What is fracking and why is it controversial?

In this guide you’ll get answers to the following questions:

  • What is fracking?

  • How does fracking work?

  • Why is fracking controversial?

  • How much frackable energy is there in the UK?

  • What’s the current status of fracking in the UK?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracking” to give it its full name, is a technique for extracting hard-to-reach oil and gas from shale rock underneath the surface of the earth. It has become increasingly widespread in recent years due to the decline of conventional, easy-to-reach sources of oil and gas. Essentially, the process involves drilling down into the earth before directing a high-pressure water mixture at the shale rock, releasing the gas.

Fracking is a controversial topic in the energy sphere. It’s sometimes difficult to balance being green with meeting the demand for energy, and this is particularly true with fracking. While drilling companies suggest that trillions of cubic feet of shale gas could be found underneath parts of the UK, anti-fracking campaigners have condemned the process due to its negative impact on the environment. 

How does fracking work? 

“Fracking” refers to the process by which the shale rock is broken apart to reach the sources of oil and/or gas. The process can be done vertically, but more usually is done horizontally because drilling horizontally can create new pathways to release the gas. Here’s a quick summary of how the fracking process works in most instances.

  1. At a fracking site, a well around two to three kilometres deep will be drilled and a mixture of water, chemicals, and sand will be pumped in to create small fractures in the shale rock.

  2. Because shale is porous, the rock contains lots of tiny pockets that trap natural gas. When the water, chemicals, and sand are pumped in, they open fissures in the rock. This connects the pockets and enables the shale gas to well up to the surface.

  3. The gas is then processed, and the contaminated wastewater is taken away to be treated. 

  4. Finally, after all the gas at a fracking site has been extracted, a new well is drilled, and the process begins again from scratch.

What is shale gas? 

Shale gas is a type of natural gas that is primarily methane. It can be used to provide energy for a broad range of processes, including cooking and domestic heating. Shale gas is found in shale rock, which is formed when layers of mud accumulate and compress over millions of years.

For the organic materials in shale rock to produce gas, they need to have been buried and heated in 100-degree Celsius temperatures. This means that the ideal spot for shale rock to produce shale gas is around two kilometres below the surface of the earth. Any closer to the ground, and the rock will be too cool to convert organic matter into gas.

It’s not possible for shale gas to flow through rock, which is why the only way to effectively access the gas is to break the rock apart through fracking. 

Why is fracking controversial? 

Fracking has prompted concerns from environmentalists about the impact that this process could have on the environment. Here are some of the key issues that anti-fracking protestors have identified when it comes to the negative effects of fracking: 

  • Environmental damage

The main problem associated with fracking is its negative impact on the environment. Using fracking instead of green energy sources is not compatible with climate-friendly energy initiatives, and fracking is much less efficient than other means of sourcing gas.

  • Water transportation

Because fracking uses such huge amounts of water (the equivalent of 16 Olympic swimming pools) the environmental cost of transporting it to the fracking site is significant. Not only that, but if the water is being sourced from nearby areas, it directly reduces the amount of clean water available to residents. 

  • Water contamination

Some organisations claim that the water mixture pumped into shale rock contains carcinogenic chemicals. This water, if it escapes from the fracking boreholes or leaks into the local water supply, could potentially pollute local groundwater supplies. 

  • Water waste

Around 20-40% of the water that returns to the surface in fracking contains toxic contaminants. Plus, the process of treating this wastewater and returning it to a usable state is not straightforward and requires a significant expenditure of additional resources. 

  • Air quality

Methane is released into the atmosphere during the fracking process. This can be detrimental to air quality, as methane is around 25 times more effective trapping heat than carbon dioxide. In addition, fracking sites increases emissions from transport, construction, and waste disposal, having an even greater impact on air quality. 

  • Accidents, leaks, and explosions

With fracking, there is a genuine risk of accidents. In the US alone, a 10-year period saw over 6,000 leaks from fracking sites. Fracking may also increase the chances of oil spills, which can have a seriously damaging effect on soil and vegetation. 

  • House prices

Although it’s not quite as serious as some of the other points raised by anti-fracking protestors, fracking can have a negative impact on regular people’s bottom line. According to recent studies, in Lancashire, house prices fell between 2.7% and 4.1% after fracking began in 2011. 

Does fracking cause earthquakes? 

Yes – another major concern expressed by anti-fracking activists is its potential to cause earthquakes, and there have been numerous reports of tremors and quakes resulting directly from the fracking process, forcing the process to shut down temporarily. Ultimately, while earthquakes caused by fracking are rare, and not usually on a scale that the average person would feel, it remains a possibility and represents another negative impact fracking has on the environment. 

Are there any benefits of fracking? 

One of the key advantages of fracking is that it can release significant amounts of energy at a time when other sources of gas and oil in easy-to-reach locations are in decline across the world. There are also economic benefits, such as increased employment around areas near fracking sites. That said, fracking is generally recognised as a much less efficient form of sourcing gas than the alternatives, and Cuadrilla, fracking’s largest UK company, admitted fracking would have an “insignificant” effect on reducing the price of gas. 

How much frackable energy is there in the UK? 

The UK has significant amounts of shale. However, the distribution and the proportion of that shale that is frackable is a matter for some debate, with different organisations posting different amounts. According to research from a 2013 government study, there may be around 1,300 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Bowland shale alone, indicating that shale gas could supply the UK’s energy needs for decades.

However, recent research suggests that the Bowland shale may contain just 200 trillion cubic feet, enough to meet the UK’s needs for the next 5-7 years only. Regardless of how much frackable gas there is in the UK, it isn’t a long-term option. 

What is the current status of fracking in the UK? 

The government announced an indefinite suspension on fracking in England in November 2019, following a report from the Oil and Gas Authority that said it was not possible to rule out the possibility of seismic activity caused by fracking. Although the door has been left open for the moratorium to be removed, in June 2020 energy minister Kwasi Karteng reiterated that – for now at least – “fracking is over”. The devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales had already announced measures to effectively ban fracking in their regions. 

What are the alternatives to fracking? 

Fracking isn’t the only option when it comes to the UK’s future energy sources. There are many other, safe, low-carbon, cost-effective, and most importantly, renewable alternatives that could be used instead. Heating domestic buildings using ground or air source heat pumps could be one such option, while shallow geothermal heat storage may also be an effective alternative. Biogas, also known as biomethane, may also be used for electricity and gas generation. 

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Updated on Fri 16 Oct 2020 12.00 GMT