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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Small earthquakes

As a regional Welsh Assembly Member representing South Wales West I was concerned this morning to read this report in the Independent regarding a couple of small earthquakes in the Blackpool area.

This seismic activity appears to be entirely unrelated to Blackpool's relegation back to the Championship and has nothing to do with the 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire identified by John Lennon in a 'A day in the life'. It is altogether more serious than that.

The paper reports that a controversial new drilling operation for natural shale gas in Lancashire has been suspended following a second earthquake in the area that may have been triggered by the process. The earthquake last Friday near Blackpool occurred at the same time that the energy company Cuadrilla Resources was injecting fluids under high pressure deep underground to deliberately blast apart the gas-bearing rock – a process known as "fracking", brought to Britain from the US, where it has been highly contentious.

This is relevant to my area because a similar operation is proposed for St John’s Colliery in Maesteg, where an application for exploratory drilling has been approved. It also seems to undermine the conclusion by the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change committee that this process is safe.

They said that no evidence was found that the controversial method of extracting underground gas poses a threat to water supplies and objections were described as “hot air”. They also said that there would be no disturbance through noise in that area.

Others though think differently: Earthquake experts from the British Geological Survey said that the 1.5 magnitude quake last week was similar to a 2.3 earthquake in April in the same area and that both may be linked to the experimental fracking for shale gas at Preese Hall on the Fylde coast.

Bans on commercial fracking are already in place in France as well as in New York and Pennsylvania states, where people living close to fracking sites have been filmed setting fire to tap water contaminated with methane gas.

"It seems quite likely that they are related," said Brian Baptie of the British Geological Survey (BGS). "We had a couple of instruments close to the site and they show that both events were close to the site and at a shallow depth.

"The timing of these two events in conjunction with the ongoing fracking at the site suggests that they may be related." He added: "It is well-established that drilling like this can trigger small earthquakes."

The process involves pumping millions of gallons of water, mixed with rock-dissolving chemicals, into the earth to unsettle rocks and release the gas trapped there.

In my view this is serious enough to suggest that any operation in the Maesteg area should be suspended indefinitely until more is known about this process and its impact. There is also a case for the Energy and Climate Change Committee to go back to the drawing board and revisit its report.

Any possibility of contaminated water supply or seismic activity as a result of drilling is unacceptable.
Not meaning to take anything away from Blackburn ... but crikey, in Wales we have had plenty of small earthquakes caused by collapsing mine shafts - I remember my grandparents telling me there was a shuddering. Subsidence is a problem too for some areas. If we are going to get that paranoid then we should stop driving cars - how many do they kill each year? Oh, cycling, wow, too many injuries and deaths ban that too. Bottom line: need some perspective here.

'It does' seem sometimes that those in full employment are out of touch with those that need jobs. The green tax is having a huge impact on investment in UK based refineries. There is a good chance that more than one will be shut down, not for lack of demand, but because it is simply cheaper to import refined products from refineries in S.E. Asia that don't pay this green tax. And bingo, more British jobs exported.

I am not sure, as a chemist, what the issues are. I worked a summer vacation with Welsh Water testing water supplies, and was a water treatment consultant. Frankly, if some places can derive drinking water from traffic road run-off I don't think we need worry about some chemicals used in fracking to fissure rocks to get methane and render the UK less vulnerable to the machinations of hydrocarbon imports.

There are established techniques for dealing with contaminates, and anyway one of the big problems with water delivery is the age of the pipe work - is it made of lead or was a lead solder used to affix sections of pipe work together? This is one of the main reasons why Welsh water in S.E. Wales is rendered slightly alkaline to help reduce the amount of lead from lead sources going into solution.
^ opps, sorry please substitute "Blackpool" for every occurrence of "Blackburn" - I have a Welsh sibling that settled in Blackburn, so I guess it's on my brain.
I couldn't agree with you more Peter. It wouldn't have been approved if I had still be on the Council. The Planning Department of Bridgend CBC should have carried out a little more research given the wide spread concerns already highlighted on the web from the States.
Jeff> I'm in the 'States'; methane from rock is turning into a HUGE bonanza for JOBS and what's more will reduce $$$ flowing out of the USA to countries that are not exactly friendly to the West. There are HUGE amounts of methane 'in them their rocks'.

In UK/Wales there is a huge amount of diesel that is used in regular automobiles – diesel (even ‘clean diesel’) is far more polluting (from the human perspective) than regular petrol. The minute particles created in the combustion of diesel are so fine they go deep into the human lung. Diesel is a FAR greater thread to humans in the UK than fracking could ever be yet in Wales there are a lot of people buying cars with diesel engines normally used in lorries/large trucks. It is an astonishingly simple matter to remove contaminates from water supply should such occur.

There are places on the Earth where road run-off heavily contaminated with oil, rubber particulates, etc go into the water but are removed by established techniques that work. If there is a problem with water supply, it can be fixed at the water treatment plant by installing appropriate kit (e.g., activated carbon).

In Wales coal (solid stuff) was taken out of the ground leading to internal voids underground that at times collapsed or are at risk of collapse causing in some cases subsidence and tremors. In contrast methane is a gas (i.e., not a solid) and its extraction does not create such voids close to the surface like with coal extraction. The fissures in the rock may lead to some displacement but tremors are really low down in absolute terms (since the scale is logarithmic based on “10”, i.e., in ‘powers of ten’).

"Coal bed methane" gas is another example of methane that can be extracted but this time from coal seams within a depth range. (Too deep and the methane is ‘not there’ in quantity – it gets squeezed out.) Honestly, I would worry more natural earthquakes which tend to be far more powerful as evidenced by the recent quakes on the south island (NZ). I would be a LOT more concerned about the ‘ring of fire’, about Yellowstone which apparently is bulging. I like being ‘further out’ from Yellowstone living on the Eastern seaboard.

As to the chemicals that are used to improve the efficiency of fracking. I've heard stories of 'methane contaminating water supply'. This is quite ridiculous. Methane is 'natural gas' the stuff that is used in kitchen/domestic cookers and heating up and down the land. There’s no toxicity issue - hence why it is next to impossible for people to kill themselves by ‘putting their head in the oven’.

The chemicals used in fracking have a finite life. They have a 'half-life'. They will break down much like how the liver breaks down things in the human body except that it is 'bugs' and chemical degradation in the environment that works like the human liver.

Even assuming for the sake of argument that chemicals did get into the water supply - there are established techniques to quantify their presence and to remove them.

Lead piping in old houses was a greater problem because water treatment processes do not extend to treatment inside people's houses. But even in such cases the water companies can monitor water softness (soft water is more corrosive than hard water) and raise the alkalinity and also dose water at the bulk water supply end with 'phosphate' which over time creates a barrier between the water in the lead pipe and the interior surface of the lead pipe (Pb, lead). But imho families should get rid of their old lead piping as lead is a serious issue with respect to children’s brain tissue.

But let’s send $$$$ to Iran et al who want to use those $$$$ in part to make nuclear weapons with half-life fall out quite considerably more than the half-life of fracking chemicals. C. Wood
^please excuse typos, e.g., 'thread' ... should have read: Diesel is a FAR greater threat (not thread) to humans in the UK than fracking could ever be yet in Wales there are a lot of people buying cars with diesel engines normally used in lorries/large trucks.
The chemical formula for methane is CH4, i.e., there is one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms in methane. There is a very small delta plus on the hydrogen atoms in methane, but it is so small it can't properly hydrogen bond with water molecules, so methane is very poor at dissolving in water (the act of solvation) compared to, e.g., ammonia (NH3) where there is a much larger delta plus on each hydrogen allowing hydrogen bonding with water molecules (and hence solvation) in water.

Methane in water could only be combusted if it was present as trapped gas, the tap would have to be a spigot spewing methane gas and in sufficient quantities that it could be set on fire. There is a natural background level of methane in the air, but it is so low that it can't be combusted. There is more chance of setting a fire down a large sewage pipe - also there is natural methane that can get into very large water pipes through natural seepage (yes, there’s methane seeping into soil too – its from natural seepage) - but that gas would not end up coming out of a tap because the water coming out of a tap comes via a water treatment plant, and the methane (if present) would gas-off. There has to be a specific ratio for methane/air mix to have any chance of combustion. Even if a natural gas cooker is left on it takes time for the natural gas (methane) to build up to such a level.
PS - there is a far greater chance for LPG explosions than methane coming out of a kitchen tap! That was a set-up! Somebody put a gas line upstream of the tap to get free methane coming out of the tap and set fire to it. I can't believe anyone would be fooled. But hey, I guess folks are ready to be fooled - methane does not dissolve well in water - at one atm pressure (1 bar) it is not possible to dissolve sufficient methane in tap water - so somebody attached a methane gas line (probably from the cooker or a Calor gas line to the plumbing just upstream of the tap to produce the 'water on fire' gag. And that was all it was: a gag. I am amazed by how some folks are so bereft of a decent grounding in science that they could not work that out. Is Wales now so backward in basic science? Are ‘they’ only teaching ‘general science’ in Welsh schools now? If so, no wonder Wales has such a pathetic issued patent rate. This is astonishing. And to think a former politician in RCT would fall for such stupid brainless idiotic gags. I can’t get over how some folks have already forgotten that Wales has a history of coal gas issues, subsidence, tremors caused by mine collapses – yet without Welsh coal there would have been no Cardiff Docks and hence a much smaller version of Cardiff today. Chrisw
It is rather interesting to read Dr Wood’s explanations regarding ‘fracking’. I take his chemical expertise for granted and that methane is not soluble in water but to mention to him that this sort of thing may or may not be taught in our schools. Perhaps it should be on the curriculum. Nevertheless, I am still not convinced that commercially speaking extraction of gas is as safe as it could be. Companies that have purchased the government licences seem to think that this gives them a right to ‘march’ on anyone’s land to ‘prospect’. Heavy-handed methods include threats to ‘compulsory’ purchase the land. Also, although Dr Woods mentions that water is easily cleaned from impurities, in practice it seems that effluents from the ‘fracking’ process are just run-off into the nearest available water streams and in areas where inhabitants obtain their water from boreholes they may find their supply suitably ‘salted’. Lastly, it seems strange that in the Blackpool area that has not known earth quakes for a very, very long time, suddenly experienced a few minor shudderings. Obviously nothing to do with putting thousands of litres of chemically laced water under high pressure down boreholes. I would ask eminent scientists like Dr Wood to have a more serious look at other methods of procuring power generating processes such as wave technology and even building a dam in the Severn (sorry WWF).
DutchEnergy> as to wave energy – actually I’m all for it with the usual caveats that we take as much care as we can to reduce impact on local ecology.

As to methane, it can dissolve in water, but only at a minimal amount at one atmosphere pressure and hence water can’t be ‘set alight’ at a UK householder’s tap unless someone has deliberately and idiotically attached a gas cooker line (or Calor gas line, etc.) to their household plumbing. It would require a pocket of free methane gas in their water plumbing and as householders in UK suburbs get their tap water from water treatment/purification plants (and not boreholes in their backyards/gardens) there is no way, no how methane tap water in someone’s house in Blackpool could be set alight at the tap unless as mentioned some dude attached a gas line just upstream of their tap turning it into a gas tap, which would be a highly stupid thing to do and could lead to a gas leak from a wrongly connected gas line.

As to earthquakes, I did my masters degree at Lancashire Polytechnic (located just west of Blackpool, now called University of Central Lancashire) and guess what: we had an earthquake! In fact there have been several minor earthquakes in North West England. My home town of Cardiff in Wales is not ‘known for earthquakes’, but I remember my mother saying her lounge furniture seemed to move when she was sitting on it, and later heard there had been an earthquake.

My grandparents mentioned that they felt tremors – but probably from mineshafts collapsing – they lived in a Welsh village near a large coal mine. In fact, coal mining in my home country of Wales is associated with subsidence and in the past with slag heap problems which in one case led to severe loss of life on the surface. We’ve just had a big hydrocarbon explosion in West Wales that killed four workers with families and injured at least one other worker. It is a fact that hydrocarbon processing/extraction comes with risks. (PS I don’t know the details of the explosion in West Wales; the newspapers say it was a refinery related explosion).

Wales (West Wales) is now a major importer of natural gas for the rest of the UK in the form of liquefied natural gas which is imported into West Wales aboard sea going bulk carriers which ends up being pumped through a large diameter pipe across Wales to feed the national grid. This actually presents a far greater risk of serious explosion (than fracking operations) should the large diameter pipe fracture that runs across Wales (it’s largely underground). These kinds of large diameter liquefied natural gas lines do fracture from time to time as has happened several times around the world as far afield as Siberia where a leak led to serious loss of life when a passing train provided the spark that caused a fuel air explosion resulting in (from memory) to over 100 horrible deaths.

So there are always risks associated with handling hydrocarbons, the point I am making is put fracking into perspective. The next state over from me (I currently live in VA, USA part of which borders on PA where fracking is turning into a jobs bonanza for PA).

Look at Germany and Jordan to see their precarious position in relying on natural gas imports from other countries.

In the UK several power stations are run using natural gas, so the UK needs natural gas for its households for heating and cooking, and to generate electricity. People use natural gas in their kitchens, to run their domestic heating boilers, etc. Some buses and automobiles now run on natural gas.
PS ... the earthquakes I was referring to in NW England had nothing to do with fracking - and NW England is not known for earthquakes! But it certainly has minor earthquakes from time to time. Likewise in Wales where, e.g., its capital city (Cardiff) experienced a minor-earthquake, again pre-fracking. I know, because my mum felt it and her friends rang her to tell her that it was 'on the (South Wales) news', etc. Happened about 20 years ago ... or 'thereabouts'.
'Essential Reading" c/o Peter Law (Western Mail): "Is Wales sitting on gas reserves worth billions?"


Chris Wood, PhD, JD
this should be stopped in maesteg now
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