Isla Aitken: Why fracking and UGE is a pointless exercise ultimately harming our planet

Environmental campaigner Isla Aitken lays out some of the detail around unconventional gas extraction and fracking

WHEN it comes to unconventional gas extraction, there is the inevitable spin from the frackers and their buddies. And there is perhaps an element of scaremongering from those who are vehemently opposed to the process.

But in between the two extremes, there are some incontestable truths from academics and scientists about the polluting aspects of unconventional gas extraction (UGE).

If you do your research, you can find these truths. Helen Redmond, a physician with the New South Wales chapter of Doctors for the Environment, cited rising complaints of rashes, nausea, headaches and nose bleeds among people living close to the Tara gas fields, in Queensland, Australia.

Who is behind the Scottish Government's fracking research?

The Australian Institute, a policy think tank, has warned against UGE: "... unconventional gas should not be endorsed from an environmental and human health perspective and ... the current case against further expansion of the industry is overwhelming."

The British Geological Survey says: "Evidence from the USA has shown very high methane concentrations in some aquifers in some areas where shales are being commercially exploited for gas. However, there is considerable uncertainty and argument over the source of methane and how it has entered aquifers."

In order to avoid any uncertainty in the UK, the British Geological Survey has conducted a baseline survey of UK groundwater, so that any future environmental changes can be noted and assessed. Which does mean that, although we'll have the figures to compare, we'll kind of be waiting to see the damage before we do anything about it.

In addition, these methane baseline levels have been measured at sites where there has already been coal mining, so we don't really know if current methane levels are natural or manmade.

It seems the government is initiating a dash for gas without understanding, or even wanting to understand, what the environmental impact could be. We are guinea pigs in a very scary experiment - an experiment the government denies, since apparently tough regulations in the UK means UGE will not have a negative impact on health and the environment in this country.

Rob Westaway, an energy engineer at the University of Glasgow, told The Independent newspaper: "One of the key difficulties faced by the incipient UK shale gas industry is that it will be required to operate to far higher environmental standards than currently prevail for shale gas projects in North America, as regards a whole host of environmental issues."

Note he says that these high environmental standards are a "difficulty" faced by fracking companies - and that's another subject to be approached another day: the smoke and mirrors of the UK's regulatory system and the cost cutting that will be necessary to hit said regulations.

So, let's look at the local impact of fracking, the possible outcome. I'm stressing possible, because we honestly don't know. Nobody knows.

It seems the government is initiating a dash for gas without understanding, or even wanting to understand, what the environmental impact could be.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change has said: "The only company which has hydraulically fractured for shale gas in the UK, Cuadrilla, published the chemicals which were approved for its operations: polyacrylamide friction reducers (0.075 per cent), commonly used in cosmetics and facial creams, suspended in a hydrocarbon carrier; hydrochloric acid (0.125 per cent), frequently found in swimming pools and used in developing drinking water wells; biocide (0.005 per cent), used on rare occasions when the water provided from the local supplier used in the hydraulic fracturing needs to be further purified."

These are common chemicals used in everyday household products. But if we scale those percentages up - 0.075 per cent, 0.125 per cent, 0.005 per cent - we're talking 6,000 litres, 10,000 litres, 400 litres, per frack, per well. Do you ingest litres of hydrochloric acid every day? Do you eat your face cream?

These chemicals are being pumped at high pressure into the ground. Professor David Smythe, former chair of geophysics at Glasgow University, told Scotland 2014 on BBC2: "... lots of geological faults extend all the way from the layers being fracked or drilled right up to the surface. So there are lots of vertical pre-existing fractures that cut up from the layers being treated, as it were, up to the surface of the earth. And these provide conduits for contaminated fluid and gas."

It is arrogant to believe that all the chemicals used in fracking will be captured from flowback. They will probably leak into aquifers and from there into groundwater, where they will be absorbed by crops, which will be consumed by us.

Oh, and of course, the Scotch whisky industry relies on the purity of Scottish aquifers, so god knows what your hangovers will be like if they become polluted.

But it isn't just the chemicals frackers pump into the ground we need to be concerned about. What about the natural materials already in the earth that will be disturbed by fracking activity?

The US Center for Environmental Health's Ansje Miller says: "In the flowback is not only what was pumped down [water and chemicals], but the stuff that was already in the earth, so that could include radioactive materials and arsenic.

So, let's look at the local impact of fracking, the possible outcome. I'm stressing possible, because we honestly don't know. Nobody knows.

"We wouldn't normally be exposed to these but because it's being pumped back up, through the fracking process, that leaves people vulnerable to that kind of exposure.

"Infants and children are particularly vulnerable for a number of reasons. They continue to face increased exposures, greater absorption due to a rapid metabolism, and reduced ability to detoxify many compounds, compared to adults.

"Studies have found that newborns exposed to arsenic in utero, because their mother drank contaminated water, have stress-related genes and oestrogen signature genes in their blood. This suggests that exposure in early periods can have detrimental health consequences down the road; so babies who may be exposed to [arsenic] while developing in their mother's womb [have] health effects [that] may not occur until they're adults."

Then there are the seismic tremors that have been associated with fracking. These are not a myth - tremors of magnitude 2.3 and 1.4 on the Richter scale were measured in Lancashire, near the fracking site operated by Cuadrilla.

Independent experts hired by Cuadrilla concluded: "It is highly probable that the fracking at Preese Hall-1 well triggered the recorded seismic events."

We asked Claudia Beamish MSP and Iain Gray MSP about any concerns they might have about seismic tremors occurring near Scotland's nuclear power plants, such as Torness in East Lothian (the area they represent), and they both admitted it was not an issue they had considered.

The government already knows about and draws attention to the risks of subsidence in relation to coal mining - you can get a check to find out if a property you want to buy is in a coal mining area and order a mining report, which will give information on issues such as subsidence claims and gas emissions.

But there seems to have been no consideration of the impact fracking's horizontal drilling may have on the homes situated in relatively close proximity to the areas that have been licensed to frack.

But it isn't just the chemicals frackers pump into the ground we need to be concerned about. What about the natural materials already in the earth that will be disturbed by fracking activity?

And what about the methane itself? What about the gas the frackers are after? Methane is the main component of natural gas. It is found in abundance below ground and under the sea floor. Burning methane produces less carbon dioxide for each unit of heat released, which means it is being touted as a 'clean' fuel.

However, not all methane leaked from fracking sites is burned. At a local level, methane poisoning symptoms include headaches, heart palpitations, memory loss, dizziness and decreased motor co-ordination. Remember what Australian doctor Helen Redmond said about the rise in complaints of nausea and headaches?

On a global level, the Environmental Protection Agency's Global Warming Potential (GWP) assesses the threat posed by greenhouse gases. GWP measures how much heat one molecule of a gas will trap, relative to a molecule of carbon dioxide. Methane has a GWP of 34 (until recently thought to be 21), which means it's 34 times more effective at preventing infrared radiation from escaping the planet.

Methane is a more dangerously powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Environmentalist Dan Miller, MD of the Roda Group, said: "There is a tremendous amount of stored methane frozen in ice under the ocean, under high pressure and frozen temperatures.

"If that ever goes, there's so much of that, it would release incredible amounts of methane into the atmosphere and we'd be gone pretty soon. Fortunately, most of it is still pretty deep, and it's still pretty cold, and the warming that is happening so far is at the surface, so this is not being disturbed.

"The one place that's an exception is in the Arctic Sea, which was covered in ice all the time and now it's not and it's warming up fairly rapidly there, and that's where they've been measuring this methane coming out - a lot."

US journalist Dahr Jamail said: "The Arctic sea ice is playing a critical role in keeping methane emissions from melting permafrost in check. As that ice continues to thin and retreat, exposing more and more of the shallow Arctic sea bed to warming waters and solar radiation, as well as continuing melting permafrost on the shores, intensification of methane release is ongoing and worsening ... 63 per cent of all human-generated carbon emissions have occurred in just the last 25 years.

"This really puts into perspective the folly of when we hear governments talking about a plan they might have for trying to reduce emissions by 30 per cent by 2050 - we simply do not have anywhere near that kind of time."

Peter Wadhams, professor of Ocean Physics and head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University, said: "I think we have passed the point of no return in polar ice cap melting. A few years ago I predicted that the summer sea ice would go to zero by about 2015.

Why would we add insult to injury and add to this mass of methane being released into the atmosphere by extracting it through fracking? And remember - fracking methane is not all captured.

"And once it goes to zero in the summer, it is irreversible because it means the next summer there'll be a longer ice-free period - instead of just one month there might be two or three months, because the water warms up during the summer months. If there's no ice there, it's absorbing solar radiation, the water's warming up ... the methane impact on global warming hasn't been taken account of in IPCC models.

"It's either going to hit us fast or it's going to hit us slowly - but it's going to hit us."

Why would we add insult to injury and add to this mass of methane being released into the atmosphere by extracting it through fracking? And remember - fracking methane is not all captured.

Professor Anthony Ingraffea, of Cornell University, said: "It is the policy of the Environmental Defence Fund [a US think tank], that natural gas can be a beneficial energy source if produced in a manner that is good for public health and the environment.

"[They say:] 'Natural gas is an important and growing part of our nation's energy portfolio. It emits less greenhouse gases than coal when combusted. Natural gas should be seen as the bridge fuel to a sustainable energy future.' But even if you do it right, it's still wrong.

"When you combust methane, you don't get greenhouse gases, you get a greenhouse gas - carbon dioxide. You get 40 per cent less carbon dioxide per unit of energy than you get when you burn coal, and about 30 per cent less than you do when you burn oil.

"But methane is purposefully vented and accidentally leaked, during drilling, during the frack flowback period, following hydraulic fracturing, continuously at the drill site by way of leaking wells and leaking equipment, during liquid unloading, during gas processing, and during storage, transmission and distribution.

"You can accept business as usual and try to get as much oil and gas out of shale, which is the last place to get it from, or you can believe the science of climate change. You can't have both. You can't do this and live."

So government thinks the best, short-term way to avoid a blackout, and keep getting voted in, is to keep digging, in a desperate bid to find more fuel. Elbows out, we want gas!

The IPCC has said: "Human influence on the climate system is clear and growing ... if left unchecked, climate change will increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.

"However, options are available to adapt to climate change, and implementing stringent mitigation activities can ensure that the impacts of climate change remain within manageable range."

Do we honestly think that fracking is one of those 'stringent mitigation activities'?

In the face of all this evidence, why would government be so happy to pursue such a destructive fuel? Because we - the voters and constituents - 'need' electricity. We want heat and energy. We want it now and all the time. But it's running out - oil and gas are finite, they're running out.

The traditional seams of fuel are running low, and in 10 or 20 years time there'll be a blackout. We'll have run out of juice.

So government thinks the best, short-term way to avoid a blackout, and keep getting voted in, is to keep digging, in a desperate bid to find more fuel. Elbows out, we want gas!

But it is going to run out. It all is. So there will be a blackout. So what will be the point of all this continual pollution, all this damage to our health and planet?

Picture courtesy of Casey Hugelfink