By Laura Hughes
Fracking hasn’t been out of the headlines recently, particularly since the UK Government gave the green light for fracking across many parts of the country, including in national parks and other protected areas in ‘exceptional circumstances’.
Those in favour argue that fracking offers great opportunities to stabilise the country’s energy market and develop regional economies. Those against fracking claim that the environmental and health impacts are far too great, or too uncertain, to justify the process. So, what’s fracking really all about?
Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, is the unconventional exploration of shale gas – a naturally occurring gas that forms in shale rock deep below the earth’s surface. Shale gas is composed mainly of methane but can also contain hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and other hydrocarbons. Unlike conventional gas and oil extraction methods, shale gas is obtained directly from its source rock.
This is achieved by first creating a well pad, drilling a vertical borehole, then drilling a number of wells in various directions to target potential shale gas reserves through a process known as ‘directional drilling’. Drilling for shale gas typically involves well depths of between 2,000 and 6,000 metres. Large volumes of water, together with a mix of sand and chemicals known as ‘hydraulic fracturing fluid’, are then pumped into the rock at a high pressure to create tiny artificial fractures in the rock. The shale gas stimulated by this process escapes through the cracks and flows back to the well bore for capture and processing.
Very little fracking has actually occurred in the UK to date, beyond exploratory drilling, so what’s known is based largely on developments overseas, and particularly in the US where fracking is already a booming industry and has helped to lower energy costs as a result.
The economic case for fracking claims that vast quantities of previously inaccessible shale gas can now be economically exploited. Although thought to be considerable, there are varying estimates of the amount of recoverable shale gas thought to be available across the UK as a whole. The British Geological Survey (BGS) has, however, estimated there to be 1300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas available in the Bowland shale basin alone, which spans from Cheshire to Yorkshire, but does not know how much of this is likely to be recoverable. Shale gas recovery rates are typically between 10% and 30%.
It’s claimed that shale gas could contribute significantly to the country’s future energy needs, reducing the over-reliance on other fossil fuels and providing security as well as job opportunities. A 2013 Institute of Directors report on fracking suggested that it could support 74,000 jobs in the UK.
Those against fracking, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, argue that the use of potential carcinogens in the fracturing fluid, resulting groundwater and surface contamination and the release of harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the process not only harm the environment, but also endanger human health. They point to evidence from fracking in the US and in Australia, where large numbers of water contamination incidents have been recorded and air pollution monitoring near drilling sites has exposed harmful levels of emissions that could affect the brain and central nervous system.
There are also concerns that the process can trigger small earth tremors, as happened twice in Lancashire in 2011, that fracking will affect house prices and that the UK should instead be investing in renewable energy as a sustainable future power source to help tackle climate change.
In June 2014, Public Health England published a review of the potential public health impacts of fracking. It found the potential risks from exposure to the emissions associated with fracking to be ‘low’, under proper operational management. It noted that where potential risks were identified, these were typically a result of operational failures. The research suggests that robust management, control and monitoring are key.
Shale gas reserves have already been identified across the country, including vast areas in the North of England and also in densely populated central Scotland. Private sector firms are being invited to bid for new onshore oil and gas licences, and some have already been granted. A number of financial incentives are also being made available to communities that will be directly affected by fracking. The UK government consulted on plans which would make it easier for firms to drill under residential areas and 99% of over 40,000 respondents objected to the plans. Despite this, the UK Government have announced that they are to remove the rights of householders to object to fracking beneath their home at depths of 300 metres or more.
Exploratory drilling sites have already attracted huge numbers of protesters, and some anti-fracking campaigners have gone so far as to super-glue themselves to government building doors in protest at what they claim to be a deliberate withholding of negative information on fracking by the UK government in a draft report, yet to be officially published, about the impact of fracking on rural communities. The Scottish Government is also calling on the powers relating to the issue to be included in the current devolution process.
Fracking is certainly a highly controversial issue that’s going to be in the headlines for some time to come.
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