Shale gas: hot or not?
September 4, 2013
Last weeks there was a lot of news coverage about shale gas. In the Netherlands (especially in Boxtel where shale gas exploration is planned) and the UK, many people gathered together to protest against shale gas exploitation because of the negative effects on the water and soil quality as well as possible earthquakes and decreasing housing prices in the surroundings. Others (e.g. politicians) argue in favour of it since we are running out of natural gas and we need a substitute for it. Is shale gas indeed so dangerous, or are there also positive aspects of it? In other words: is it hot, or not?
Shale gas: an introduction
So, let us first explore what the exploitation of shale gas entails.
First, exploration takes place. Shale gas can be found between rock layers. After exploration it takes, at least in the Netherlands, another month or two before the legal (environmental) documents are in place for placing drilling towers. In the Netherlands, at least five demands have to be fulfilled in relation to drilling technique, calamities plan, waste-water treatment, risks of earthquakes, and monitoring of groundwater.
When actual drilling can take place, first, a 30 meter high drilling tower is build to place tubes with different diameters in the ground and to fill it with cement. Thereafter, one drills vertically until the desired depth is reached. Then, one drills horizontally in the shale parts of the rocks. If the drilling hole has the right length, a steel pipe with perforations is pushed into the end. With explosives one makes holes in the concrete lining of the pipe and the surrounding rock. Under high pressure, a substance of water, sand and chemicals is pushed through the holes. This creates cracks in the rock which are held open due to the sand. After the water is being captured, the gas can come to the surface. This practice with chemicals is called ‘fracking’.
The most critique is related to ‘fracking’: it would contribute to a leakage of chemicals in the groundwater. Indeed, in the USA, there are examples of people opening a tap and a flammable gas comes out of it. You could even put a lighter at it and it would burst out into flames! Imagine drinking that! In addition, there are examples in the USA with fracking causing light radioactive material of the ground as well as that the wastewater emits methane, a strong greenhouse gas. In addition, many times in the North of the Netherlands, earthquakes are now happening due to drilling for natural gas. So the fear is that such earthquakes would also happen when drilling for shale gas. All this, together with the pollution of the horizon due to the towers, contributes to the fear that drilling for shale gas would not only decrease the values of surrounding houses, but also the quality of life in general. As such, many people in the UK and the Netherlands protest against shale gas exploitation.
A positive argument in favour of shale gas could be that it is a gas, meaning, low carbon emissions, at least lower than oil. As such, it can be an alternative energy source and good for mitigating the greenhouse gas effect. In addition, a report committee which investigated the risks related to shale gas exploitation, argues that the risks of contaminated wastewater are negligible because the shale gas layers would be deeper than the water layers. The holes in the rocks would not be long enough, the fracking substance would be too heavy to come to the surface and there is some kind of closing rock layer above the shale gas. The radioactive aspect could also happen in the Netherlands, but that would be totally in line with the norm. If it is higher, it would have to be drained in a controlled manner. As for the contaminated water, in the Netherlands, a closed system should be put in place whereby the contaminated water is being collected in basins. As for the earthquakes, the risks are, according to the researchers in the Netherlands, that they can happen ‘only’ up to a maximum 3 on the scale of Richter. The minister of Economic Affairs in the Netherlands, Kamp, argues in favour of shale gas due to the importance for the country: the Netherlands is running out of gas, and if not using shale gas, the country could change from a gas producing country to a gas importing country, and therefore changing its economy from selling to spending/buying. As such, the minister argues that it is in the ‘national interest’ to go forward with shale gas exploitation.
All in all, taking in consideration the environmental risks (water pollution, methane emissions, radioactivity and earthquakes), the fact that the research in the Netherlands is done on a qualitative way rather than also a quantitative way, and the aspect that their conclusions are that the risks are small, but it is not mentioned how much smaller, and the bad practices in the USA, would automatically lead to the conclusion that shale gas is not a safe road to go. In other words, I would strongly argue against shale gas exploitation. What about the national interest to take care for a social and environmental safe surrounding?! What about the national interest of sustainable development?! Indeed, we should focus on real renewable energy (wind, solar, geothermal, tidal) and invest and stimulate thát market, rather than just opening up another possible box of Pandora!
 Sources of ‘Shale gas: an introduction’, ‘Critique’ and ‘In favour’: NRC Handelsblad, Friday, August 23, 2013; Volkskrant, Tuesday, August 27, 2013; Wikipedia, 2013.