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Fracking is just the beginning: the rise of extreme energy

New extraction methods show the fossil fuel industry in confident mood. They are a new frontline in the fight against climate change, writes Charlotte Wilson
August 2013

A few years ago, in the run up to the climate negotiations at Copenhagen, the fossil fuel industry seemed on the defensive, with pressure to cut carbon emissions mounting. With energy prices rising and doubts being raised about the industry’s ability to increase oil production, it seemed like a dinosaur struggling to survive. Today that same industry is on the offensive and, far from facing constraints, is actively driving a massive expansion of fossil fuel extraction into new areas of the globe.

There is no better barometer for this sea change than ExxonMobil, the largest privately-owned oil company in the world. In 2008 Exxon was aggressively funding climate change denial and intensively lobbying against potential constraints on its business. Fast forward to last summer, in the wake of the farcical Rio+20 conference, when Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson was giving a talk to the Council on Foreign Relations, in which he not only acknowledged climate change but embraced it as an ‘engineering problem’ and a business opportunity.

With oil prices still sky high and the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration surpassing 400 parts per million for the first time in human history this year, the facts on the ground remain grim. What has altered radically is the level of spin deployed to counter this reality, as even the pretence of action has all but evaporated. Now the focus is on the appearance of plans for action, principally through the promise of techno-fixes, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) or geo-engineering, in the far future.

Behind all this smoke and mirrors, there is a real world not amenable to such trickery. On one side increasingly extreme weather hints at what climate change has to offer, while on the other rising energy costs mark the ongoing depletion of fossil fuels.

But fossil fuels are not like a petrol tank of a fixed size, which we are burning up and will eventually simply run out. Tar sands, Arctic drilling and fracking demonstrate that as easy-to-extract resources are depleted there is always some more difficult-to-extract resource to take their place, if you are desperate enough. These harder-to-extract fossil fuels come with additional costs beyond their carbon emissions, however.

Extraction effort is almost always strongly correlated with environment destruction. This is well understood for the devastation wreaked, for example, on the boreal forests of Alberta by tar sands extraction, but is true of most energy extraction. Whether it is the shift to opencast mining as coal has become less readily available, or the push out into deeper water for oil, the result has been mounting pressure on the environment. Ever larger areas of the globe must be trashed for continuously diminishing returns.

The social impacts of these more extreme methods are equally troubling. More effort going into energy extraction means more labour and resources consumed. In the past decade the size of the energy sector has more than doubled, from under five per cent to more than 10 per cent of the world economy. Complex market and political mechanisms have obscured the truth behind the headlines: as the energy sector grows the rest of the economy must be squeezed, and those with the least political power are the first to suffer.

Shift to the extreme

The shift towards ever more extreme methods, as easier-to-get resources are exhausted, merits careful consideration. Where will it end? When the energy used in extraction exceeds that produced, at what point do you no longer have an energy source? In reality, severe problems arise long before that point is reached. Imagine a world in which the main energy source requires half the energy produced to run the extraction process. Not only will half of the whole economy be devoted to energy extraction but the level of environmental destruction will be terrifying.

The UK is fairly typical in that, at present, the major new threat is unconventional gas and oil (colloquially known as fracking): shale gas, tight (shale) oil, coal bed methane (CBM) and underground coal gasification (UCG). These methods are highly synergistic, requiring the same large fleets of advanced drilling rigs to be constructed. The common features include dense drilling of horizontal wells, some sort of intense stimulation (hydraulic fracturing or dewatering) and relatively small quantities of energy produced from each well, for only short periods of time.

Underground coal gasification, the most extreme method we face at present, involves setting fire to coal seams underground and bringing the toxic cocktail produced to the surface. The UK is ground zero with 21 UCG licences already sold, just off the coast, including next to major cities such as Swansea, Liverpool and Edinburgh. Unprecedentedly, the newest licence for sale is onshore, in the middle of the Warwickshire countryside, near Leamington Spa. One company, Five-Quarter Energy, plans to start drilling on the coast of Northumberland this summer.


The scale of all this is rarely appreciated. The most fundamental property of unconventional gas (and oil) is its distributed nature. Any one well will produce little gas and only for a short time. It requires thousands of wells to be constantly drilled, coating the landscape in well pads, to produce even moderate amounts of energy. The largest onshore conventional gas field in the UK was Saltfleetby in Lincolnshire, which had eight wells, but to produce the same amount of unconventional gas hundreds of wells would be needed.

Major impacts of fracking include leaking methane, toxic and radioactive water pollution and waste, severe air pollution, wholesale industrialisation of the countryside and accelerating climate change. However, the public discourse in the UK has largely revolved around one non-issue: whether fracking-induced earthquakes could cause surface damage. In the US the straw man is whether there is a provable link between water contamination and the specific step of hydraulic fracturing, regardless of the strong link to shale gas extraction as a whole.

This spin has effectively diverted attention from the massive issue of the cumulative impact on our society and environment. Even the academic system must be corrupted to serve the industry, with pro-fracking academic studies being published that have turned out to be covertly funded by the industry itself.

The fight heats up

Meanwhile, the fight against extreme energy is heating up. The rural village of Balcombe is next in the firing line, as Cuadrilla Resources looks to extend its reach from shale gas in Lancashire to include shale oil in Sussex. Threatened communities are getting organised to resist, following the lead of communities in Australia, which have had considerable success in halting the industry’s advance. While the forces arrayed against them are formidable, these efforts embody Dr James Hansen’s recent call to leave unconventionals in the ground.

While the impacts in rich countries may seem bad, they pale in comparison to what people in the global South face, who cannot afford to drink bottled water and are less insulated from the environmental consequences. The recent announcement that Essar Oil has obtained permission to drill 650 CBM wells in West Bengal, to the north of Kolkata, is just the tip of a looming iceberg. The area has close to the highest population density in India, similar to nearby Bangladesh, and is already highly water stressed.

Exxon’s CEO was recently quoted as saying, ‘What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?’, as if the future of humanity could be separated from the ecosystems on which we depend. In this looking-glass world, Exxon is the people’s saviour, finding us creative new ways to maintain unsustainable levels of energy consumption. In the real world, it is becoming increasingly clear that the future of humanity and the planet depends on keeping fossil fuels in the ground – which will require a complete transformation of the economic and social systems that are driving extreme energy extraction.

More on the UK’s extreme energy action network, Frack Off, at www.frack-off.org.uk


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Steve Leary 11 August 2013, 03.43

The article mentions opencast mining. The Loose Anti Opencast Network (LAON) has been campaigning against new potential opencast mines across the UK since 2009. According to the Coal Authority, in 2012 34 opencast coal mines across England Scotland and Wales produced over 10m tonnes of coal. LAON is monitoring proposals to develop a further 13 sites in England, 14 in Scotland and 7 in Wales, and supports over 20 local groups in developing their objections to such destructive and intrusive planning proposals.

In the UK this is a highly speculative industry which can leave in its wake severe environmental damage. We are witness to this now, with two major opencast coal operations going bankrupt is Scotland, leaving behind at least 15 scares in the landscape where large coal sites have yet to be restored. For one local authority area alone, East Ayrshire, the expected cost of the clean up to the local taxpayers is expected to be £74m.

This is already the price we are paying in the UK to exploit these more extreme forms of energy.to find out if their is a local campaign group near you contact LAON in infoatlaon@yahoo.com

To find out more about LAON just google The Loose Anti Opencast Network or follow Seftonchase on Twitter.

Steve Leary, Co-Ordinator, The Loose Anti Opencast Network

skintnick 11 August 2013, 14.29

Lots of important issues mentioned here including Net Energy (EROEI) – touched upon “When the energy used in extraction exceeds that produced, at what point do you no longer have an energy source?” – whereby all the low-hanging fruit has gone and it becomes increasingly less profitable to produce energy, both in physical and economic terms.

Another key factor absent from most anti-fracking analyses is the sheer unprofitability of this venture. Sure it is possible for a few market pioneers to squeeze some profit out of the better fields, but the degree of hype demonstrated by media and politicians would have you believe this was the silver bullet to our energy crisis. Richard Heinberg (http://www.postcarbon.org/person/36200-richard-heinberg) and Arthur Berman (http://petroleumtruthreport.blogspot.co.uk) are a couple of analysts who have dug beneath the veneer to produce scathing verdicts on the true costs and benefits of unconventional energy.

jon parker 11 August 2013, 22.27

skintnick: – couldn’t agree more with some of your comments here, esp. your view on the unprofitability of the whole shale gas extraction scenario. One of biggest carrots being dangled in front of UK public is idea that fracking will immediately lead to significantly reduced energy bills. I beg to differ! Just as an exercise, I did a few calculations myself today to try to work out just how much our energy bills would reduce if this were true. I recently came across a comment in one of the largely pro-fracking bits of govt propaganda which stated that, in the US,fracking had provided a min 40% reduction in consumer energy bills. This is result of (roughly,& this is a highly conservative estimate) 40,000 fracking wells in operation. In UK, even with full scale development of fracking industry, we are looking at a likely maximum of a few thousand wells – which will obviously result in considerably less energy being produced and, consequently, a much lower reduction in energy bills – perhaps down to as little as 5-10%. What would a 10% reduction in our annual energy bill look like? – the average annual energy bill has been quoted in the range of £1,300 -£1,500 pa. With a 10% reduction this could mean, in some cases, a saving of just £150 on our annual bill. And for this we are supposed to endure the progressive industrialisation of our rural landscape, hundreds of heavy goods lorries tearing through narrow country lanes, the resulting pollution and possible contamination of our water supplies? This is the reality of the so called economic ‘bonanza’ which fracking will bring us. It really is the biggest con ever to have been inflicted on the UK public in recent times.

Theresa 26 August 2013, 10.04

Please could readers consider signing the following petition:


Why you should consider signing?

The proposed deal is being closely followed by public interest groups concerned that the deal will open the floodgate to GMOs and shale gas (fracking) into Europe, threatens digital and labour rights and will empower corporations to legally challenge a wide range of regulations which they dislike. With all this and more at stake, Corporate Europe Observatory wanted to find out who sat on the group which recommended negotiations. Under EU access to information rules, on 4 March 2013, we requested the “full membership list of the High Level Working Group on Jobs and Growth”. In fact, we had to make numerous requests……..

Thank you :-)

Sean 29 August 2013, 19.19

In the USA we haven’t seen any good come from extreme energy ventures. The claims that fracking has reduced energy bills simply isn’t true – in fact, they are higher now than they have ever been. Pressure from pro-fossil fuel groups teaming with anti-nuclear groups has forced nuclear plants to close. While nuclear does have its pitfalls, it is a lot closer to the hypothetical “transitional” clean energy Obama speaks of when he pushes fracking on us.

One thing people forget when they tout the benefits of “extreme energy” is that nuclear energy is much cheaper (and emissions-free) per MW·h than fossil fuel power and always will be. The waste issue is the most undesirable facet but that’s a small hit to take compared to the permanent damage extreme energy ventures are causing. Maybe it’s time the nuclear industry starts running ads like the oil companies do, it’s sickening to see these and know there are so many gullible Americans who buy into the garbage they are peddling. As Germany flies ahead of the world in renewable energy production, I can only hope private ventures in the US renewable industry will eventually be able to turn a profit – the only thing that seems to matter in this money-hungry country.

Comments are now closed on this article.

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