Hydraulic fracturing, known more commonly as fracking, is when natural gas, called shale gas, is extracted from deposits in sedimentary rock deep below the Earth’s surface.
Up until December 2012, fracking was banned in the UK but the government’s U-turn prompted promises of economic boom and fuel security from some corners, while others told of environmental crisis and false claims of prosperity.
So, what exactly is wrong with fracking and who is telling the truth?
Lots of big words
Now, just to be sure that we all know what we’re talking about, we need to get to grips with the terminology.
The first thing that is confusing is the term ‘natural’ gas. We live in a society where the word ‘natural’ is used to describe products and services that are generally deemed to be healthy, holistic and good for us. Natural gas is an exception. It is a fossil fuel that exists as a gas trapped between rocks formed millions of years ago. Fossil fuels exist in other, more familiar, states of matter such as liquid (oil) and solid (coal). When prehistoric plants and animals died, they were gradually buried under layers of rock and the energy that was within them was stored beneath the ground. The buried remains were put under pressure and over millions of years they turned into fossil fuels and the chemical energy from the plants and animals was stored inside them. Humans, being the apparently clever things that they are, figured out long ago that it was possible to release this energy and use it for useful things, such as warmth, powering machinery and generating electricity, primarily by burning them.
If you’ve been paying attention at all over the last couple of decades you will know that fossil fuels are considered unsustainable as they cannot be readily renewed: there is a finite amount and once it runs out, there will be no more. There is also the problem that when these fuels are burnt, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is carbon dioxide that is supposed to be stored deep below the Earth’s surface and has been proven time and again to be responsible for warming the temperature of our planet, resulting is all sorts of problems, collectively known as climate change. Because of these two factors, energy from fossil fuels is also known as non-renewable, or ‘dirty’ energy.
The opposite form of energy is known as renewable, ‘clean’, or ‘green’ energy such as solar, hydro and wind power, that (as the name suggests) continue for as long as there is sun, moving water or wind without running out. Which is forever really. It does not consume an energy source and it does not produce carbon emissions.
What is shale gas?
Shale gas is the name given to natural gas (mainly methane) that is trapped in a sedimentary rock, known as shale, a mile or so beneath the Earth’s surface. The shale gas is dispersed through the rock in small pockets, not dissimilar to the way that the CO2bubbles are dispersed through bread dough. In other words, there may be the odd big bubble but really there are lots and lots of very small amounts spread out over a large area. If you simply drilled a hole downwards, the amount of gas you would reach would be very small and the pressure, or lack of it, would mean that very little would reach the surface. By drilling down into the shale, turning ninety degrees and drilling across, more gas is reachable, but still not enough. What is required is the ability to join the dots. Water, containing all sorts of chemicals and bits and bobs to make it flow better, is forced into the hole under great pressure. This liquid creates hairline fractures (fracking, geddit?) that effectively join up the small pockets of gas and force it to the surface. The liquid even contains small particles of sand or ceramics to prop open the fractures so that the gas can flow more easily.
Why do we need shale gas?
In the past, natural gas deposits were relatively easy to access. Great Britain’s discovery of North Sea oil (which confusingly includes natural gas) in the 1970s meant fuel security for a nation that had struggled with massive power cuts at the start of the decade. Those gas reserves are almost finished. It estimated that the major part of the UK’s North Sea oil reserves has already been taken, with the remaining 30-40% predicted to disappear within the next 25 years, with production already in massive decline. Globally it’s acknowledged that we’re running out of oil and coal. Basically, if we want to carry on driving cars, heating homes and flying planes, as well as less obvious but arguably more important things such as producing and transporting food (amongst other things), then we need to find an alternative. Otherwise we’re buggered.
To some minds, the answer lies in the ‘new’ fuel - shale gas. It is so-called as it's only fairly recently that technological developments have allowed this gas to be extracted in an economically viable way.
Why is fracking good?
An ‘endless’ supply: Those in the ‘fracking-is-good’ camp, rejoice the fact that there is a lot of shale gas tucked away under the towns, cities and countryside of Great Britain. They’ve even found a few large pockets in various parts of the country and estimate that these gas reserves will be gone within the next fifty years. Yes, it’s ok, we can carry on as we have been for a little longer. We’ve found a way to push the problem along by another generation so we don’t have to think about the consequences just yet. It’s the energy equivalent of finding another bottle of booze tucked away at the back of the cupboard just at that point in the party when supplies are running out and it seems as if the merriment will have to stop. A cheer goes up, everyone gets excited and the environmental hangover is instantly forgotten to be dealt with in the morning. Except now it’s going to be an even bigger hangover than it was before that last bottle was found.
Fracking works in America: Many proponents of fracking look to the USA as proof that fracking will provide a huge economic boost. Not only will it provide more fuel to keep industry going and give energy companies the fuel to burn so that they can charge us for electricity, it will also provide employment for clever engineers extracting the gas, lorry drivers who need to move various resources around to make the engineers’ job possible (by transporting millions of litres of water in vehicles, burning more non-renewable fuel) and various other jobs linked to the industry. The problem is, as with most things that compare the US and Great Britain, we’re similar, but different. For those of you that want a detailed analysis of why the perceived successes of the USA won’t be repeated over here,the New York Times published a very comprehensive article earlier this year. For those of you that can’t be bothered to read it, the argument is this: our geology is different. Our rock is different to their rock and we can’t get as much gas out as they did. We won’t make as much money as they did because they managed to get crude oil out at the same time. If you hear someone (i.e. David Cameron or another politician) say that it’s going to make us loads of money and save the economy, they’re lying. And even if they weren’t, it wouldn’t last very long, as we’ve already proved that it’s going to run out.
It’s cleaner than oil or coal: Natural gas does burn cleaner than either coal or oil. It produces less carbon dioxide and less sulphur dioxide. In the USA, due to a supply glut of natural gas in the winter of 2010-11, lower gas prices made the fuel more competitive with coal for electricity, so the energy companies burnt that instead and it helped the U.S. reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions. Which is fantastic, if coal, oil and gas were the only options in terms of energy. While less is definitely better, and a move in the right direction, the green technologies available today, with the right investment in infrastructure, could provide as much energy as we need, for as long as we need it.
Which leads on nicely to…
It will be a source of cheap energy: Hooray! Cheap electricity! Yay! Shale gas promises us a future of cheap electricity. Why? Because of the massive fossil fuel subsidies paid out by governments worldwide perpetuate the myth that fossil fuels provide cheap energy. Because of these subsidies, energy companies are able to keep their prices comparatively low for consumers, compared to their green equivalents. Figures from the Overseas Development Institute suggest that globally, in 2011, for every $1 spent to support renewable energy, another $6 were spent on fossil fuel subsidies. Would ‘green’ energy costs change if it were afforded the same kind of subsidies? As with many ‘new’ technologies, it is the investment in infrastructure that is expensive. It’s not that the UK can’t produce enough power, we have more off-shore wind farms than all other countries combined. Without investment in an infrastructure that can cope with the less predictable nature of green energy, we end up with the ridiculous situation where wind farms were paid to switch off during Christmas 2013, while thousands of homes were left without power, because the grid couldn’t deal with the extra electricity produced. What a waste.
Why is fracking bad?
What, apart from being unsustainable, environmentally unfriendly and an economic illusion? Read on.
Water: given the scale of the recent floods, you may think that we have more than enough water to go around. In fact, we could do with getting rid of some. But if there is one thing those events prove, it is that we are far from able to manage our water table and have little or no control over where it ends up. This time last year, the Environment Agency was warning that both droughts and floods in Britain would become commonplace in the future. The events of the last 12 months have seen them proved right. We are in a position where management of a valuable resource is becoming impossible, yet we are encouraging the use of millions of litres of water to frack each well.
A chemical cocktail: notwithstanding the financial and environmental implications of such vast water use, the chemicals involved in the process mean that there are plenty opportunities for spillage of the wastewater, as well as the spillage of fracking chemicals like hydrochloric acid. At various stages, the list of chemical ingredients may include hydrochloric acid, petroleum distillates, ammonium persulphate, calcium chloride, boric acid, citric acid, borate salts, and many more additives. Exposure to high amounts of some common frack-fluid chemicals, like ethylene glycol (a key antifreeze ingredient), have been linked to serious health problems, such as kidney, heart, and nervous-system damage. Others, like sodium chloride (table salt) and guar gum (a common food thickener derived from beans) are generally benign.
Anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of the original fluid volume doesn’t come back out of the well right away and remains underground for years. Equipment failures and well blowouts can send wastewater flowing into nearby rivers and streams adding to the environmental impact and potentially doing untold damage. Fracking is new, the massive cock-ups are still to come, although there have been a few so far…
Flames and tremors: We’ve all heard the tales of flaming taps and radioactive cows in America, but problems are already occurring in the UK. A report published by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) concludes that fracking experiments were responsible for earthquakes near Blackpool in early 2011. On 1 April and 27 May 2011, two earthquakes with magnitudes of 2.3 ML and 1.5 ML were detected in the Blackpool area. These earthquakes were immediately suspected to be linked to fracking in the area. As a result of the earthquakes, fracking operations were suspended and the company behind the operations, Cuadrilla Resources, commissioned a number of studies into the relationship between the earthquakes and their operations. Geologists have known for 50 years that injecting fluid underground can increase pressure on seismic faults and make them more likely to slip. The result is an "induced" quake. Given that shale gas deposits can be found under a large number of towns and cities in the UK, would you want fracking to happen under your house?
Burning natural gas, although it may be cheap in terms of money, it is not in terms of climate. When you look at the whole natural gas package, from production through use and waste disposal, it’s clear that natural gas exacts a steep environmental toll, particularly when it’s fracked. In addition to the amount of water involved, and the huge quantities of chemical-containing wastewater, there is air pollution from heavy machinery at the drill sites and hydrocarbons released by the wells, which scientists are just beginning to investigate.
Reliance on fossil fuels, and the associated subsidies, means that investment in sustainable green energies is being delayed. We are simply postponing the inevitable. We may get away with only minimal inconvenience in our lifetime, but our children will bear the consequences of our actions. And what about our grandchildren?
What you can do about fracking:
If everyone in the UK who was concerned about fracking did these next three simple steps, imagine the impact we would have. You don’t even need to leave your computer and it takes less time than brewing a cup of tea.
Register your opposition and protect your home: It is unlawful for fracking companies to drill under your home without your permission. Go to www.wrongmove.org to search your postcode and join the legal block today to protect your home and your community.
Check your energy company: The energy supplier that you use will likely be burning varying amounts of fossil fuels to provide you with electricity. Take a look at this information to determine the mix of fuel you energy company is using, then take action.
Change your energy supplier and do some good: one you’ve decided which is the energy supplier for you, it’s time to change. By changing supplier you will be showing both suppliers and the Government that you want a sustainable energy supply.
What could be better for a brighter future than that?