Red velvet curtains hung on the windows and painted cherubs played on the ceiling as Jim Ratcliffe accepted the 2016 ICIS Kavaler Award at the Metropolitan Club in New York last week.
The British billionaire is the first foreigner to be awarded the honour, given by leaders in the chemical industry. It comes as Ineos, the chemicals company he founded, plans to bring fracking – the controversial oil and gas extraction process – back to the UK.
Ineos is planning as many as 30 applications for fracking sites in the UK within the next year. As part of its campaign to win over critics, Ineos invited journalists to tour fracking sites in Pennsylvania operated by Consol, a Pittsburgh-based producer of natural gas and coal and, supposedly, an example of why fracking will be good for the UK.
What’s in store for the UK can be seen about an hour southwest of Pittsburgh, in township of Switzerland, Ohio, where a rig stands near a farm. The well is in its earliest stages: drilling goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sitting in a big armchair surrounded by screens, “T-Ball”, a burly 6ft drill operator, works 12-hour shifts, controlling the drilling like a video game. He does this for two-week stints. At night, another person takes over – also working a 12-hour shift.
Ineos estimates that it will be at least five years before any of its UK wells are actually producing shale gas.
Fracking will be good for Britain, according to Ineos, making it more independent and creating jobs. By 2018-19, about 69% of UK gas will be imported.
Fracking, Ineos says, would help the UK become less dependent on other nations and would supplement dwindling North Sea resources. A 2014 Ernst & Young report predicts that fracking could create more than 64,000 jobs.
It has certainly been a boon to the US jobs market – albeit one with a sting in its tail. A National Bureau of Economic Research study published last year found that, between 2005 and 2012, the fracking boom added as many as 640,000 jobs in the US in the energy industry and related services.
But boom turned to bust as oversupply led to tumbling oil prices, stalled production and layoffs. Since 2014, the US energy and mining sectors have shed more than 223,000 jobs.
Despite the appeal of energy independence and possibility of thousands of new jobs, many UK residents remain opposed to fracking due to concerns over environmental damage, climate change and the possibility of tremors.
In the process of fracking, water, sand and chemicals are forced into the ground under high pressure to extract natural gas. Earth tremors have been linked to disposal wells – where excess water from drilling is injected back into ground – created during the process.
There has been no fracking in the UK since 2011, when Cuadrilla Resources’ operations were said to be a “highly probable” cause of two earth tremors in northwest England. The moratorium on fracking was lifted in May 2013, but no fracking well proposals were actually approved until earlier this year, when North Yorkshire county council gave the go-ahead to an application by Third Energy.
“Drilling does not cause earthquakes,” said Tim Dugan, chief operating officer of Consol. According to Dugan, seismic testing has improved over the years and data shows faultlines that could potentially cause tremors, allowing drillers to avoid them.
But the consequences of unfettered fracking are clear in the US. A study by the US Geological Survey showed that increased fluid pressure in geological fault zones from disposal wells has increased earthquake vulnerability in a some states. As a result, parts of Oklahoma and Kansas now face earthquake risks on a par with California.
Ineos insists that fracking in the UK will be different. For one, the technology has come a long way over the past decade. As the US fracking industry has matured, lessons were learned, making it easier to replicate best practices on fracking sites in the UK.
To ease the inconvenience of light, noise and traffic during drilling, Ineos has also pledged 6% of its profits to the UK communities where it will frack.
But fracking in the UK still faces stiff opposition from communities where drilling is planned, and from environmental campaigners.
There is no way fracking can be done responsibly, “no matter what regulations are proposed”, according to John Detwiler of the Marcellus Protest coalition, an environmental pressure group in Pennsylvania. He said many company-sponsored fact-finding trips to Pennsylvania were “merely window-dressing for decisions being made in back rooms”.
“Naturally, the drillers, and the government officials whose election campaigns they’ve sponsored, can be expected to put on a good show for invited visitors, but the truth is that fracking has not been a success in Pennsylvania,” he said.