The controversial gas-extraction method known as ‘fracking’ has been given a potential green light to continue operations in the UK after a report by DECC was released today detailing concerns over two recent earthquakes linked to the industry. These admittedly tiny quakes (1.5 and 2.3), centred around Blackpool, caused little to no superficial damage and were undetectable to you or I, but did not sit well with the public and their perceptions of the method, and have since been linked to possible damage of more sensitive infrastructures, such as nuclear plants or train lines.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, attempts to access reserves of shale-gas, a form of the fossil fuel which is trapped within rocks deep in the Earth’s surface. By drilling wells over 1km into the surface and pumping water, sand and chemicals (a fair few as well) at very high pressures, fracturing of the rock occurs, which is held open by the sand particles, allowing the trapped gas to diffuse into the wells and up to the surface. Through this, gas reserves previously unavailable become relatively easy to extract, and has effectible transformed the US energy market, who now produce vast quantities of the stuff.
Many of these chemicals have been linked with health and environmental issues, such as the famously viral video portraying a resident in the US lighting water pouring from a tap, supposedly tainted with methane from the nearby fracking plant. others have said the process can cause illness, destabilise the ground for miles around and lead to dangerous repercussions, such as quakes which could directly damage fracking wells.
However, many governments, ours included, see it as a potential natural gas resource which should not and cannot be ignored, given the rising costs to the economy and the environment of coal and oil, both of which burn dirtier and produce more carbon than gas. Not only this, but reserves are of course domestic, lowering the importing costs and foreign dependencies of those countries which invest in shale-gas successfully. Considering the power of the phrase ‘domestically-produced energy’ these days, its no surprise many nations are piling money into fracking.
So, back to the UK. DECC’s report, along with the prominent fracking companies present, such as Cuadrilla, suggests that more stringent and sensitive measures are used to lessen the potential damage the process could incur, such as tweaking the part of the mechanism which invokes pumping liquids actively into the crust so that lower pressures and less chemicals are used. This will allow fracking to continue in the UK, albeit with potentially higher costs which could eventually put companies off exploring the industry further. For now however, Cuadrilla has stated it is happy to see that the government has made it clear that fracking is safe and can carry on as usual, with many other companies following suit.
In terms of actual resources of UK shale-gas, the value is highly debated and variable. Cuadrilla states that well over 200 trillion cubic feet exist in Lancashire alone, enough to provide the entire country’s natural gas needs for five decades to come. The British Geological Survey however put the value at much more conservative 4.7 trillion cubic feet, with only 5-10% of that figure retrievable with current, economically viable methods.
The biggest issue I have with this whole fracking deal is probably one of the most obvious; it’s not renewable, and it is simply not clean technology. For me, this sits atop all the other problems, of which I may add many are still unfounded and pending further investigation, and is one which should be the only one worth listening to.
Shale-gas may be a relatively abundant resource which could reduce our carbon emissions whilst still fitting in with our current energy and economic systems, but the simple fact is that it is still a dirty fuel. There is no point attempting to alleviate climate change through the reduction of emissions if fracking is involved. Switching from one fossil fuel, to another, slightly less damaging fossil fuel does not solve the problem, it just puts if off for another few decades. We’re smarter than that aren’t we?
With renewables such as solar and wind near grid parity and becoming cheaper by the day, it should be a clear path towards investment and regulation in those sectors, whilst pulling money out of the fossil fuel industry. It’s not out of the question to assume that tapping another natural gas resource will not cause reductions in imports etc, but will just become yet another lucrative fuel to sell or burn as we see fit. It’s pessimistic I know, but not out of the question. We should just be ignoring this, knowing that the public and wider scientific field don’t like the idea of fracking, and never will.
There are still many other issues with this method of extracting, and the entire process is an ongoing and highly changeable situation, and is too broad in extent for me to fit into one blog post, so I urge you to read the links below, which will give you more information and more rounded view on the subject, such as the Q&A section from the Guardian, an especially neutral and balanced approach.
A decision is due from the government within six weeks, so keep your eye on any new reports and keep your fingers crossed we don’t go down the US fracking route.