Joyce McMillan is right to be sceptical about the risks of shale gas extraction in Scotland (Perspective, 15 February).
However, in repeating the claimed benefits, she is unwittingly reinforcing the misinformation so energetically promulgated by the industry which stands to gain at the expense of the general public and our shared environment.
Shale gas is not cheap to extract. It is more expensive than most other fossil fuels, for two main reasons. First, a significant portion of the energy within the extracted gas is consumed by the extraction process. Second, fracking cannot sustain high flows of gas, so each well depletes very quickly. Many wells must thus be drilled, covering the countryside in a rash of sealed wells and access roads – a “fracked landscape”.
Objective estimates of shale gas carbon emissions place it at the same level or worse than brown coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. Methane leaks are hard to control when fracking, while much diesel must be burnt during the full extraction process.
Large numbers of jobs and “economic” benefits look doubtful. The shale gas industry in the United States is yet another bubble, intended to make a small number of people very rich at the expense of everyone else. Ultra-low gas prices are caused by a short-term glut in supply, due to very high levels of drilling. However, all shale extractors are operating at a loss. The companies are sustained by high stock prices based on claimed reserves, hence the drilling frenzy and sustained PR campaign to claim that it’s changing the world contrary to the freely available facts.
Shale operators in UK will only make money at the much higher prices of gas which we pay here (linked to the world price of oil), especially if properly regulated, so the idea that shale will somehow provide a sustained reduction in the price is a paradox.
It will extend our fossil fuel reserves by a few years, so that we can continue in our current patterns of usage for a short while longer, at ever increasing cost, before facing post-fossil fuel reality. And it will degrade our environment in ways that local communities, society at large and the natural world will pay for long after the extraction industry has made its profits and moved on.
Energy returns are declining. Sadly, this simple fact with its ineclutable consequences is largely ignored, as if by thinking of money as the master resource rather than energy we can transcend the laws of physics.
Shale gas is just another of the growing list of scams that characterise our age. It will do real long-term harm by polluting groundwater, scarring large tracts of the countryside and venting methane to the atmosphere. It will do nothing to increase “economic growth” because that depends on ever-greater surplus energy and shale gas has a low energy return on investment, which will quickly decline over time as the easiest reserves are depleted.
Scotland faces several viable options for long-term energy supply that will sustain us in this damp but beautiful fringe of Europe in relative comfort and balance with our environment. Shale gas extraction, with its toxic legacy, is not one of them.