What is Fracking?
Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, is an unconventional mining method to extract oil and natural gas trapped in geological layers within rock formations called shale.
The fracking process starts by drilling down to reach a shale rock layer deep underground. Once there, the drill can punch through the shale rock horizontally to get as much coverage as possible. Then, water mixed with sand and chemicals is pumped down at very high pressures to break up the shale rock. This releases the gas which then flows back up the bore hole to the surface.
What is Shale?Shale is a sedimentary rock often made up of organic matter (plants and animals from very long ago). As those organic remains decayed over millions of years, they broke down creating hydrocarbon compounds. These are the building blocks of many fuels we rely on, such as petrol and natural gas. Shale can have different characteristics dependent on geography, one notable example is marcellus shale which is common in the american northeast.
Fracking Pros and Cons
Let's take a closer look at the advantages and disadvantages of fracking in the UK.
Pros of Fracking
- The UK has large enough reserves of shale oil and gas to meet national needs for years to come. This would allow the UK to rely much less heavily on imported oil and gas and lead to lower energy prices across the board.
- Having cheaper natural gas will allow the UK to reduce its need for coal to make electricity. Coal is the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels when it comes to electricity generation.
- Reducing our reliance on coal will help bring down harmful greenhouse gas emissions and potentially meet upcoming climate change targets.
- Fracking jobs will bring new opportunities to rural areas where British shale gas deposits primarily lie.
- Natural gas from fracking can be quickly used in cleaner gas-fired power stations to make up for any shortfalls in solar and wind electricity production that are unavoidable with changing weather patterns. Natural gas obtained from fracking can help sustain a strong energy supply from renewable sources.
Cons of Fracking
- If care is not taken when fracking, it can potentially disbenefit local communities and environments. Water and aquifer contamination, sinkholes as well as earthquakes have been of particular concern in the past. Horizontal drilling remains an unconventional extraction technique.
- Many fracking proposals face local opposition due to concerns over industrialisation of rural areas. Critics claim that fracking will result in much heavier traffic, noise pollution and wildlife disturbance around fracking sites.
- Some environmental studies suggest that relying heavily on gas from fracking would make it harder to meet climate change goals in 2050.
- Similar studies claim that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions anticipated by switching from coal over to gas will not actually happen. This is because unused coal will end up being sold and used outside the UK
- Investing heavily in fracking at the expense of renewable energy production could endanger future green gas, wind and solar projects, which are more sustainable by design.
Why is fracking so controversial?
There have been countless surprising headlines about the fracking industry world. Documentaries, such as Gasland from 2010 have shone the spotlight on water supply contamination and seismic activity caused by fracking. Environmental groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have campaigned relentlessly against the practice and successfully influenced public opinion over the past decade.
The result is heavy polarisation on both sides of the issue. Many politicians and celebrities have campaigned either for or against fracking, lending the debate a great deal of visibility. It's worth bearing in mind that many objections around the fracking industry stem from early fracking practices occurring in places with little regulation or oversight which lead to legitimate health concerns and environmental problems for communities near hydraulic fracturing sites.
There are very real issues that can arise when fracking sites are not planned carefully or operated properly. However, at the same time, the potential pitfalls of fracking pale in comparison with the dangers of other forms of energy generation. Nuclear energy, which accounts for almost 20% of the UK's energy mix, has had more than its fair share of mishaps and serious incidents both in the UK and abroad. Yet, headlines about nuclear energy are few and far between nowadays. It's as if, with time, we have become accustomed to the risk. Some energy experts are even touting nuclear as a clean form of energy production by conveniently sidestepping the hazardous nuclear fuel storage and disposal issues that have not been effectively resolved to this day.
In the end, hydraulic fracturing deserves to be discussed without sensationalism by taking into account the progress that has been made over the past few years in establishing better practices and oversight. As long as the government and industry are committed to the safety and minimising environmental impact, fracking has a place within a diverse energy mix.
Fracking has recently been in the news, as countries look at each other in terms of fracking practices and successful energy generation. Changing governments and public opinion has also affected the fracking industry, both in the UK and abroad. Below, we look at some of the latest developments.
Fracking in the UK
A six-year moratorium on fracking was recently lifted and a number of sites in England are likely to start hydraulic fracturing this year. Fracking sites in North Yorkshire and West Sussex are slated to be operational this year if all goes according to plan. However, it's important to temper any enthusiasm about the future with the current social and political trends, as demonstrated by the difficulties experienced by Third Energy and fracking in Kirby Misperton.
The current government is cautiously supporting fracking as it faces resistance from local authorities to fast-tracking further sites. The UK fracking and gas industry is in a watershed moment and only time will tell if the opposition will continue or if people and the powers that be will be won over by the success fracking has had in the US.
Fracking in Europe
Several countries, including France, Germany and Ireland have bans in place to enforce environmental protection when it comes to fracking. At the same time, Poland recently seemed like a promising destination for hydraulic fracturing, with several big energy names pouring into the country. However, more detailed surveys showed that Polish prospects had been overstated and, in spite of encouraging political and public opinion, it seems that fracking will not take off in Poland.
Fracking in the US and the rest of the world
The United States is probably the biggest fracking success story to date and is being closely watched by UK policymakers and industry experts. Thanks to lobbying and lax regulation with regards to methane infiltration in groundwater, fracking in the US started in earnest in the 90s in Pennsylvania and has expanded to almost half of the states. Fracking has noticeably impacted petrol, heating and electricity prices. It is surprising that petrol prices at the pump have been cut almost in half over a four-year period while electricity and gas prices essentially flatlined. Whether this can last, however, remains to be seen.
Australia very recently rescinded a fracking ban on its vast Northern Territory region while keeping national parks off the table. Opinions in the region remain divided but the government has highlighted both the job creation potential of fracking and also regulations that will come into play when drilling starts. The Australian government relied on an independent inquiry into the impact of the fracking industry to decide, agreeing to all its recommendations to mitigate potential environmental issues arising from this decision.
The biggest question mark in the fracking world is China. The economic powerhouse possesses very significant shale oil and gas deposits that are currently untapped. If China decided to follow the United States' lead and aggressively exploit these reserves, its production could dwarf that of the US.
Alternatives to FrackingWhile fracking does not produce renewable energy, the natural gas that it provides could help even out a predominantly renewable energy mix by playing a supporting role to solar, wind and hydro electricity production which can fluctuate due to environmental factors such as the weather.The most direct alternative to fracking is gas generated through green gas production methods. The gas produced in this way is just as effective as natural gas.
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