In Depth

What are the pros and cons of fracking?

Activists warn that government may bypass fracking ban by using corrosive acid

Activists have called for a ban on fracking to be extended to include acid fracking, which they say is not covered by current legislation.

According to The Guardian, “more than 500 academics, politicians and campaigners have signed an open letter initiated by Brockham Oil Watch calling on the government to ban the practice over fears companies may use it to get around the moratorium”.

Acid fracking is the process of injecting acid into the earth to dissolve or fracture rock and release natural gas. The paper reports that no permits have yet been granted for acid stimulation in England, but companies “commonly use acid wash to clean wells”, and activists fear lack of monitoring could lead to “fracking by stealth”

“It isn’t acceptable just to have half a moratorium,” Jonathan Bartley, the co-leader of the Green party, said. “The definition [of fracking] needs to be expanded, regulations need to apply right across all forms of unconventional drilling, and local communities need to know what’s going on beneath their feet.”

What exactly does fracking involve and are activists right to be concerned?

Why is fracking allowed?

Hydraulic fracturing is the process of drilling into the earth and forcing a stream of water, sand and other chemicals into rocks at extremely high pressure, breaking them open to release the natural gas inside.

The process “can be carried out vertically or, more commonly, by drilling horizontally to the rock layer, which can create new pathways to release gas or used to extend existing channels”, the BBC says.

The practice creates a network of fractures in the rocks, through which the gas is forced back to the surface in the stream of the water.

Why is it so controversial?

A number of environmental issues have been linked directly to fracking, with the risk of man-made earthquakes among the serious concerns.

In an article on The Conversation, Richard Davies, pro-vice chancellor for engagement and internationalisation at Newcastle University, writes: “Earthquakes can occur when fracking takes place near a geological fault. It’s a bit like how a hovercraft works, by pumping air to produce a cushion so it can slip more easily over the land surface. 

“If frack fluid is pumped into a geological fault, it can also slip more easily. Fracking can also change the stress on the fault, causing it to release, and a big enough fault shift will be felt as an earthquake.”

Fracking has also been blamed for air pollution, groundwater contamination, health problems and surface water pollution, Live Science says.

Wired notes that environmentalists fear that “potentially carcinogenic chemicals used during the process may escape and contaminate the ground around the fracking site”, as well as ground and surface water.

Moreover, the “huge amounts of water” used in fracking must be transported to the site at “significant environmental cost”, the BBC says. Environmental news site Conserve Energy Future  adds that there has even been “an increased number of droughts in and around areas in which fracking has taken place”.

Owners of homes near fracking sites could see the values of their prices fall as a result, Live Science notes.

Why is it allowed?

In many parts of the world, it isn’t. France passed legislation in 2011 that entirely outlawed fracking based on environmental concerns, while Bulgaria and Ireland followed suit in 2012 and 2016 respectively. Tunisia, the Netherlands, Scotland have all imposed moratoriums on fracking pending further research, while Germany has placed a ban on commercial fracking, but allows continued fracking for scientific projects.

Quartz notes that “the British anti-fracking lobby is loud”, with activists arguing that the UK “should not be pursuing expensive fracking technology that will only perpetuate its reliance on fossil fuels at a time when a push towards renewable energy is an increasingly viable alternative”.

However, “the UK’s Conservative-led government has pushed hard to make fracking possible again, and consistently championed it in the face of opposition,” the news site adds. Lancashire council initially voted to deny Cuadrilla a fracking permit for the Blackpool site, but the decision was overruled by the Government.

According to the BBC, the Government believes shale gas fracking has the potential to provide the UK with “greater energy security, growth and jobs” and that it “could be an important part of our transition to a low-carbon future”.

In 2018, then-prime minister Theresa May told The Yorkshire Post that shale gas extraction was important “because of the impact it can have on our future energy security”, adding that it would “be financially beneficial for communities” in the north of England.

The pros and cons of fracking

Advantages:
    • Access to materials: fracking can reach depths that other extraction methods cannot, meaning greater access to natural deposits of gas and oil. “This is a really important benefit, as many scientists previously thought that we had only a few years left to use fossil fuels before they ran out,” Conserve Energy Future says.
    • Keeping us off coal: reliance on natural gas, rather than coal, is “indisputably creating widespread public health benefits, as the burning of natural gas produces fewer harmful particles in the air”, reports news service Yale Climate Connections.
    • Job creation:  An industry-commissionereport by professional services firm Ernst & Young (EY) in 2014 said that the sector could create around 64,000 jobs in the UK, based on 4,000 horizontal wells being drilled by 2032.
    • Cheaper fuel: fracking has created an abundance of oil and natural gas in the market, which has lowered the price of both materials.
Disadvantages:
    • Waste of water: a report released by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2018 stated that on average, more than five million gallons of freshwater is used to fracture just one gas well. “That's more than enough to fill seven Olympic-size swimming pools,” the study says.
    • Earthquakes: the disposal of drilling wastewater used in fracking has been scientifically linked to earthquakes. The fluids used in fracking, along with the wastewater that comes back up the well, is disposed of “by injecting it into disposal wells deep underground”, says energy and environment news site StateImpact Texas. “This is generally regarded as the safest, most cost-efficient way to get rid of it,” the site notes, but adds that fracking has been causing earthquakes that “growing both in number and strength” in some parts of the US.
    • Air pollution: a “buried” UK government report from two years ago found that a fracking industry of 400 wells would increase national emissions of air pollution, with nitrogen dioxides rising by 1% and 4%, and volatile organic compounds by 1% and 3%, The Guardian reports.
    • Water pollution: the BBC says that some areas near fracking sites in the US have “complained about high levels of the carcinogen benzene in underground water supplies” as a result of the practice. The water used in fracking often “comes back to the surface” and can be contaminated with heavy metals and radioactivity, the broadcaster adds.
    • Noise pollution: fracking “creates noise at levels high enough to harm the health of people living nearby”, with potential outcomes including “annoyance, sleep disturbance, and cardiovascular disease”, according to a study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment
    • Employment estimates are not realistic: The EY figure of 64,000 jobs being created by 2032 is unrealistic, as it is based on the assumption that those jobs will be spread across 4,000 wells, The Guardian claims. “So far, just one company has drilled one horizontal well,” the newspaper reported.

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