BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE; Environmental Concerns about the Risks Associated with Drilling for Shale Gas Natural Gas Trapped in Shale Rock Deep below South Wales Could Provide a New Energy Source and Lucrative Industry. but at What Environmental Cost? Peter Law Reports

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FOR decades the South Wales coal industry provided hundreds of thousands of jobs, brought great wealth to the region and shaped the cities and towns as we know them today.

But the legacy of coal also included polluted rivers running black, slag heaps scarring the landscape and catastrophic accidents that claimed the lives of workers and, in some cases, their families.

Now, an exploration firm believes it may have found a new energy source beneath our green, green grass.

It's called shale gas and the Bridgend-based company hopes it's trapped within rock about 7,000 feet below the village of Llandow in the Vale of Glamorgan.

Coastal Oil and Gas Limited, which owns the Petroleum Exploration and Development Licence (PEDL) to explore for onshore gas reserves in an area spanning 100sq km, says if it's successful, it will be able to sell "clean, low-cost" gas to local industries.

The potential for shale gas, however, is potentially much grander - early estimates suggest it could provide 10% of the UK's energy needs, if not more. It was this week described by Time magazine, which featured shale gas as its cover story, as an "energy revolution".

Which all means that if Coastal Oil and Gas Limited find what they're looking for, Llandow could be at the start of a major new South Wales industry.

But since plans to drill a test borehole at Llandow Industrial Estate were first revealed by the Echo in February, a campaign by villagers to stop the drilling has received the backing of the local MP, Alun Cairns, as well as AMs and even a campaign group in Nova Scotia, Canada.

But in an age when new jobs seem as scarce as oil, why has this potential economic boom for South Wales been met with such fierce opposition? Just type one word - "fracking" - into an internet search engine and the reason becomes immediately obvious. Headlines such as "No fracking way" and "Fracking hell" are just a few of the results offered by Google.

Fracking is the nickname given to hydraulic fracturing, the controversial process through which the natural gas is extracted from shale rock.

Go on YouTube and you'll find videos of householders holding cigarette lighters to their taps which suddenly erupt into a fireball, farmers whose well water has turned a murky brown colour and cattle that mysteriously fall ill.

There are claims - made most prominently by the Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland - that fracking is to blame. According to the investigative website ProPublica, there has been more than 1,000 reported cases of water contamination across the US.

To understand the claims you need to first understand the complex science behind shale gas extraction. Water - and lots of it - is the key ingredient. As much as 19 million litres of water can be used in a hydraulically fractured well.

A description in Time magazine reads: "First a drilling rig digs a vertical hole several thousand feet deep, gradually bending until the concrete-encased well reaches the shale layer. "After burrowing horizontally for as much as a mile (1.6km), the drillers lower a perforating gun down to the end of the well. That gun fires off explosions underground that pierce the concrete and open up microfractures in the shale.

"The drillers then shoot millions of gallons of highly pressurised water, mixed with sand and small amount of additives known as fracking chemicals, down the well, widening the fractures.

"Natural pressure forces the liquids back up the well, producing what's known as flowback, and the gas rushes from the fractures into the pipe. The grains of sand included in the fracking fluid keep the shale cracks open - like stents in a clogged blood vessel - while the well produces gas for years, along with a steadily decreasing amount of wastewater from deep inside the shale."

The concerns about the risk association with drilling for shale gas are primarily two-fold; that the chemicals or gas could leak into underground aquifers; and around the disposal of the flowback water once it reaches the surface. …