Fracking’s Silver Lining

Hugh Pennington

The UK fossil fuel extraction industry has always been dangerous for its workers, even if things are orders of magnitude safer today than they used to be. In 1938, 858 coal miners were killed in accidents, including 90 in explosions, 408 by roof falls, 194 in haulage and transport accidents underground, and 76 on the surface. Others died from Weil’s disease caught by contact with rat urine. Thousands developed pneumoconiosis, and paraplegia from roof falls was common.

I live under a main Aberdeen airport flight path, but it is very quiet today because of helicopter groundings after the loss of four lives on 23 August, when a Super Puma flying from the Borgsten Dolphin rig in the Dunbar oil field 420 km north of Aberdeen dropped into the sea off Fitful Head at the southern tip of Shetland.

Since 1981, 114 oil workers and air crew have died in helicopter accidents during flights to UK rigs, 31 while travelling to gas fields in the southern North Sea and Morecambe Bay. More have died in the north. A Chinook came down just south of Shetland in 1980, killing 45, and 16 were lost when a Super Puma crashed into the sea 11 miles off Peterhead in 2009. Both accidents were caused by mechanical failure.

We don’t see many protests against fracking in Aberdeen. One thing that's certain is that, for workers, it will be much safer than offshore drilling.


  • 28 August 2013 at 6:59am
    refracktion says:
    "for workers, it will be much safer than offshore drilling" - well if you ignore the silicosis and lung cancer it may be. But so what?

    You ignore totally the fact that fracking presents health risks to the local population that coal mining never did.

    Please don't trivialise this important issue with half thought out opinion pieces like this!

  • 28 August 2013 at 8:04am
    shevek says:
    They'll be shutting down the oil fields as soon as the fracking gets going properly, then?

  • 28 August 2013 at 1:22pm
    ghosted says:
    The risks associated with fracking are worth considering but not as bad as coal mining. Clearly there is a chance that fracking can cause minor earthquakes or pollute aquifers (probably more in the case of wellbore integrity failures, rather than fracking itself, though).

    Shale gas development is better than coal both in terms of its environmental toll and in terms of fatalities. There are lower carbon emissions than burning coal, assuming the methane is flared or captured efficiently.

    It has risks, of course, but at a point when the UK's coal consumption is rising - accounting for 38% of power generation at the time of writing - more gas must be better. UK shale production is not going to make the country energy independent and the price impact will probably be limited, but such a move to reduce coal burning is probably a good thing.

    • 28 August 2013 at 3:14pm
      TinaB says: @ ghosted
      It's not proven that fracking carbon emissions are lower then coal, because of methane leakage. Only 0.7% needs to leak to bring it up to the equivalent emissions to coal and up to 8% has been recorded at some wells.

      Secondly, the technology requires many well-heads, spaced about 1km apart. It is projected, if the money can be found for it, that the Marcellus shale in the US will have 150,000 well-heads - and they are not small, like "nodding donkeys". They require compressor pumps, generators, roads, water storage, chemical stores and means of transporting gas and water to and from the well. They will be noisy too. The blight on the landscape dwarfs that from wind farms. Finally, there is the issue of water use and what to do with the millions of gallons of polluted water brought back to the surface.

    • 29 August 2013 at 11:50am
      ghosted says: @ TinaB
      Thanks for your response, Tinab. I think it is as proven as these things can be that shale gas has a lower carbon footprint than coal, for instance the data I've seen from the US EPA (which is by no means a fan of fracking) and most of the literature, even taking into account leakage figures.

      In terms of well spacing, certainly it's a cause for concern in Europe, given how densely populated it is. The Marcellus actually has a relatively low well density, compared with say some of the earlier shale developments such as the Barnett.

      How many wells will be drilled on the Marcellus is open to conjecture but it's worth pointing out that it is also the home of multiple wells per pad, which is the model that would be well suited to densely populated European spaces. There are a number of 21 well pads, now, for instance, which is an impressive figure.

      Drilling would certainly be disruptive, and noisy, with the number of lorries carrying supplies, but production would not be disruptive and would be quiet. So, the blight would be temporary.

      Water is an issue, sure. I'm not wholly clear on the regulations but I imagine that it would have to be treated to remove impurities and then reinjected, so this is certainly worth considering.

      Energy choices are all about picking what is acceptable to a people and a government. Renewable energy is not ready to cover the UK's needs, owing to intermittency problems as much as anything else, so a choice needs to be made. To my mind, shale gas should probably play a role in this, especially given how the UK's fastest growing energy source is coal.

      If the UK wants to carry on consuming more coal, that's fine - but it is going to be bad for the environment. Is the answer more nuclear? Probably not. Imported gas from potentially unsavoury regimes? These are the things people have to think through - and that doesn't seem to have happened as yet.

    • 29 August 2013 at 1:13pm
      shevek says: @ ghosted
      So, in summary, there probably won't be any bad effects, and if there are then they'll be small, and if they're not small then at least they'll be temporary, and if they're not temporary then they'll probably be fixable somehow. And anyway, if you rule out all the possible alternatives because no single one of them is a complete solution there there simply aren't any alternatives, or at least not any good ones, or at least not any good ones the public want, or at least not that are acceptable to the government.

      Good to know.

    • 30 August 2013 at 1:10pm
      ghosted says: @ shevek
      Thanks for the rejoinder, Shevek, if I came across as cavalier or unclear I apologise. I think I was probably trying to convey too much of my perspective.

      I guess I was just trying to say that I think shale gas should probably play a role in the UK's energy mix because coal is too polluting, no one really seems to want to build nuclear power plants and renewable energy is too intermittent.

      Of course there will be some bad effects, I think I said there is a chance that wellbore integrity will be flawed in at least some cases, that there will be disruption to communities and that, as we've seen in Blackpool, it can cause minor earthquakes. There's no perfect way to meet the country's energy needs but shale is probably worth a shot.

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