Saturday, 31 January 2015

Fracking - A Real and Present Danger

I have been concerned about fracking ever since talking to a geologist and a oil and gas finance specialist last year. They are both extremely knowledgeable and have been involved in many oil and gas deals around the world. However, they are thoughtfully opposed to almost all fracking in our small and crowded island.

OS Map of Stockbridge. Each division of the map is a square kilometre 
Then later in 2014 I attended a well-reasoned and unsensational talk in our town hall which drew attention to the environmental and health risks of the practice. But at that time I didn't know that the Stockbridge / Winchester area along the A3049 in fact lies above a layer of Kimmeridge Clay,  the kind that is a particularly valuable source of oil. And what is more, the map below shows the oil field in that area currently being drilled by iGAS Ltd.

The Department of Energy map of the area between Stockbridge and Winchester showing the four wells currently being worked for oil - but the whole area could fracked for gas or even improved oil flow.
The Danger

The area from Stockbridge to Winchester is an oolite field.  The oil field currently being worked as shown above has 80 million barrels STOIP (Stop Tank Oil in Place) but the recovery from primary means (ie. pumping) is low - only 12% of the oil in place.  Total recovery to date has been 8.5 mmbbls: remaining reserves 1.5.  There are only 22 wells in total, some twinned and some water injectors over an area of about 30 km2 (ie 22 wells over 7500 acres).

Fracking can improve the recovery as it opens up fractures in the oolithe (good porosity, but very low permeability) and gets the oil to flow easier.  Maybe another 5% or 4 mmbbls can be extracted in this way.

The oolite is overlain by Kimmeridgian Clay (which is really a shale) and is the richest source rock for oil as it has up to 20% of organic matter as the prime shale oil target. This could be what iGAS intends to frack, though as yet, no licence for fracking there has been granted or sought.

However, this article in the Guardian warns that Osborne has apparently written to his government colleagues urging them to fast-track fracking in their areas.

The current iGAS fields approved by Hampshire County Council and test valley are shown here 

What is the difference between a oil well and a fracking site? 

There is an enormous difference between a well drilled for oil and a well being fracked. Drilling for oil is comparatively easy on land and although some heavy equipment is used, it doesn't take long and afterwards the well-head is small and unobtrusive - usually it's left with just a quiet 'nodding donkey' to mark its presence. Oil will be taken away by pipeline laid under the fields to a tank where lorries can collect it easily, and there is little in the way of regular heavy traffic.

By contrast. a well being fracked is a hub of an enormous amount of activity, well described in the website Frac Focus which shows this photograph of a well being fracked in the US.

 The photo above shows the typical layout of a site that has been prepared for hydraulic fracturing.  The surface facilities and layout typically involve a number of pieces of mobile equipment including fracture fluid storage tanks, sand storage units, chemical trucks, blending equipment and pumping equipment.  All facets of the hydraulic fracturing job from the blending and pumping of the fracture fluids and proppants - solid material, usually sand, that is pumped into fractures to hold them open - to the way the rock formation responds to the fracturing, are managed from a single truck often referred to as the Data Monitoring Van. 
How many lorries a day do you think attend this one site?

Drilling for shale gas normally needs between 40 - 25 acre spacing of pads ie per km2 (250 acres) - 4 to 10 pads.  Each pad has 6 wells. Consequently this is what an area that has been drilled for shale gas looks like.


What can go wrong in the fracking process?

This paper summaries the risks as analysed by the EU and the UN Environment Programme here

A full listing of the dangers and disruption that can be caused by fracking appears here.
The major risks and hazards are:
Water Pollution
Air Contamination
Health hazards
Waste disposal
Blowouts, spills and explosions
Hugely increased transport and heavy transport requirements

The West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organisation website has some very clear photographs and diagrams detailing what can go wrong in the fracking process including the risks of ground-water pollution.

Is it really wise to use explosives and huge quantities of water and chemicals to fracture the rocks beneath our precious countryside to extract still more fossil fuel, particularly when the risk and the possible environmental degradation is so potentially severe?

One telling question is why don't the local oil major such as Shell and BP get involved with fracking?*
One reason must be that the companies involved with fracking are have little capital and still less public reputation to lose. iGas for instance has a market capitalisation of £89m and debt of £80m. If things go wrong, companies like this could walk away from the problem in a way that the majors could not.

This does not inspire confidence in a practice that governments such as Wales and Scotland are now putting the brakes on - but not England, where the government seems to be hell-bent on pressing ahead despite growing public disquiet.

This is how it works. Small companies do some exploration, if proof of gas or oil is found the small company sells out to a large multi-national and the CEO(s) of the small company retire on a white-sanded beach somewhere. Shale gas wells give most of their gas in a mere 3 years, so after that period the big company usually sells off wells to a smaller company that specialises in eeking out the last bits of gas. 
Then that company sells to another, smaller company that attempts to get the dregs. These companies don't have any financial resilience, so when they go under their wells are abandoned. This story has played out across the U.S for decades. Now the country is coated in leaking 'orphaned' wells that are poisoning the soil, water and environment with no-one either responsible or capable of plugging them fast enough to prevent this harm. 

All UK applications and licences: httpa//…/…/extreme-energy-fullscreen/
See all UK community groups here: httpa//…/frack-off.or…/local-group-specific-pages/
New UK fracking licensing threat
See also "An Objectors' Guide to Fracking' by Leigh, Day & Co
Traffic movements 

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