13 Key Fracking Pros & Cons in the UK
What is fracking, how does it work and what are the key fracking pros and cons? We have created a quick guide to get you up to speed on what has been a raging debate in the UK. Here is everything you need to know.
What is fracking?
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing - the process from which the name derives - is an unconventional extraction method used to release fossil fuel (oil and natural gas) deposits from deep within the Earth’s surface.
What are fossil fuels? Fossil fuels are products of natural processes that turn organic matter into gaseous hydrocarbon, oil and coal deposits over millions of years. When extracted and refined, these deposits are combusted to generate energy. Crucially, fossil fuels are finite and carbon-intensive from extraction to end-use.
How does fracking work?
Fracking relies on immense drilling operations to reach sedimentary rock formations called shale, and high-pressure water pumps to release oil and natural gas trapped inside. The oil and natural gas are extracted, stored and refined to be used for energy generation and consumption.
The fracking process begins with intermittent vertical drilling to create a borehole of up to 10,000 feet in depth - the equivalent of eight Empire State Buildings - which gets encased in several layers of cement and steel. The casing works to prevent water migration and the collapse of the borehole walls.
At the lowest depths, when the targeted geological layer has been hit, the borehole curves 90 degrees to facilitate horizontal drilling along the shale formation. Horizontal drilling reduces surface impact and allows for wider shale coverage, thus improving production.
High-pressure water mixture
Once drilling is complete, a fracking liquid made of water, sand and various, potentially hazardous chemicals is directed through the borehole to the shale rock at high pressure. This creates fractures in the rock formation. Oil and natural gas are released from the consequent fissures and flow to the surface, at which point they are separated and stored.
Why is fracking controversial?
The debate about the use of fracking in the UK has, until recently, been tempestuous. In November 2019, a major Government u-turn brought its development to a halt after a study by the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) concluded that it was not possible to control earth tremors resulting from fracking operations.
However, Government ministers have suggested that the ban may be temporary. Indeed, Cuadrilla, the oil and gas extraction company, vowed to overturn the ban with new data.
This is not the first time that fracking has been brought to a stand-still. A six-year moratorium was introduced in 2011 after tremors were recorded near Blackpool.
Those opposed to it have highlighted the risk of water supply contamination, seismic activity, local habitat and wildlife damage, and its contribution to the climate crisis. Local communities as well as environmental groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have campaigned relentlessly against the practice.
A moratorium on fracking was introduced in Scotland and Wales in 2015. It has since been extended indefinitely by the Scottish Parliament. The Welsh government has stated that it will not support future applications from developers.
Fracking Pros and Cons
With the debate surely to arise once more, we are taking a balanced approach to a general assessment of fracking. Let’s take a look at 13 key fracking pros and cons.
Pros of Fracking
- Access to more gas and oil reserves
Accessing oil and gas from shale, though still finite, helps mitigate the exhaustion of oil and gas resources from conventional extraction methods. According to the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA), UK petroleum reserves are projected to sustain production for another 20 years or more.
The UK has large enough reserves of shale oil and gas to meet national energy consumption needs for years to come. This would allow the UK to rely much less heavily on foreign oil and gas imports, which could, in turn, reduce energy prices across the board. Government statistics reveal that net imports of all fuel types (coal, oil, natural gas, primary electricity and other renewable and waste) accounted for 36% of energy consumption in the UK in 2018.
- Reduced coal production
Development of fracking operations would allow the UK to reduce its production of coal for electricity. Coal is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels when it comes to electricity generation. This could help somewhat mitigate the climate crisis and potentially meet upcoming carbon emissions targets.
- Jobs creation
Fracking jobs could bring new opportunities to rural areas where British shale gas and oil deposits primarily lie. An industry review in 2014 predicted that fracking could generate over 60,000 new jobs.
- Energy security
Natural gas from fracking can be 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.
- Reduced water intensity compared to coal
Studies of fracking operations in the United States have shown that the amount of water used to produce a unit of energy (water intensity) in the first 12 months of production is less than half the amount used in coal extraction.
Cons of Fracking
- Water contamination
Chemicals used in the fracking process are potentially toxic and could contaminate local water supplies or cause pollution on the surface. In the United States, for example, toxic fracking water spewed unabated for more than 12 hours at a site in Pennsylvania. Additionally, a study by researchers at Duke University revealed that drinking water near fracking sites in Pennsylvania and New York contained dangerous levels of methane.
Earthquakes triggered by fracking have been recorded near blackpool in 2011, shortly before the introduction of a six year moratorium, and in 2019 before the latest ban. A 2.3 magnitude tremor was recorded near the Preston New Road site in April 2011, followed by a 1.4 magnitude tremor the following month. In August 2019, a 2.9 magnitude earthquake was recorded at the same site.
Many fracking proposals face opposition from local communities due to concerns over industrialisation of rural areas. Critics claim that fracking will result in noise pollution and much heavier traffic with a great number of trucks hauling equipment and water waste, causing higher levels of air pollution in turn.
- Ecological destruction
Fracking sites risk disturbing, reducing, damaging, fragmenting or entirely destroying local habitats, threatening the wildlife dependant on them. Fracking licences granted by the Government in 2015 included 293 sites of special scientific interest and 188 wildlife trust nature reserves. A 2016 study revealed that 65% of the areas targeted for fracking by the Government have higher biodiversity levels than the rest of the UK.
- High water consumption
The same study that shows the amount of water used to produce a unit of energy in the first 12 months of fracking production is less than half the amount used in coal extraction, also shows that water intensity sharply increases after the first 12 months. In some cases, water intensity exceeds that of coal.
- Carbon emissions
Fossil fuels extracted by fracking still emit dangerous amounts of greenhouse gasses that contribute to and perpetuate the climate crisis. Relying heavily on these fuels makes it harder to meet the net-zero carbon emissions targets set by the Government for 2050. To make things worse, environmental studies claim that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions anticipated by switching from coal to gas may not happen. This is because unused coal may end up being sold and used outside the UK.
- Stunting renewables
Investing heavily in fracking at the expense of renewable energy production endangers future green gas, wind and solar projects, which are more sustainable by nature and design. To reach our climate targets and to allay the current climate crisis, serious investment in and development of renewables is required.
UK net-zero emissions targetIn June 2019 the UK became the first G7 country to set a legally binding net-zero emissions target. The 2050 Target Amendment to The Climate Change Act 2008 commits the UK to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions by 100% of 1990 levels (net-zero) by 2050.
Fracking sites in the UK
Before the latest ban there was one active fracking site in the UK - Preston New Road in Lancashire, the site of the infamous 2011 and 2019 tremors. There were also a handful of sites for which planning was underway.
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Planning was in advanced stages for sites in Misson in Nottinghamshire, Broadford Bridge, Lidsey and Balcombe, all in West Sussex, Horse Hill in Surrey, and the West Midlands. Planning applications had been submitted for Dunsfold in Surrey and Belcoo Quarry in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.
Verdict: Alternatives to Fracking
Under the strain of the current climate crisis, and with the Government’s net-zero carbon emissions target looming in the distance, investment in renewable alternatives to fracking would certainly constitute a step in the right direction. This is to say: The debate on fracking should remain closed and the ban upheld.
Green gas biofuels produced by decomposing organic matter, green hydrogen, wind farms, solar energy harvesting and tidal power are viable alternatives that, with the right investment and policy management, could displace our reliance on fossil fuels and cut carbon emissions.