Exploding fracking myths

  • Irresponsibility in the USA
  • Earthquakes
  • Radon, the radio-active gas
  • Drilling the top hole and laterals
  • Common sense, balanced view
  • Democracy, we all have a part to play

By Bill Butterworth

27 January 2015


Additions are made to fluids used to assist deep drilling. This drilling operation was for a deep gas pipeline and the picture shows the addition of Bentonite to the drilling fluid. Bentonite is a naturally occurring clay; it is quite safe.

The truth about shale gas exploration and what is commonly called “fracking” is, of course, that there are potential environmental dangers. Some of them are potentially very significant. So, here is a list of questions I am asking myself, the industry and government. I’ll start with the ones I have asked myself and have answers I can accept and progress to the ones I still need assurances on.

Earthquakes. The science and common sense say this is so unlikely that it really is not a problem. (See this blog, 3 December 2014.)

Radon Gas. I have seen one television interview with a very aggressive and assertive individual who insisted that the industry pumped radio-active gas down the wells. My only response to such an individual is; “Ma’am, you do your cause no service by either being so stupid or just being dishonest.” My response to the news channel that screened it was they there were professionally irresponsible to their shame; we have a right to expect more. There is absolutely no chance of such a thing. There is a risk in drilling (for any purpose) in some geographical areas where Radon gas, which is radio-active, could be released from strata being drilled through. The gas is released to the surface, quite naturally, in some parts of the country, including Cornwall. There, it may collect in unventilated cellars. Frankly, in drilling, such possibilities will be considered at the stage of providing the Risk Assessment for the Environment Agency and Health and Safety Executive and there is very little risk to human health, wild life or the environment. Again, I have no problem here; the technology and risks are understood.

Drilling the vertical shaft. Historically in the USA, the vertical shaft was sometimes drilled using drilling fluids which were based on mineral oils and many undisclosed additives. There is little doubt that this has caused environmental damage. In my view, such materials should never have been allowed there and should not be so here. It is certainly true that the industry here and our own Environment Agency would exercise much tighter control. There is no doubt that safe fluids, even environmentally friendly fluids, can be used and are available. In this area, there is little doubt in my mind that the technology exists to be safe. (See this blog in a bit more detail, 4 December 2014.) We should and must insist on this and my contacts in regulation will, I am quite sure, do just that.

Drilling the laterals. Here, life does actually get more complicated. The technology is still developing and British technology is very much at the leading edge of safety – both environmentally and to humans. I discuss this aspect of exploration in this blog dated 5 December 2014.

Operating the system. During drilling the laterals and producing gas, it has been the common practice to use brine in quite large quantities and, historically in the USA, this has sometimes just been dumped in uncontrolled lagoons on the surface. That dumping is just not going to happen here. Again, new technology is helping to reduce the potential difficulties and I discuss some of these in this blog on various dates.

Conclusions. Anyone who says that shale gas is unqualified a bad thing, or unqualified a good thing, is either stupid or bigoted and probably both. Everything has a set of pluses as well as a set of minuses at one and the same time. The real question is one of a balanced, common sense view. The answers are never, never, black or white. Each one of us has a duty to make up our own mind, on the basis of facts and informed judgement (and we have a duty to demand facts) and tell our own MP what that view is. It is the job of the MP to discuss it in Parliament which will make a decision.