should be implemented until widespread regulatory reform is undertaken.
By contrast, the Fraser Institute think tank reported last week that fears over fracking don’t hold water.
They are amongst the latest reports to be published as debate continues over whether the controversial form of gas extraction should be added to the UK energy mix at a time when there is growing concern about Britain’s ability to “keep the lights on”.
So who’s right? Ahead of a discussion taking place on Monday November 9 as part of the Dundee Science Festival, a prominent Dundee University economist has warned that both the pro and anti-fracking lobbies are guilty of “spin”.
Dr Ariel Bergmann of the university’s renowned Centre for Energy, Petroleum and Mineral Law and Policy, told The Courier: “At the lecture I intend to separate the facts from spin. There is some absolutely wrong information being put out by anti-fracking groups and there are statements from the gas industry that are easily misunderstood. One of the things I’m going to do is call both sides to account.”
Despite admitting that he’s been paid in the past by both the pro and anti-fracking lobbies to carry out research, Dr Bergmann insists he is an impartial academic.
Asked if he is for or against fracking, the American said: “I’m reluctant to answer. I’d rather play as referee. I do not have an agenda.”
But whilst he does not think there are any technical reasons why hydraulic fracturing the proper name for fracking – should not be carried out, he says communities are right to be concerned about the potential environmental impacts.
He added: “Should environmental concerns be taken seriously? Absolutely! I would hope any community wants to ensure that any project whether it be building a shopping mall or putting in a well is done to minimise environmental damage. But I dispute concerns about the technology. The technology is fairly well established and we can look at some prestigious non-oil industry research, for example by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, or the Royal Society of Engineers, which suggests that if projects are completely accountable to regulations, the environmental risks are minimal.”
Fracking involves drilling down deep into shale rock before a high-pressure water mixture is directed at the rock to release the hydrocarbon gas inside. Water, sand and chemicals are injected into the rock at high pressure which allows the gas to flow out to the head of the well.
Dr Bergmann conceded there had been environmental issues with fracking in the USA.
But he claimed this was a result of “technical and business opportunities getting ahead of the government’s ability to regulate and oversee.”
He added: “Things expanded so fast in America that moratoriums are now in place to find out more. There was also considerable inexperience in trying to do the work, and occasions of sloppy work. It happens in every industry. For example, the plane that falls from the sky because the technician had a bad day!”
He said the biggest problem in the USA was contamination of water. But he claimed that this resulted from allowing contaminated fluids to be stored in leaking surface ponds, rather than from fracking itself.
Dr Bergmann said the UK and Europe were by comparison in “great shape” with far tighter regulations.
He said the UK potential was “huge”. A recent British Geological Survey said that the region between Blackpool and Wrexham, and Nottingham and Scarborough, had 37.5 trillion cubic meters of gas alone. Much of Central Scotland, where there is a moratorium, has also been identified as having shale petro-geology, giving the potential for significant security of energy supply and commercial opportunities.
He claimed small earthquakes experienced during test drilling near Blackpool were “less powerful than the vibration from the average lorry passing a house.”
He added: “There’s a far far greater danger from historic coalmines subsiding in this country, and they are just a couple of hundred feet down.”
He warned that fracking needed to at least be considered because with several coal power and nuclear power stations closing, there was a real danger of future energy shortages unless the gap between supply and demand was plugged soon.
Yet he said fracking could yet sink without trace in the UK if deemed not to be commercially viable.
Fracking: Facts v Spin takes place at Dundee Science Centre on Monday November 9 between 6pm and 7.30pm. The event is free, but booking is advised.