You know something funny is going on when it’s the green campaigners accusing the multinationals of being naive.
Chemicals giant Ineos says it plans to plough £640m in shale gas exploration, a move that could make the company the biggest player in the hugely controversial business of “fracking” for fossil fuels.
The investment has been seen as a vote of confidence in the UK’s shale extraction industry, which is still in its infancy despite being heavily backed by the current government.
But Simon Clydesdale from Greenpeace things the company is on a fool’s errand, saying: “Investment is essential to transform our energy system, but not giant speculative bets on unproven and risky resources. Ineos have jumped on a spin-powered bandwagon which is going nowhere.”
He added that Ineos appears to have based its fracking plans “on breathless PR brochures rather than scientific reports”.
There was a flurry of PR activity from Ineos today, including a video which claims to shoot down a number of myths and untruths apparently peddled by “fracktivists” over the years.
Let’s take a look at some of the claims made in the video.
Probably true but a bit of context is needed here. Our best estimate for how much shale gas is lying deep under the UK countryside comes from the British Geological Survey (BGS).
The BGS hasn’t looked at the whole of the country yet, only three areas in southern and northern England and central Scotland.
But what it has found so far has excited the government and the energy industry.
The geologists say there are about 1,400 trillion cubic feet of shale gas under the ground across the UK, as well as about 10 billion barrels of shale oil. Britain uses about 3 trillion cubic feet of gas a year.
That doesn’t necessarily mean we will be able to get gas and oil out of it easily or profitably. But drillers point out that even if they only ever extract 10 per cent of all that gas, that would meet the UK’s energy needs for perhaps the next 50 years.
Actual drilling has been so limited so far that we have no idea whether that any of these theoretical numbers are realistic, but Ineos is evidently convinced that it’s worth a punt.
Probably right, depending on how you measure it.
There’s no dispute that burning natural gas doesn’t produce the toxins that come from coal like sulphur and ash. And gas generates more energy than coal with a smaller carbon footprint.
But researchers try to look at the overall environmental “life-cycle” impact of shale gas production, including the emissions generated as you drill and frack for the gas and then transport it. This is where the disagreement starts.
This Cornell University study got a huge amount of press attention when it suggested that shale gas production had a bigger greenhouse gas footprint than coal.
But the study was attacked by academics from the same university, who concluded: “Using more reasonable leakage rates and bases of comparison, shale gas has a GHG footprint that is half and perhaps a third that of coal.”
And that paper chimed with the findings of another study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon university, which said greenhouse gas emissions from US shale were 20 to 50 per cent lower than coal for the production of electricity.
Campaigners say there are a number of risks to human health and the environments. The risk of earthquakes and the contamination of drinking water are probably the two biggest issues.
There is little doubt that fracking can cause earthquakes. The BGS has confirmed that quakes felt near Blackpool in April and May 2011 “were a direct consequence of the fluid injection during fracking” carried out by Cuadrilla.
But context is important. The biggest seismic event measured 2.3 on the Richter scale: “Felt slightly by some people. No damage to buildings.” That’s well within the normal range for the UK and less than quakes associated with mining and other activities.
A Durham university study found that – while it undoubtedly does cause the ground to move sometimes – “hydraulic fracturing has been, to date, a relatively benign mechanism”.
What about the potential for contamination of drinking water – either by the methane gas released by fracking or the chemicals in the water used to break up the shale rock?
Geologists appear to agree that it’s unlikely that gas or chemical residue from shale fractured kilometres below the surface will naturally seep up into natural reservoirs of drinking water.
The biggest risk – according to a survey of evidence collected by Bristol academic James Verdon – appears to be from poorly-constructed wells, which allow the fracking fluid to leak out while it’s being sucked back up to the surface.
Most big incidents, either water contamination underground or surface chemical spills, can be attributed to faulty equipment, poor working practices and other failures.
It’s difficult to know what to take from this. On the one hand, there clearly evidence that spills and contamination do happen – though rarely.
On the other hand, you might conclude that there is nothing inherently dangerous about fracking and if we tightened up on regulations we could eliminate most of the risk.
No outright lies here, but a huge amount of uncertainty.
It’s absolutely clear that fracking can cause earthquakes and has the potential to contaminate water – if done badly.
But it’s important to put the risk in context and recognise that other forms of energy production have their own safety issues and environmental impact.
The prize is absolutely clear – we have seen in the US that the development of a potentially vast amount of domestic fossil fuel can have a game-changing effect on a country’s economy, with wider implications for the international balance of power.
For environmentalists, the stakes are equally high: continued reliance on hydrocarbons at a time when we should be investing in truly green energy sources.
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