(Repeats AUG 27 column, no change to text)
By John Kemp
LONDON Aug 27 Should oil and gas producers be
allowed to hydraulically fracture wells even if there is a small
but hard-to-quantify risk to the environment, property and human
That is the question politicians, environmentalists, local
residents and the media are all grappling with across large
parts of the United States, Britain and other countries.
For some environmental campaigners and local residents, the
answer is No. Fracking should not be allowed unless and until it
can be shown to pose no threat to the environment and human
Citing the precautionary principle, they oppose a technique
that could contaminate groundwater, trigger earth tremors, and
release methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere,
as well as disrupt local communities with construction traffic
and industrialise the rural landscape.
For their part, oil and gas producers insist all energy
production is associated with some level of risk but fracturing
has a good safety record and fears about it are exaggerated.
Who is right? How should politicians, regulators, the media
and voters weigh up the costs and benefits associated with
fracking for oil and gas production?
Should they even try to do this calculation, or should
fracking simply be banned as unacceptably dangerous?
Unfortunately, it is hard to come to an informed and
sensible conclusion. The debate over fracking seems to have
brought out the worst impulses in politicians, lobbyists,
campaign groups and journalists. It has become oversimplified
and polarised - fuelling controversy rather than dispelling
confusion among readers and voters.
Some commentators have blamed politicians for not doing
enough to educate voters about the realistic benefits and
potential pitfalls associated with this particular technique of
petroleum production. In truth, though, attempts to hold a
sensible discussion have been drowned out by the vociferous
intransigence of the ultras on both sides.
Nearly all the most interesting debates in economics and
politics boil down to differences in attitudes toward risk and
uncertainty. Global warming, portfolio investment, foreign
policy, energy strategy; all boil down to questions about the
risks and benefits associated with different courses of action,
including the risk of doing nothing at all.
In most cases, voters, investors and policymakers have to
make decisions with incomplete information and amid considerable
uncertainty about the probability and consequences of various
outcomes, dealing with famous economist Frank Knight's concept
of "uncertainty" as well as more conventional measures of
Decision-making in this context is far from rational. It was
one of the central insights behind the work of John Maynard
Keynes in the 1930s, with his focus on the "animal spirits" of
investors, and has recently been studied more formally by
behavioural economists in the laboratory.
When commentators call for a more "rational" debate about
fracking, or suggest the debate could be settled by collecting
more evidence and doing more studies, they misunderstand how
policy preferences are formed and policy choices are made.
Fracking is risky. Somewhere fracturing operations will
contaminate someone's groundwater. Somewhere they will release
methane, which is more than 20 times more potent as a greenhouse
gas, into the atmosphere. And somewhere they will spark earth
tremors big enough to cause damage to buildings and possibly
Supporters of fracking tend to point to a lack of evidence
that fracking has done any of these things so far to claim the
technique is safe. But absence of evidence is not evidence of
Sometime, somewhere all of these bad things will befall
someone. However, the fact that the risk is non-zero should not
lead to a ban. Society accepts all sorts of non-zero risks all
the time for the sake of nothing more than convenience.
Take earthquakes. It has been well-known for decades that
large-scale extraction or injection of water into underground
rock formations to fracture the rock and dispose of waste fluids
can induce small-scale seismic tremors. The most famous case of
induced-seismicity dates back to the 1960s near Denver,
Like wastewater disposal, mining and hydroelectric power
dams, fracking causes earthquakes and subsidence.
The science is well understood. The magnitude of the tremor
depends, among things, on the area of rock ruptured and how far
it slips. Tremors tend to be proportional to the volume of fluid
injected or withdrawn. Massive fracks are associated with higher
earthquake risk than smaller ones. Fracking close to an existing
fault line, sometimes unknown, significantly increases the risk.
The science and associated risks were carefully reviewed by
the U.S. National Research Council, the operational agency of
the National Academy of Sciences, in a 262-page report on
"Induced Seismicity and Energy Technologies" published earlier
this year. In Britain, the government commissioned its own
expert report into how fracking caused tremors in Lancashire in
However, as the experts demonstrated, geothermal energy,
conventional oil and gas production, mining and hydroelectric
dams are all associated with higher levels of risk and bigger
tremors than fracturing.
In future, carbon capture and storage programmes will pose
substantially greater seismic risks because the volumes of
liquid carbon dioxide injected deep underground will be much
larger than the volume of water currently used in fracking
ENERGY IS DANGEROUS
Risks involved in energy production are very real. In the
last six years, operators of The Geysers, a geothermal power
plant in northern California, which can produce over 2,000
megawatts of power from 420 thermal injection wells, paid out a
total of $81,000 to local homeowners.
In 1997/98, nearly 1,600 seismic tremors measuring more than
magnitude 0.6 were recorded nearby. Even today "minor damage is
occasionally caused by induced seismicity at The Geysers,
generally as cracks to windows, drywalls or tile walls or
flooring in these communities," according to the National
Tremors associated with hydraulic fracturing have mostly
been very small, typically less than magnitude 2.0, which is
about the limit at which they can be felt by residents. The very
small number of tremors larger than this, at magnitude 3.0 or
even 4.0, are not typical.
Mining operations also cause tremors, and can carry on
producing subsidence long after mines have been closed.
Britain's Coal Authority, an agency in the Department of Energy
and Climate Change, received 470 compensation claims for
subsidence caused by mostly disused workings and spent 9 million
pounds in 2012/13.
Subsidence poses lethal risks. Several sink holes have
recently appeared in the United States. In Britain, a
catastrophic shaft collapse under the rear extensions of two row
houses in the village of Fence Houses in northeast England in
2011 revealed a 90 metre-deep shaft. Both properties had to be
evacuated and demolished.
In October 2010, the sudden appearance of an unknown mine
shaft led to the evacuation of four row houses in Glasgow,
Scotland. The Coal Authority's annual reports document dozens of
similar cases over the years.
However, risk is not confined to energy production. In 2012,
nearly 4,400 Americans were killed at work, 40 percent of them
in vehicle accidents. Driving a truck was particularly
dangerous, killing 456 employees. Farming and logging were also
highly risky professions.
Both at work and on their own time, more than 32,000
Americans were killed on the nation's roads in 2011. Aviation
killed 485 and the railways killed another 570.
A SENSE OF PROPORTION
Should geothermal energy production, cars, trains and
planes, as well as carbon capture and storage all be banned? It
would be hard to find a serious politician, campaigner or voter
who would support these propositions. Yet they all likely pose
greater risks than hydraulic fracturing.
Fracking is inherently dangerous. But drillers and pressure
pumping staff are at even greater risk than the public from
overpressured reservoirs, blowouts and regular industrial
Fracking is on hold in France and some U.S. states including
New York. But a better response is to regulate the industry
carefully, restrict large-scale fracturing, and limit it
prospectively and retrospectively in areas with heavy faulting,
insisting on strict safety standards, which is exactly what
regulators across the United States, Britain and elsewhere have
done in response to the emerging risks.
Few environmentalists and politicians have called for a ban
on geothermal, hydropower or the development of carbon capture
and storage. These are all seen as "good" forms of energy.
Calls for a moratorium on fracking until the risks have been
studied more, or an outright ban, reveal more about the
anti-frackers' attitudes towards different types of energy than
they do about the risks inherent in them.
(Editing by Jason Neely)