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13.10.14 The controversy around fracking

13th Oct 2014


So just to finish this month’s theme off looking at attitudes, we are shifting the focus slightly away from climate change in general and looking at something which has received a lot of media attention recently, the recovery of shale gas by fracking.

Why do we need gas?

A third of UK energy demand is met by gas. In 2012 around a quarter of gas used in the UK was used to produce electricity, about a fifth by industry and around 40% to cook food and heat buildings.

In 2003 the UK were a net exporter of gas, but North Sea production is now declining and the UK is a net importer. By 2025 it is expected that the UK will be importing near to 70% of the gas consumed (DECC figures) if we don’t use shale.

DECC’s aim is to secure energy supply by maximising UK production of the fuels that we need, increasing generation from renewables and using energy more wisely.

So how does fracking work?

Fracking (or hydraulic fracturing) is a technique designed to recover gas and oil from shale rock. It is done by drilling into the earth and directing a high pressure water mixture at the rick to release the gas inside. Water, sand and chemicals are injected into the rick at high pressure which allows the gas to flow out to the head of the well. The process can be carried out vertically or horizontally by drilling and can be used to extend existing channels or create new pathways.

How does it score on emissions?

The process of extracting the gas, which includes exploratory drilling, hydraulic fracturing, gas production and well abandonment phases, has the potential to release methane into the atmosphere. These emissions could increase the carbon footprint of shale gas and in large quantities it could lessen the climate benefits of using natural gas when compared to oil and coal.

At exploration stage there is usually no use for the gas and so it is burnt off (or “flared”) to minimise emissions. Flaring reduces GHG emissions by about 80% compared to allowing it to escape into the atmosphere. When it is in full production operators capture as much of the methane as possible and export it by pipeline.

Minimising the carbon footprint

A study by the chief scientist for DECC looked at the effect of emissions, and found that the carbon footprint for shale gas is significantly less than for coal when it is used for electricity generation. Most carbon emissions will come from its final use as a fuel.

Why is it controversial?

Fracking has been used extensively in the US and has raised some environmental concerns. The environmental concerns focus around three key issues:

1. Water use – the process of fracking uses a huge amount of water that needs to be taken to the fracking site at significant environmental cost

2. Contamination of groundwater – Some of the chemicals that are used in the fracking process are nasty and there is a fear that potentially carcinogenic chemicals could escape and pollute groundwater around the fracking site.

3. Tremors – there are also worries that the fracking process can cause small earth tremors.  In 2011, in Blackpool two small earthquakes were reported following fracking.

Environmental campaigners suggest that fracking is distracting energy firms and governments from investing in renewable sources of energy, and encouraging continued reliance on fossil fuels.

Attitudes towards fracking

Put fracking into a Google search and as well as a range of imaginative (and not so imaginative!) puns around the word “frack”, you will find a whole heap of campaigns, articles, and blogs from people who are opposed to fracking. Below are just a selection

Dangers of Fracking

In Texas, traffic deaths climb amid fracking boom

Fracking is too dangerous; it threatens the water we drink, the air we breathe and our health”

A colossal fracking mess

What is the effect on farmers?

Just last week the NFU released a statement saying that farmers need assurances of compensation if fracking reduces the value of their land. Interestingly this article from the NFU and the issue of declining land value above fracking sites, all comes down to public perception. NFU members are fearful that the value of their land above fracking sites could be reduced “because of current attitudes and perceptions of fracking” event if no harm was actually caused.

Dr Jonathan Scurlock from the NFU said that the NFU are seeking assurances from the government that landowners will be protected against any possible indirect impacts of fracking.

DECC have responded to the NFU with the following statement: “Whilst the shale gas industry in Britain is in its infancy, extensive research confirms that we – in the UK – have the right regulations in place to ensure that drilling so farm underground has no negative impact on the surface.  Of over half a century of oil and gas production in the UK there has been no evidence that house prices have been impacted and there should be no reason for this to change for shale gas.”

The debate continues...