What is fracking? Common questions answered

What is fracking?

Fracking is a controversial topic. When it comes to energy, it is sometimes difficult to balance being green with meeting demand and this is very true of 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. 

Fracking, otherwise known as hydraulic fracking, 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. 

How does fracking work? 

“Fracking” refers to the process by which the rock is broken apart. The process can be done vertically, but more usually it is done horizontally. This is 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. 

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

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

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

  • 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 mostly made of 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 is 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 environmental activists about the potential 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 the potential 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. As a result, fracking’s environmental impact is severe. 

  • 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 that residents are able to use. 

  • Water contamination – Some organisations claim that the water mixture that is pumped into shale rock contains carcinogenic chemicals. This water, if it escapes from the fracking boreholes or leaks into the local 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. This can have a negative impact on the environment. Plus, the process of treating this wastewater and returning it to a usable state is not straightforward and requires a significant expenditure of 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 stronger than carbon dioxide at trapping heat. 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 U.S. 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? 

One other major concern around of anti-fracking activists revolves around the potential of fracking causing earthquakes, and there have been reports of numerous tremors and quakes directly resulting from the fracking process. 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 a reason to be concerned about fracking’s environmental impact. 

Are there any benefits of fracking? 

The pros of fracking are mainly that it can provide significant amounts of energy at a time when there are diminishing numbers of easy-to-reach sources, not just in the UK, but across the world. There are also economic impacts that add to the benefits of fracking, such as increased employment around areas near fracking sites. However, the pros of fracking as compared to other means of sourcing gas are not very significant, as fracking is generally recognised as being an inefficient process. 

How much frackable energy is there in the UK? 

The UK has a significant amount 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 only contain around 200 trillion cubic feet, which is enough for around five to seven years. 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 Conservative government announced a fracking ban in the UK 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. 

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. 

Ben GallizziEnergy Expert - Nov 11th 2019