To Frack or Not to Frack? - Earth Scientists Drive a Debate on Controversial 'Fracking' for Shale Gas

07/04/2013 17:48 | Updated 05 June 2013
  • Professor Dougal Jerram Earth Scientist, writer and broadcaster, Director of DougalEARTH, Professor II at CEED University of Oslo, presenter of Fierce Earth

What does 'fracking' mean to you? A slang version of a swear word used as to avoid censorship? A new dance wave hitting the discothèques? Or a potential solution to the demand for gas over the next 200 years?

Fracking is the practice of hydraulic fracturing of rocks in order to increase the porosity and permeability of the material, and in the case of shale gas, to let the gas be liberated from being trapped in the rock.

This relatively new industry of 'shale gas' has already had a profound impact on the US economy and is even finding its way into heating the homes in the UK. The process, however, has many critics, by fracturing the bedrock you run the risk of breaking into existing natural aquifers and contaminating them, and the very practice of breaking up the rocks has been cited as the cause of 'human induced' earthquakes.

But what are the real risks and how do we mitigate them? Well we need to get to the real 'Earth facts', and we need a forum to discuss them in the open. Cue the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly 2013.

The EGU brings together some 11,000+ international geoscientists into one meeting covering all disciplines of the Earth, planetary, and space sciences. A yearly meeting (around spring-time), it is a chance for the worlds earth scientists to present their research and discuss the current trends in their fields. In principle this is a great conference to hold stimulating debates on current 'Earth Issues', and in this year's program one such event has caught my eye; The Great Debate to be held on Wednesday 10 Apr, 15:30-17:00, entitled ' Shale Gas: to frack or not to frack?'

This should be no 'corner of the smoking room' discussion on what some pre-ordained few have already decided is the future. Moreover, it is one of the rare chances where there will be a room full of people who may actually know a little more fact than political fiction about a technology and a subject which could be a game changer, if dealt with correctly, or an environmental problem if not. The debate, moderated by Jonathan Tirone (Bloomberg), has a presentation panel comprising; Tom Leveridge (Energy and Climate Change Select Committee at House of Commons, UK), Prof. Brian Horsfield (GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, Germany), Prof. Jesús Carrera (Institute of Environmental Assessment and Water Research, Spain), and Prof. Herbert Hofstätter (University of Leoben, Austria), and it promises to back all the talk with some knowledgeable facts. The more tricky task from this point in, is for the Earth Science community to convey the details of the meeting to the wider audience, and beyond to the people that really make the decisions.

With any 'new' resource there are always questions, and there are serious consequences if correct procedures and checks are not put in place to fully green light safe practice, while red flagging what is not safe. The practice is already yielding gas reserves, but polarizing the very communities it is helping . What are the safe limits, and how to we develop an international protocol to implement them? Should we be doing this at all, and instead turning our attention, and efforts to renewable energy sources? Well, the start must come from informed debate and factual knowledge/testing. In reality there will be a complete spectrum of gas prospects from those with minimal risk, to examples where economics and profit may have the power to outweigh rational thought and good practice. In such a polarised topic as 'fracking', the best foot forward is to lay the various cards on the table, bring in experts with no political allegiance or economic ties, and find out what the' frack' this is all about?.....good luck EGU!