Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, has been in the news a lot recently and opinion seems massively divided. The lefties, hippies, greenies and envirowarriors are all anti, and conservative, business decision makers are pro. I decided to delve a little further to get more of an idea of how disruptive this procedure really is and if the hype is justified.
For those that don’t know, fracking is a way of extracting more natural gas and oil out of sources underground. Basically, this is done by drilling and firing solution into the rocks and teasing out a substantially bigger amount of gas from pits that would previously have been considered empty.
Fracking has been banned in Vermont, France and Bulgaria, despite having been used in the oil and gas sector since the 1940s. Since the 40’s more than a million wells have been fracked in the US. But the process has been modified over time, which is the main reason for concern. Nowadays drilling is not just vertical, it is horizontal, running parallel to the ground away from the well shafts. Also, the fluid fired into the rocks is no longer just water or brine, but includes acids, detergents and poisons.
Water contamination is one of the biggest concerns about this process. Protesters worry that the chemicals and brine used will seep into the water supply. There were reports a few years ago of methane coming from taps near a fracking site, but others say that the owner had drilled his own water supply into a pocket of natural gas. One group also reported finding benzene, tert-butyl and alcohol in water sources near the well.
Other scientists, including some from the University of Texas, countered the research saying that the wells weren’t tested before the fracking, and also that the chemicals were due to spillage and accidents at the site, rather than due to the actual process itself. Blasting chemicals into the ground where our water comes from sounds worrying.
Geologists, however, are unconcerned, and I trust them over my own brain where rocks are concerned. The fracking takes place on the other side of thousands of feet of solid rock from water sources. So the actual process itself would be safe in that regard.
Added to the fear of water contamination, there’s the issue of water wastage. The process is an incredibly heavy water user, smashing through up to 7 million gallons per well and 30% of that is lost for ever in the shale. The planet could certainly do without losing anymore water. But the other side of the argument is that the water usage for all 2000+ wells in Pennsylvania equals the drinking water usage of just one large city. So on that scale it’s literally a drop in the ocean.
The second major beef is the worry that the process produces earthquakes. You probably saw in the news the event in Blackpool where fracking was blamed for seismic activity in the vicinity of the operation. Scientists feel that the chance of earthquakes being due to the process are pretty thin.
Fault lines lie way below where the fracking takes place and are unlikely to be disturbed by it. After looking at tens of thousands of deep injection wells they only found 8 associated tremors, none caused significant damage and most were not even felt.
Air pollution should be high on everyone’s green agenda so this complaint makes sense, but it’s a bit of a tricky one to quantify. Colorado School of Public Health found increased levels of toxic chemicals half a mile from wells, including benzene which is an unpleasant carcinogen.
Studies showed a 49x increase above normal levels. This sounds horrific, but that equates to a 0.02% increase in cancer risk if this level stayed the same and you were subjected to it for your whole life. Any increase in risk is a bad thing of course, but compared to the risk of living in an urban environment with pollution all around, this figure pales in comparison.
The other pollutants of worry – methane and carbon dioxide – are greenhouse gases, and no one wants any more of those in the air than we already have. But once again the question isn’t as simple to answer as you might think.
Compared to coal mining the levels of said pollutants are much, much lower. On top of that, shale gas emits half of the CO2 per unit of energy as coal burning, and coal burning also releases toxic metals to the air. Comme ci comme ça.
Another matter of concern is that the companies carrying out fracking don’t have to divulge the chemicals they use in their sprays. This could be a quick fix for a government that seems desperate for everyone to support fracking. If those in power decided to tighten up rules and regulations on how spills are cleared up, monitor how the companies manage their waste and increase transparency of the chemicals they use, people are much more likely to trust them.
In America the government also seems to be promoting misleading pro-fracking research and hindering non-pro studies. That must change if they want to convince the NIMBY brigade.
So in conclusion: I haven’t made my mind up. My biggest worry is that the Daily Mail thinks it’s OK, that’s got to set off alarm bells. But the evidence can be strung out to cover either argument, more studies need to be done. Maybe fracking is the lesser of two evils? Neither side is going to let up on this one, but I think we all know which team will win: the one with the fattest wallet.
At the end of the day, it’s high time we moved to renewables. If we focused research and investment there, then we wouldn’t have to argue about it.
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