Fracking: Is It A Dirty Word?

It is surprising what difference a couple of years makes. At the 2009 World Gas Conference in Buenos Aires, one Tony Hayward announced: "There has been a revolution in the gas fields of North America. Reserve estimates are rising sharply as technology unlocks unconventional resources."

One oil catastrophe later, and Mr. Hayward is not where he would like to be, but the "unconventional resources" he was referring to definitely still are - billions of cubic metres of underground shale gas reserves.

Although shale gas has been extracted from the Appalachian Basin for the past century, and began in the United States above the Devonian Fredonia Shale formation in New York state in the 1820s, it is only since 2000 that production has become more globally widespread.

This is, in part, down to the fact that traditionally exploited gas reserves are more easily reached and production ready than drilling into shale formations, and with conventional reserves now dwindling in their volume, producers have begun to look seriously at the development potential of other sources.

The "revolution in the gas fields" that Mr. Hayward was referring to was the recent progress in hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" as it is commonly known, which enabled the oil and gas industry to effectively tap into and stimulate formations that would have otherwise been unprofitable, increasing the yield potential and recovery rate of shalecgas locked within them.

Rolling from 2009 into 2010 we saw headlines like "Energy crisis is postponed as new gas rescues the world", "Shale gas will change the world" and "Shale of the Century: Accessing World Gas Reserves." While trumpeting the coming of this new lower-carbon cure-all for the energy crisis, little was mentioned about its side-effects.

Fracking is a dirty business. The fluid that is pumped down into wells at high pressure to fracture rock and release natural gas contains sand, water and 54 additional chemicals that can be toxic to humans in large quantities: leaking and leaching of fracking fluid into water supplies, therefore, presents a serious environmental concern.

Add to the mix the fact that a recent New York Times article declared that of the 179 shale wells tapping into the Marcellus Formation in Pennsylvania, 116 exhibited harmful concentrations of radioactivity, and the revelation that the results of shale fracking activities in the UK will be "kept secret" until 2015, like the James Cagney film attests, angels might come with dirty faces.