A lively debate on the pros and cons of hydraulic fracturing -fracking- got Policy Week off to a great start. Sam Wood reports on the discussion.
Fracking causes a wide range of emotions in people, something that was really brought out at the beginning of the session, when the audience were asked to complete a quick survey of their opinions. 65% of them said they were concerned by fracking, 65% said they wanted more information on the topic and 71% were against fracking in the UK.
That was an interesting barometer to see if minds could be changed by the debate. The panel included Kevin Anderson, Grant Allen and Ernie Rutter from The University of Manchester, Robert Ward from the British Geological Survey and Eric Vaughan, a founder of Cuadrilla resources, who have applied to drill at sites in the UK. The group got stuck into the debate with opening statements and then took questions for the audience in true participatory style.
One of the key things to come out of the discussion was that the US experience will be completely different to any fracking that occurs in the UK. Lessons have been learned from the US, and regulations are much tighter in the UK, which should make our wells safer. This was a point made by both Eric Vaughan and Robert Ward. Also the rocks and underground conditions are different and the technology is better now. There is yet to be one recorded incident of a shale gas well leaking into the environment, due to these tighter regulations. And fracking does not cause earthquakes, as Ernie Rutter pointed out. The British Geological Survey monitors groundwater and safeguards can be put in place to ensure that fracking does not cause any polluting of it.
Everyone agreed that shale gas is less damaging to the environment than coal, but Kevin Anderson said that it is already too late for richer nations to adopt fracking if we are to meet 2C of warming. The people of richer nations need to change lifestyles to become low carbon if we are to meet that target, he said. Fracking might work for poorer countries though, as a transitional technology, before they move to renewables. Our carbon budget is very tight and poorer people in the southern hemisphere are likely to suffer if we don’t keep to our targets. Fracking should not be part of our low carbon future, Kevin concluded.
Others, including Ernie Rutter disagree. Ernie said that relying on imports from Qatar and Russia is dangerous and that the UK should take advantage of its natural resources. It doesn’t matter which country the methane escapes from for the environment, so if we are going to use gas we may as well use our own, he said. But, while he thinks we should be investigating the technology and developing it where we can, he did caution that we don’t yet know how much gas we have that is usable.
Grant Allen highlighted concerns about the release of methane into the atmosphere, which is a big cause of climate change that CO2. Shale gas has more methane than the gas found in the North Sea for example. The methane from fracking escapes over a wide area so is very hard to monitor, which means there is little clear data about how much methane a sale gas well emits. Reports show that the start of shale gas coincides with a fast increase of methane in our atmosphere, although a definite link between the two things has not been proven as yet.
By the end of the debate the audience was again asks its thoughts on fracking. It showed a slight increase in the number of people who thought fracking should be allowed in the UK, with 36% saying they were in favour of fracking, still 64% against it. Those concerned about fracking had dropped to 51% of the audience, with 20% saying they were mortally scared of the technqiue.
Stretching across five packed days and featuring discussion, lectures, workshops, simulations and even films, Policy Week 2015 brings together leading thinkers, academics, students and policy influencers to debate and progress key policy issues. Sign up for events using the link above.
This year’s theme is Science, Technology and Public Policy, and the event programme is part of European City of Science Manchester 2016.