That is the question on the lips of UK politicians, energy providers and conservationists today. The government has a legally binding commitment to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels and move further towards the transition to renewable energy sources.
However with the success of cheap shale gas production seen by the US in recent years, this attractive new source of energy has become too enticing to resist.
As we know, this has outraged environmental campaigners who view the practice of hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ as damaging to the environment and contradictory to the UK’s energy strategy.
Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green Party MP, was arrested early this month with dozens of other protestors, whilst demonstrating at the Balcombe oil drilling site in Sussex. She said: “Along with everyone else who took action today, I’m trying to stop a process which could cause enormous damage for decades to come”.
A view which is strongly contested by many, none more so than by Douglas Carswell, MP for Clacton, who writes in The Telegraph this week, that the eco-movement has lost its way and is obsessed with CO2 reduction. He punctuates this by calling the protestors “anti-rational loons with a CO2 fetish” and that “as the science of climate change starts to unravel, we should reclaim environmentalism from these latter day Rousseaus.”
We certainly would not agree with that, however, this serves to illustrate how hotly contested the debate about fracking has become.
So, what are the facts about fracking and what are the potential environmental impacts?
Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, is the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks to release natural gas inside. It can also be used in oil production to frack wells to extract the last drops from a used well. It is a practise that has been used across mining since the 1940s, but has only been adopted on a massive scale since the early 21st century.
It is estimated that each individual well would use on average about 5 million gallons of water per well.
Fresh water is currently used (although there are pilot schemes running in the US to trial the use of recycled water) mixed with sand or ceramic material (proppant) and various chemicals.
Recipes for fracking fluid are hard to find, as companies can still protect them under the “trade secret status”, however it is generally stated that 99 per cent of the fracking fluid is water and the rest is made up of a chemical cocktail, which can include; friction reducers such as guar gum, biocides, emulsifiers and hydrochloric acid, which is commonly used to dissolve certain rocks e.g. limestone.
Water usage and contamination
The amount of water used is a concern, especially in the drought sensitive South East England. If the industry estimates are correct of 1,000 wells in the UK, we’re looking at a minimum of 5,000 million gallons of water to run the shale gas operations. Is this a lot?
Figures published by the Environment Agency on water usage state that the average person in the UK uses 33 gallons of water per day, 12,045 gallons per year. With a population of around 60 million this equates to 722,700 million gallons of water used domestically by individuals alone.
So 5,000 million gallons of water is 0.7 per cent of the UK’s average annual domestic usage, which isn’t insignificant. There are also concerns about polluting groundwater aquifers and the Environment Agency cites this as a potential risk. However, there are also those who say that the depth of the drilling mitigates this risk and should be disregarded.
This is contradicted by the findings of the famous Gasland documentary, directed by Josh Fox and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2011. Fox spent time with citizens in their homes and on their land as they relayed their stories of natural gas drilling in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Texas, among others. He spoke with residents who experienced a variety of chronic health problems directly traceable, they claim, to air and water supply contamination.
Wastewater or ‘flowback’ as it is called is also a concern. Most of the fracking fluid remains in the ground however, about 15-20 per cent of the fluid resurfaces and has to be taken way and disposed of. There are therefore risks of leakage and environmental contamination on the surface, as mentioned in the Environment Agencies list of potential risks.
Who is monitoring the environmental impact of fracking?
The Environment Agency (EA) is the official regulator for unconventional gas operations in England. Their environmental permitting regulations cover: protecting water resources, including groundwater aquifers, assessing the use of chemicals in hydraulic fracturing fluid and the appropriate treatment and disposal of mining waste.
They state that: “There are environmental risks associated with exploring and extracting unconventional gas” and that those risks may include:
- gas or dissolved minerals moving through other rocks into aquifers
- leaks from production wells into neighbouring rock formations and aquifers
- leaks of gas to the atmosphere, and
- spills of fluids that come to the surface from storage tanks or lagoons.
They go on to state that “all these risks can be controlled through proper design and management of the drilling and extraction site.”
“Our analysis of the fluids returned to the surface after hydraulic fracturing [at Cuadrilla sites in Lancashire] found they contained high levels of minerals dissolved from the rocks, such as chloride, sodium, iron and dissolved metals. They also contained very low levels of naturally radioactive minerals. All of the chemicals found are those which we would expect to find in shale rock.” “We’re working with Cuadrilla to improve our understanding of the potential impacts on the environment of exploring for shale gas.”
This is an indication of the current limitations of knowledge about the potential environmental impacts of fracking in the UK. Truly it is unknown as to what the impact will be of the proposed 1,000 wells.
The effect of fracking on seismic activity
In April/May 2011 hydraulic fracturing was carried out three times at Preese Hall, Lancashire and Cuadrilla suspended operations to investigate a possible link between seismic activity and the hydraulic fracturing process. As a result, the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) commissioned an independent review into seismicity.
In December 2012 the Government announced the introduction of new regulatory requirements to ensure that seismic risks are effectively mitigated. Subject to these new requirements DECC lifted the suspension on the hydraulic fracturing process.
Since then a new peer-reviewed report in the journal Science this month found that powerful earthquakes thousands of kilometres away can trigger swarms of minor quakes near injection wells like those used for fracking, which have reignited the debate.
Seismologists at Columbia University say they have identified three quakes - in Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas - that were triggered at injection-well sites by major earthquakes a long distance away.
“The fluids (in wastewater injection wells) are driving the faults to their tipping point,” says Nicholas van der Elst of Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who led the study.
It has been reported that the UK Government is looking to develop 1,000 wells in the UK with the potential to create 70,000+ new jobs. The energy company Cuadrilla has stated that the production of shale gas will lead to cheaper fuel bills, as it has done in the US. However this is disputed by critics who cite that the UK’s energy prices are linked to the European market and it may have little effect on domestic fuel bills.
Evidence is contradictory from both sides, the industry says its safe with the right precautions in place, the environmentalists say that it is harmful and has the potential to cause lasting damage.
There can be no doubt that fracking is not ‘good’ for the environment and we would rather see further investment in renewable energy sources. However, the government and industry seems set on this cause and all the official advice suggests that with correct design and monitoring, risks can be minimised. Whether there is the appetite within the UK to embrace another fossil fuel extraction process, particularly amongst those residents who live next to fracking wells, remains to be seen.
Miriam Heale is the marketing manager of Allen & York, an international sustainability recruitment agency.