The announcement that Cuadrilla will sink two wells in Lancashire has reignited the debate on fracking, is it the solution to our energy problem or an environmental disaster waiting to happen?
"Fracking" or Hydraulic Fracturing is a process by which water, sand and chemicals are forced into shale deposits under pressure in order to break up rocks containing natural gas. The process gained popularity in America in 2005 and has grown to supply ¼ of the country's natural gas, which has kept energy prices low through the recession. Its safety for the local environment and water supply, have been questioned with many reports of health problems and death of wildlife close to fracking sites; causing it to be banned in France and Bulgaria, however other countries are stepping up their interest, with South Africa lifting a moratorium on drilling.
David Cameron believes fracking is the way forward to bring business to the UK, however attempts to sink a well in Balcombe, Sussex caused protests which lasted for two months and cost the police £3 million. Similar protests have started in Manchester in response to two more wells at Roseacre Wood and Little Plumpton near Blackpool close to a test site which caused a minor earthquake in 2011. The British Geological Survey estimates there may be 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas present in the north of England.
With energy prices rising pushing more and more families into poverty, the Government is heralding fracking as a solution which will create jobs and reinvigorate rural communities as it has in the United States at a reduced Carbon emission compared to coal or oil. Today we will discuss the cases for and against fracking and will make a reasoned decision based on the evidence at the end.
We do have an energy crisis in this country over the past 3 years energy prices have risen consistently above inflation pushing 3.2 million people into fuel poverty and causing an estimated 7,800 deaths per year due to cold homes, finding a new energy source should reduce the bills of those struggling most, although this is disputed by energy secretary Ed Davy. With power stations coming to the end of their lifetime the possibility of blackouts has been mooted; a new source of energy is needed to fill the gap while renewables are developed for the future.
Sinking and operating the wells will create an estimated 74,000 jobs vital to the country's sustained economic recovery. In America those whose land the shale gas is under are offered hundreds of thousands of dollars for the right to drill, in the UK this would work in a different way, with shale gas companies paying higher taxes which would go directly to the local authority; estimated to be £1.7 million per site.
The other case for fracking is geopolitical, the UK depends on imports for half of its energy, while we are less reliant on an unstable Middle East for our energy, we now import gas and coal from Russia who have on occasion been known to turn the tap off, fracking would give the UK greater energy independence and stabilise prices as they would be under less influence from the volatile markets and a balanced energy market will protect us against future and "There is no single-source supply that can provide the benefits we need at the scale at which we need it without disturbing the natural world" says Amy Myers Jaffe of the University of California at Davis.
It is true that renewable energy generation methods have environmental impacts aswell through the carbon, water and energy used to manufacture wind turbines, solar panels or batteries; nothing is zero Carbon. For fracking; a growing industry the green credentials will begin to develop and more efficient extraction methods will be used with cleaner chemicals and operators are now trying to recycle the water they use in the fracking process.
Fracking may reduce or energy bills in the short term, but is seen a distraction from development of sustainable renewable energy. Fracking risks prolonging a long term addiction to fossil fuels which could be calamitous, with current estimates suggesting that even limiting the climate to a 2°C increase would require leaving 2/3 of known gas and coal reserves underground. "Pursuing shale gas means doubling down on exactly the sort of climate-disrupting energy source that, within our lifetimes, could cause a global climate catastrophe" says Michael Brune director of the Sierra Club. The push for fracking may be coming from lobbying groups pressure it is estimated that the oil and gas industry spent $750 million lobbying US congress to be exempted from the safe water act.
That is before considering the local environmental problems that fracking can cause, when fracking was ratified by the US government in 2005, the gas companies were exempt from conforming to the Clean Air Act, the Clean water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, the process has caused potentially carcinogenic chemicals, plastics, neurotoxins, endocrine disrupting chemicals, radioactive isotopes and even flammable gas to enter the water supply of local populations, with concerns recently raised about how it will affect food produced in the vicinity of a well.
The potential damage of fracking was first highlighted by the documentary Gasland, Josh Fox, the film's director has highlighted the inevitable structural shortcomings of the well systems that causes 20% of them to leak worldwide. The gas companies attempt to cover these incidents up and blame natural phenomena. The energy industry dispute these stories often involving multi-million dollar gagging orders such as that posed on two children in Pennsylvania.
To address the final point of whether fracking is a cleaner source of energy than coal or oil; the key to Carbon footprinting is all about where you draw your boundary, if you purely analyse the energy generation process Fracking is better, but if the footprint is extended to include the extraction, transportation and storage it is found that the rate of Methane leakage can be anywhere from 2-9%, Methane is 4 times more damaging the Carbon Dioxide making fracking no better and in some cases worse than coal.
The general public appear to be most concerned about the regulation of the shale-gas industry and the impact on the local environment than about the wider debate on fossil fuels, which is my personal problem with fracking. While the local environmental issues are important I do not believe we should be pursuing another fossil fuel when we can be investing in renewables, which will provide us with power for the longer term; the announcement of a £12 billion project to create a tidal lagoon off Swansea bay is encouraging, it could along with 4 further projects provide 10% of the UK's energy.
In the shorter term I believe nuclear power is a better option to provide us low-carbon energy, yes there also concerns about the waste created here but, this is much easier to contain and has a strict regulatory framework than the waste from fracking. However a report in this week's New Scientist talks of a new method of extracting gas from burning inaccessible underground coal seams which could have even deeper environmental impacts.
The Economist debate which was the inspiration for this article ended with a very slight win for those against Fracking, however testimony from experts nearly swung it from a 60/40 decision to 51/49; it still appears that people are still extremely divided on this issue. The ultimate question comes down to do the benefits of fracking outweigh the costs? In my opinion they do not.
This article was originally published on Frontier's blog.
Author Alex Caldwell works in Frontier's Research and Development department. Frontier, an international, nonprofit volunteering NGO with over 300 dedicated conservation, community development and adventure projects worldwide. To find see more from projects please visit Frontier's Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest, or see photos shared by volunteers in the field by searching #frontiervolunteer on Instagram.