Pros and cons

The pros and cons of fracking

Prime minister looking at ‘all options’ to secure the UK’s energy supplies

Boris Johnson has left the door open to lifting the ban on fracking as he looks for ways to shore up the country’s energy security following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A Downing Street spokesperson said that the country needed to “move away from our reliance on Russian hydrocarbons” and the government would “consider all our options”, reported Politics.co.uk. The political news site noted the position is a “marked change” from the 2019 Conservative manifesto which states: “We will not support fracking unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely.” 

It follows an announcement on Tuesday that the UK will ban Russian oil imports, prompting Johnson to ask ministers to “take a fresh look” at whether shale gas could bolster the UK’s energy needs, possibly paving the way for a 2019 ban on fracking to be lifted, said the Financial Times. Johnson is also considering “accelerating” the rollout of renewable energy projects such as onshore and offshore wind farms, the paper added. 

1

Pro: alternative to 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”, said news service Yale Climate Connections. That’s because natural gas emits about half of the greenhouse gas emissions of coal per unit of energy, according to the US Energy Information Administration

While burning natural gas does create pollution, it doesn’t produce pollutants such as ash and mercury, “which can pose health and environmental hazards for years”, reported Vox. “Regardless of what you believe about the future, shale gas has played a substantial role in getting rid of carbon emissions and conventional emissions from coal,” Sam Ori, executive director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, told the news site in 2020. 

2

Con: a question of demand

Although there are estimates of how much potentially recoverable shale gas the UK has, this is “not the same as proven reserves”, which is “the amount that can be produced commercially at any given time”, said experts from Warwick and Newcastle universities for The Conversation

The British Geological Survey (BGS) estimated the UK shale resource at about 1,329 trillion cubic feet in 2013, falling short of the 2.8 trillion cubic feet of gas consumed by the UK per year. Since the estimates were published, “only 11 dedicated shale gas exploration wells have been drilled, and only two have had flow tests carried out to determine their technical and economic viability”, they noted. It could well be “inaccurate” to say that the UK has “vast” shale gas reserves. And fracking will not be able to provide a “quick fix” – it may take “years of drilling” before production could begin in earnest.

3

Pro: 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 said. In the US, fracking has “significantly boosted” domestic oil production, and has contributed to lower gas prices, reported the BBC in 2018. The use of fracking means that the US and Canada are likely to enjoy gas security for “about 100 years”, said the broadcaster. 

4

Con: risk of 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”, said 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 noted, but added that fracking has been causing earthquakes that are “growing both in number and strength” in some parts of the US. In the UK, exploratory drilling in Lancashire by the company Cuadrilla was suspended in 2011 after fracking caused two earth tremors, which prompted a temporary ban on fracking in the UK. In 2019, a tremor measuring 2.9 on the Richter scale was recorded near a Cuadrilla fracking site in Blackpool, leading to an indefinite suspension of fracking. In November of that year, the government announced a moratorium on shale-gas extraction.

5

Pro: job creation

An industry-commission report by professional services firm Ernst & Young 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. But the figure was criticised as unrealistic by The Guardian, and based on the creation of 4,000 wells. The UK has only ever opened two shale gas wells – those owned by Cuadrilla – which The Oil and Gas Authority has ordered to be permanently sealed by 30 June this year.

However, in a further signal the government could be preparing to change its position on fracking, Johnson has reportedly told Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng that it does “not make sense” to seal the wells, as he continues to search for ways to secure the UK’s energy supplies, reported The Guardian. Kwarteng added that he and Johnson were “still in conversations” over the matter.

6

Con: air and water pollution

A “buried” UK government report from 2015 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 reported. And in the US, the BBC reported, some areas near fracking sites 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 added.

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