In the interest of promoting an informed debate on unconventional gas exploration and development in Somerset here are some local resources, including new maps which are based entirely on open information from the UK Government. Hopefully these resources will help to inform the local political discourse in the lead up to the election.
The first map shows all of BANES and the area identified as prospective by US coalbed methane specialists GeoMet Inc. Note that their assessment of coalbed methane resources didn’t cover all of BANES and information is missing to the south of the City of Bath. As a World Heritage Site the City of Bath is now off-limits to gas exploration. Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are also off-limits, although drilling underneath them from outside may not be. The Mendip AONB is shown on the map. Fracking has also been excluded from groundwater protection zones, although the government hasn’t yet decided which ones. The maps shows protection zones 1 and 2 which relate to areas where surface pollution could enter aquifers within 50 days and 400 days respectively. Lastly the map illustrates a hypothetical grid of gas wells within the prospective area, according to GeoMet’s specification of one well every 32 ha or 566m, which matches the government’s Planning Practice Guidance on CBM Well Spacing. GeoMet propose drilling at depths between 152m and 1524m which also pretty much matches the government’s Planning Practice Guidance on CBM Drilling Depth. When questioned about the minimum drilling depth the current licence holder, UK Methane, obfuscated. The Infrastructure Act 2015 doesn’t seem to cover CBM so the 1,000m trespass threshold in the Act doesn’t apply – the coal seams can already be accessed by virtue of the Coal Industry Act 1994. Currently only PELD 227 is extant and is held by UK Methane and Eden Energy. The rest of BANES is up for grabs again by the gas companies in the 14th on-shore Licensing Round. DECC will not tell us where companies have expressed an interest in despite a Freedom of Information request and appeal.
BANES GeoMet Coalbed Methane Prospective Area and Groundwater Protection Zones
Click on the map to open a detailed A3 PDF file. The next map shows the detail of PEDL-227 held by UK Methane. This map includes the CBM prospective area, as identified by GeoMet Inc, the groundwater protection zones, the grid of hypothetical wells and entrances of old mine workings. Note the avoidance of mine workings by GeoMet.
PEDL 227 GeoMet CBM Prospective Area and Groundwater Protection Zones
Click on the map to open a detailed A3 PDF file. The last map also shows PEDL-227 and the CBM prospective area but this time in relation to the surface water catchments which include a portion of the Chew Valley, the Cam Brook Valley, the Somer and Well Brook Valley and the Mells Brook Valley.
PEDL 227 GeoMet CBM Prospective Area and Surface Water Catchments
Faced with wide-ranging criticism of mining practices and lack of transparency, the CSG industry has launched a campaign to convince the general public, and policy makers, that it’s in Australia’s national interest to allow an expansion of CSG. They have concentrated their efforts on three ideas: that an expansion of CSG will create a large number of jobs; that without a big increase in CSG extraction, gas prices will rise dramatically; and that an expansion of CSG will reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.
But according to our new report – Fracking the Future, published today – those claims are often exaggerated, and are sometimes based on outright falsehoods.
Myth 1: The gas industry is a big employer
“We all realise natural gas projects would benefit the entire nation, increase our GDP by an estimated 1.5% and directly and indirectly create 150,000 new jobs – this is in addition to the 100,000 jobs created by our gas industry last year alone.” – Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA) deputy chief executive Noel Mullen.
The reality is that the CSG industry is currently so small that the Australian Bureau of Statistics does not publish separate employment figures for just CSG or for the gas industry as a whole. Rather, the ABS only publishes data on the combined size of employment in the oil and gas industries.
The industry’s peak body, APPEA, recently ran a multimillion-dollar national advertising campaign to coincide with last year’s federal election that claimed the industry created an additional 100,000 jobs in 2012.
Yet in that same year the ABS found that the whole oil and gas industry had increased its employment by only 9,372 people. One of them is way out.
In fact, our new research shows that if the gas industry had been responsible for creating 100,000 jobs, then it would have been responsible for 58% of all job creation in Australia that year. The reality was that the industry was responsible for just 5.4% – only about one-tenth of the impact they had forecast.
In total, the gas industry employed 0.2% of the Australian workforce in 2012.
One of the biggest claims that some CSG companies and peak body APPEA have been making is that an expansion in CSG extraction can stop gas prices from rising in the eastern parts of Australia.
This claim completely misrepresents why gas prices are rising. Put simply, because the world price of gas is much higher than the Australian domestic price, the gas industry would prefer to sell gas to foreigners than keep selling it to Australians.
Previously, they had no way of exporting Australian gas extracted on the east coast, but three big export facilities will soon be ready for business in Gladstone, Queensland. When these export facilities are completed, gas producers on the eastern side of Australia will have a choice. They can sell gas to domestic customers or to foreign customers. And they will pick which customers they sell to based on price.
These export facilities are being built by the gas companies and are part of their plan to expand production and increase prices, something they have been telling their shareholders for years.
When the export facilities are complete, if domestic gas consumers want natural gas they will have to be willing and able to pay the equivalent of the price the gas companies will receive from Asian customers. At the moment that is two to three times more than the recent wholesale price.
Once connected to the world gas market, the only things that can change the domestic price will be things that change the world price. If more CSG is extracted in Australia this is not going to have a material effect on the world price and in turn will do nothing to reduce the price paid by consumers. Some gas companies have admitted this but others try to pretend that it’s not the case.
Myth 3: CSG can act as a low-emission “bridge” from coal to renewables
“Natural gas can help reduce greenhouse emissions, both here in Australia and across Asia, because it is so much cleaner than traditional sources of energy.” – APPEA’s Our Natural Advantage website.
Electricity generated from burning natural gas produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than electricity produced from burning coal. For this reason the industry has claimed that natural gas can help reduce the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
While it is true that when it is burnt for generating electricity natural gas does produce fewer emissions than burning coal, not all sources of natural gas can be treated similarly. Unfortunately for those interested in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the way CSG is extracted can substantially reduce its potential emission reduction benefits.
When CSG is extracted it leaks out of the ground, particularly when using hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”. These are known as fugitive emissions and are an extremely potent greenhouse gas, up to 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
The amount of fugitive emissions that are produced during the CSG extraction process is currently unknown: no systematic study has been done in Australia. But in the United States, studies on shale gas – which like CSG is known as an unconventional source of natural gas – have found that fugitive emissions rates are substantially higher than conventional natural gas.
The CSG industry in Australia has been extremely reluctant to make any systematic attempts to measure the rate of fugitive emissions and so it has fallen to universities and the CSIRO to attempt to measure fugitive emissions. Once the rate of fugitive emissions is known, it could substantially reduce the greenhouse gas benefit of using natural gas extracted from CSG wells.
If the CSG industry wants to be taken seriously, it would do better not to exaggerate its economic benefits and downplay risks to human and environmental health, and begin addressing genuine community concerns.
This article was co-authored by Matt Grudnoff, senior economist at The Australia Institute, who was the lead author of the new CSG report.
Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg MP has recently replied to constituents who expressed their concern about fracking in relation to the Infrastructure Bill. The Bill has now passed into law as the Infrastructure Act 2015 after MP’s were given just one hour to debate the Lords’ revised and watered down amendments.
Mr Rees-Mogg jumped the gun by replying before the Lords’ amendments were approved by Parliament and stated that “The Government made a number of alterations to the Bill such as declaring an outright ban on fracking in National Parks and, of particular relevance to North East Somerset, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty” – whereas the Lords have watered this down to allow horizontal drilling under national parks and AONBs so long as it starts outside the areas. World Heritage sites such as The City of Bath are protected.
In his letter Mr Rees-Mogg also states:
“The Government has proposed to allow developers to access the ground up to 5000 feet below private land without the risk of breaching trespassing laws”
The trouble is that 1000 metres does not equal 5000 feet, it is not even close.
If Mr Rees-Mogg insists on using the Weights and Measures Act 1824 as his standard for measurement then he should make more effort to get the conversion right. Any school pupil will tell you that 1000 metres is about 3000 feet, not 5000 feet. More precisely it is 3281 feet. So, Mr Rees-Mogg has exaggerated the depth at which trespass extends by a factor of 1/3. It is hard to imagine how he came up with the figure of 5000 feet unless he was thinking about the maximum (rather than the minimum) depth that coalbed methane (CBM) can be extracted from the Somerset coal seams.
What is equally worrying as Mr Rees-Mogg’s innumeracy is that the Infrastructure Act doesn’t seem to apply to CBM. The Coal Act already gives powers for drilling in coal seams without trespass. During the limited debate on the Bill Tessa Munt MP asked in relation to CBM whether “there should be a prohibition on all gas exploitation at depths of less than 1,000 metres?” but she received no reply.
“Extraction is likely to be achievable between 200 and 1500 metres, depending on the coal permeability and other issues. At shallower depths the gas pressure in the coal is likely to be insufficient, while at depths greater than 1500 metres the pressure of the overlying strata is likely to have reduced coal permeability restricting the flow of methane.”
The GeoMet Inc assessmentof CBM in Somerset suggested extracting coalbed methane at depths between 152m (500 feet) and 1524m (5000 feet) and there would seem to be nothing in the Infrastructure Act to prevent that happening.
Despite a Freedom of Information Request and an appeal the Department of Energy and Climate Change has declined to say where in Somerset gas companies have applied for new licenses as part of the 14th onshore licensing round. Almost everywhere in the Bristol Somerset coalfield, apart from the City of Bath, is therefore still at risk of becoming a gas field. UK Methane are expected to apply for planning permission for test drilling in PEDL 227 at any time.