What is fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing or fracking is the process of extracting oil and gas from inside layers of shale rock, often a mile or more below the surface. It involves drilling a verticle hole into the ground before turning the drill horizontally, forming a well that runs lengthways and creating a sort of L-shape. Punched into either side are small cavities that are left for several months before the extraction process begins.
Later, a water, sand and chemical mix is sent into the well and blasted into the rock layer, opening a series of small cracks or fissures to release the natural gas inside.
This TedEd video does a great job of showing the fracking process.
France banned fracking over environmental concerns, but it's a relatively common way of extracting natural gas in Canada and the US. The UK approach is a little more erratic. The Government initially banned fracking in 2011 but, in 2019, decided to pursue what the New Scientist describes as 'exploratory drilling'. However, it was suspended shortly after reports of seismic tremors around the fracking site. In 2022, Prime Minister Liz Truss announced the UK would explore fracking in response to rising energy costs and lifted the suspension on drilling.
Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy Jacob Reese Mogg accused anti-fracking supporters of being sponsored by Vladimir Putin. He argued that fracking is in the national interest, even when it causes earthquakes. But fracking lacks broad appeal in the UK, even outside those communities most likely to be affected by it.
Chris Cornelius, the co-founder of Cuadrilla, the UK's first fracking company, doesn't even believe fracking is the future of UK energy. The Guardian reports him saying, "I don't think there is any chance of fracking in the UK in the near term." Because, unlike North America, the "geology of the UK [is] unsuited to widespread fracking operations". Cornelius believes the Government's announcement is just a "political gesture" and is unlikely to attract "sensible investors".
What are the pros and cons of fracking?
Fracking is a divisive subject, but what are some of its advantages and disadvantages, especially for people in the UK?
- Fracking emits less carbon dioxide into the air than burning coal, leading proponents to argue that it's better for the environment. However, fracking also releases high methane levels during drilling, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), methane is between 28 and 34-times more potent than carbon dioxide.
- Fracking also helps reduce reliance on gas imports from other countries, including Russia. If the UK accesses its own natural gas supply, it will have greater energy security and stability. Fracking is also the only way to extract oil and gas from certain locations. The British Geological Survey has estimated that there is around 1300 trillion cubic feet of gas in Northern England which would otherwise be inaccessible. Of course, this will depend on just how accessible this is in reality.
- One of the biggest arguments against fracking is that it isn't a clean energy source. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel (even before you consider its increased methane levels). The message from climate scientists is clear: we must dramatically reduce our fossil fuel use and switch to clean energy sources. Fracking isn't a source of renewable power. A 2015 report found that 400 wells would increase national emissions of air pollution.
Fracking may be bad for human health too. One study published in the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Global Public Health examined hundreds of scientific articles to explore the health concerns around extracting shale gas. Environmental Health News writes how fracking has been 'linked to preterm births, high-risk pregnancies, asthma, migraine headaches, fatigue, nasal and sinus symptoms and skin disorders'. The article says that while there are many health concerns, the biggest appears to be the risk to women during pregnancy. The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) writes how babies born 'within 2 miles of a fracking site are more likely to suffer from poor health' than those living in other areas. Babies born 'within half a mile of a site' were '25% more likely to be born at a low birth weight'.
There may also be a link to both respiratory problems and sound-related stress. In an article for Forbes, Jody Stone writes that 'cough, shortness of breath and wheezing are the most common complaints of residents living near fracked wells'. 'Toxic gases like benzene' are also released from the rock during the process. The Forbes article also mentions other studies where the noise levels of a fracking operation can cause sleep disturbances and stress. Long-term exposure can also cause endocrine abnormalities and diabetes, heart disease, stress and depression.'
- Another significant concern is the link to increased seismic activity; earth tremors have been reported in fracking areas. According to the British Geological Survey (BGS), "it is well known that hydrocarbon exploration and production can result in man-made or 'induced' earthquakes".
Friends of the Earth writes that "The high-pressure liquid changes the stresses on any nearby existing geological faults and lubricates the fault surface, sometimes triggering an earthquake. In the UK, the rocks happen to be already at near breaking-point, so any additional pressures applied can trigger earthquakes."
Fracking caused two earthquakes in Lancaster in 2011, something Cuadrilla, the company responsible for the fracking site (and a UK Government report), confirmed.
- And fracking requires enormous quantities of water. One well in the US can use between 1.5 million and 9.7 million gallons of water.
There's also concern that poorly maintained or regulated fracking sites could lead to contaminated groundwater supplies. Fracking fluid could seep if the well isn't sealed or maintained correctly. In 2016, the Guardian covered a fracking story about water contamination in Wyoming. You can read more about that by following this link.
- Equally, there's concern that fracking will reduce the amount of focus and funding for clean energy solutions. According to a blog on the Manchester University website, one author wrote that it was ridiculous that first-world countries were pursuing fracking, arguing that instead, people should look at reducing fossil fuel usage. The article explains that fracking could be helpful for less developed nations as an interim period.
- Fracking does help create jobs and support the local economy, but there's also criticism that it leads to ecological destruction and damage.
Why was fracking banned in the UK?
The UK suspended fracking in 2011 and 2019 after reported seismic activity in drilling areas. It also hasn't had widespread public support, especially once people began reading about tremors in Lancashire. A lack of political will has also played a role, something Liz Truss and her new Government are looking to overturn.
Supporters of fracking argue that it will help reduce energy prices in the UK and that it's eco-friendlier than burning carbon. The current energy crisis and the suggestion of reduced energy bills make this an attractive position for some. But those against it point to the environmental, health and geological concerns raised by fracking. And whether companies can extract natural gas from shale safely, efficiently and in significant quantities remains to be seen.