Fracking and Underground Coal Gasification in South Wales

What is Fracking?

Fracking (or Hydraulic Fracturing) is used to describe the process of extracting 'unconventional gas' from within deep underground rocks.  Trapped within hard to reach shale rock or coal beds is the greenhouse gas, methane.  

The fracking technique is used extensively in Canada and the US and has been labelled controversial due to environmental and safety concerns. Despite this, the perpetual drive to source cheap energy and the failing global economy has put pressure on the government to exploit natural resources in an effort to rebuild local industries.  

In Autumn 2012 the UK Chancellor, George Osborne, announced that the government plans to offer the unconventional gas industry huge tax incentives and will create a single Office for Unconventional Gas to regulate safety concerns.  It is predicted that at least 30 gas power plants by 2030 in a desperate 'dash for gas'.

Currently the UK imports more gas than it can produce itself, from Norway, Qatar, continental Europe, Algeria and Nigeria.  Wales, however, still sits on huge reserves of coal left behind from the geological action of the Carboniferous period 350 million years ago.

Fracking method

Deep wells are drilled to reach the shale rock or coal bed, where the well bore is then redirected horizontally along the layer of shale or the coal seam.  A mixture of water and chemical lubricants are then injected at pressure levels high enough to fracture the rock or coal and release the gas.  Sand is also pumped into the well bore to keep the rock fractures open when the water is taken back up the well.

Risks and Concerns

The Environment Agency claim the chemicals in the water only make up 1% of the total fluid volume, however the critically acclaimed docu-exposé film by Josh Fox called 'Gasland', claims that between 80-300 tons of chemicals may be used for each frack.

There are concerns since these undisclosed chemicals have been identified by scientists in the US to be known carcinogens (cancer-causing) and teratogens (foetal damage-causing): benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. Environmentalists argue that these chemicals could leach into the water table and the population's drinking water.

Two minor earthquakes near Blackpool in 2011 prompted an investigation into the cause, which concluded the drilling into rock by a shale gas company was "highly probably" responsible for the tremors.  However, the  government review has concluded that fracking is safe if adequately monitored and regulated.

Other concerns regard the impact to tourism, house prices and the aethetics of the landscape.

"The countryside is a living organism, a vital and irreplaceable natural gift, not a resource to be turned into money. No one has the right to destroy its ecologically diverse character. To do so would be to the detriment of the community at large." - Mr Keith M Ross, Swansea Green Party.

A large area of north Swansea, between Pontarddulais and Clydach is currently earmarked for test drilling by a Scottish company named Composite Energy.  Meanwhile, councillors in the Vale of Glamorgan unanimously rejected a similar application to test drill for shale gas, after receiving a letter from Welsh Water that agreed that there was a small risk of contamination of reserve groundwater sites that could increase "due to unforeseen geological features being met".

What is Underground Coal Gasification?

Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) is a similar process to fracking, in that it exploits natural carbon-based resources from deep within the ground; however in this instance the gas is released by igniting the coal bed and extracting the resultant gases.

Underground Coal Gasification process

Author: Bretwood Higman, Ground Truth Trekking.
This diagram is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Swansea Bay

Clean Coal Ltd is trying to locate off shore coal reserves and has five licences around the coast of Britain, including Swansea Bay. It is estimated that up to 1bn tonnes of coal could lie beneath Swansea Bay.

Risks and Concerns

UCG has never been tested offshore or near shore (under the sea) and has also caused controversy in Australia where the process contaminated the groundwater with toxic hydro-carbon Benzene, which was subsequently detected in the fat of grazing animals.  

The concerns of this process being situated in Swansea Bay are the potential pollution of the bay and rest of the Bristol Channel, including the fish and other sea creatures that the local fishing and cockle industries rely upon.

Tourism and the housing market could also be negatively affected, with an unsightly industrialised coastline, to join the current blight of neighbouring Port Talbot's Tata steelworks.

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