I’ve just spent a couple of days in Mansfield. Mansfield Pennsylvania, USA, that is. Not Mansfield Nottinghamshire.
I was there with the European Energy Forum to look at shale gas. Mansfield is in the Marcellus shale field, one of the largest in the USA, and extensive extraction of shale gas is taking place across the State. As Energy Spokesman for UKIP, and an advocate of exploratory shale gas drilling in the UK, I thought it was important for me to go and see a major fracking site at first hand.
I’ve often argued that shale gas is much less visually intrusive than, say, wind farms. So I have to put my hand up and admit that the first site we saw was a substantial industrial-type site, about the size of a football pitch, and with a great deal of equipment — a drilling rig, pumping, piping and cabling kit, compressors, tanks, trucks and so on. But this was the first stage of development (after geological surveys, environmental assessments and so on). The actual drilling process lasts a few weeks, and then the bulk of the kit we saw at this site is moved on elsewhere.
The second site was the next phase — the drilling complete, but the process of fracking still taking place. The site was reduced to about half of what we’d seen earlier, and reinstatement of the other half had already commenced. A fair amount of equipment still remained, especially winding, cabling and pumping kit. The main work at this site included hydraulic fracturing and the injection of a water-sand mixture to maintain the fractures and allow gas to migrate through the rock.
At the third site, the area was substantially reduced again, most of the equipment gone, and relatively small well-head pipe-work remaining. Again, reinstatement of the surrounding land was well under way.
That third site would look much the same for the next twenty or thirty years, until the yield from the well had declined to an uneconomic level. At that stage the remaining equipment would be removed from the site, and the whole area reinstated to the status quo ante. A few such sites would also include compressor buildings (each serving several sites), which from across the valley could be mistaken for agricultural buildings.
All that I saw confirmed my view that in terms of landscape impact and visual intrusion, shale gas is much more acceptable than wind turbines. And a gas well produces a continuous flow of useful, controllable and competitively-priced energy, whereas a wind farm produces an intermittent and unpredictable trickle of very expensive electricity.
I was also able to clarify the position on the potential contamination of aquifers. There has never been any instance of direct leaking of gas from fracking (which may be a mile or more down) and aquifers, which are typically a few hundred feet deep. There has been at least one case (amongst ten thousand wells) of a gas leak from a cracked pipe into an aquifer. But this of course can happen with any drilling — with geo-thermal (beloved of the Greens); with oil drilling or coal mines; even with agricultural wells. And as both technology and regulation are improving at a rapid rate, the risks are now vanishingly small.
The impact on the landscape may be limited, but the economic impact on a town like Mansfield is immense. Once a relatively quiet backwater, the last few years have seen several new hotels built (we stayed in one), plus many new businesses, some directly supporting the industry (cabling, pipe-work and plant hire, for example), others supporting it indirectly — retail, hospitality and so on. We hear fears in the UK that shale gas may depress house prices. The effect has been the opposite in Pennsylvania. The shale gas industry has created jobs, brought new people into the area, and created more demand for property. In North Dakota, another shale gas state, I’m told that population had been in steady decline for seventy years until the shale gas revolution, but now that’s reversed as the industry brings in money and creates a demand for labour.
Scraping the barrel: in their increasingly desperate efforts to avoid the compelling logic of shale gas, objectors have come up with another desperate attempt at a scare: shale gas (they say) may contain the radioactive gas radon at up to 15 times the level of that in other natural gas (although Public Health England (PHE), which raised the issue, admits that even then, the level will be low compared to other natural sources of radon). The Telegraph’s report on PHE’s initial review was headlined “Watchdog gives fracking a clean bill of health”. In the US, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has rejected claims that radon in shale gas represents a danger. It’s worth noting in this context that for most domestic uses of gas, like central heating, gas fires and ovens, the combustion products are usually vented outside the house.
I’m very pleased to have had this opportunity to see the shale gas industry at first hand. And all that I saw was encouraging. I hope that my account of the shale gas industry in Pennsylvania will help to reassure those in the UK who may have been concerned about shale.