Throughout 2013, one environmental issue that has rarely been out of the headlines is fracking. But what exactly is fracking, and why is it so controversial? EnviroSoc is here with our quick guide…
What is fracking?
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a controversial method of obtaining natural resources such as shale gas from deep beneath the ground. A mixture of water, sand and various other substances is injected at high pressure into a deep hole in the ground (known as a wellbore), forming fractures throughout the rock layer through which substances such as gas and water can trickle towards the wellbore for extraction at the surface.
What are the advantages of fracking?
Fracking allows gas resources to be accessed in areas where they are difficult to obtain by other means. Shale gas is highly valuable – known as ‘energy gold’ – and it is generally cheaper for a country to harvest its own natural resources than to import them. Fracking is argued to be the most economically viable way to access remaining shale gas supplies, and the energy industry in the UK argues that fracking would contribute towards meeting the country’s energy requirements.
What are the disadvantages of fracking?
There are numerous environmental problems associated with fracking, including water pollution, landscape contamination and geological effects. Fracking also requires the use of very large quantities of water, which is a significant environmental issue. Some of the substances used in fracking are hazardous to human health, and there are concerns that these could contaminate groundwater supplies in surrounding areas. Proponents of fracking argue that instances of pollution are simply the result of bad practice, rather than problems with the practice itself, but this is clearly a major environmental concern. Even without pollutant leaks, the process itself results in the formation of huge quantities of waste products – a 2013 report by Environment America stated that US fracking activities produced 280 billion gallons of radioactive and toxic waste in the preceding year.
There are also concerns around the seismological effects of fracking – it has been suggested that the practice may cause earth tremors. In 2011, two minor earthquakes were reported in northwest England after fracking trials nearby, which caused the first wave of widespread public consternation about fracking in the UK. Those in favour of fracking argue that the tremors were relatively small and unlikely to cause major damage, but many are understandably concerned about the potential for earthquake activity in the UK.
Another (less publicised) concern is that fracking does nothing to assist the search for renewable energy sources – it is simply resorting to ever more extreme methods of obtaining an ultimately finite resource. Many environmental campaigners believe that the economic resources being ploughed into the development of fracking would be better invested in developing longer-term sources of sustainable energy.
Has fracking been used elsewhere?
While fracking is relatively new to the UK, it was first used in the US in 1949 and has since become an integral part of energy production – it is currently estimated that 67% of natural gas wells in the US are hydraulically fractured. There are numerous concerns about the environmental and public health impacts of such large-scale fracking activity, and this is a fast-growing area of research (although one that has faced frequent criticisms for a lack of impartiality, as most studies are funded either by energy companies or environmental groups).
What is the current situation regarding fracking in the UK?
A 2013 report by the British Geological Survey estimated that there may be as much as 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas underneath an area stretching across Lancashire and Yorkshire, and the report suggests that this could supply UK shale gas requirements for up to 25 years, depending upon how much of the gas is obtainable. In the wake of this report, energy minister Michael Fallon claimed that it would be ‘irresponsible’ not to use this apparent resource. There are also plans to explore areas of Wales and southeast England for drilling potential. Test drilling has taken place in Lancashire and West Sussex, in the face of vigorous public opposition – throughout the summer, it was difficult to miss endless headlines about the protests at Balcombe in the South Downs.
Fracking has recently made its way back into the news again, as the Treasury announced in its Autumn Statement that it intends to give tax breaks to drilling companies. Chancellor George Osborne claims that ‘Shale gas is part of the future and we will make it happen’, and David Cameron has spoken of his hopes that fracking will have similar effects in the UK as it has in the US – reducing energy prices and creating new jobs. The Institute of Directors, an organisation that seeks to advance business and industry, forecasts the creation of 100 fracking sites across the UK within the next ten to fifteen years.
The industry is keen to reassure the public that fracking will not have significant negative impacts upon the environment or public health, and draw a distinction between current fracking practices in the US and potential methods in the UK, particularly pointing to differences in geology and the greater stringency of UK regulations. However, the public appear to remain sceptical about the process – it is difficult to ignore the risks associated with fracking, and many point out that, given the current lack of research into its long-term effects, it seems reckless to plough ahead with such rapid and extensive increases in activity. While those in favour of fracking are quick to accuse its opponents of being opposed to progress, the fact that fracking is simply another, more extreme, way to access a limited resource hardly makes it seem progressive. Fracking appears to be yet another symptom of the reluctance of government and industry to research sustainable, long-term sources of energy – and this urgently needs to be addressed if energy needs are to realistically be met in the long term.
Emma Lock, Education Officer