Why fracking isn’t 'a bridge to a zero-carbon future'
Fracking for shale gas has been touted as a solution to the UK’s energy independence woes and a key step towards net-zero. Al Howard takes a deeper look at the risks and benefits.
Fracking – a controversial method of extracting shale gas from the ground – is once again causing tremors in Westminster, with the PM keen to “take a fresh look” at the practice and “move away from our reliance on Russian hydrocarbons”.
But what would fracking in the UK really look like, and why has it become such a divisive subject?
What is fracking?
Fracking - or hydraulic fracturing - involves drilling vertically into bedrock to a depth of around three kilometres, in order to release gas from the hydrocarbon-rich shale layer.
Once a well has been drilled, a specially designed perforation gun is used to fire multiple holes into the casing. Imagine hole-punching a hosepipe. Then, highly-pressurised water is directed into the well through the holes, to fracture the rock.
Bolstered with a cocktail of chemicals and sand, which hold open the newly formed cracks, the gas can then escape.
Fracking in America
Fracking was responsible for the United States’ oil boom two decades ago, transforming the country into the world’s largest producer of natural gas, and securing its energy independence from Russian and Saudi Arabian oil supplies.
America now accounts for a quarter of global supply, with its oil and natural gas industry providing 5.6% of the country’s employment.
But unlike in the USA, where there are now 1.7M wells, fracking didn’t gain traction in the UK until 2011, when Cuadrilla drilled two wells in Lancashire. Even then, this was short-lived. A series of earthquakes near Cuadrilla’s Blackpool site in 2019 led to a ban on fracking in England, Scotland and Wales, and precipitated the closure of the UK’s two operational wells. These are due to be sealed with concrete in June this year.
The USA’s remarkable turnaround has led Britain’s avid frackers to shake their fists at what appears to be yet another glaring example of energy masochism, or, as The Spectator puts it, a “display of craven caution”.
A pathway to a greener future?
It’s worth remembering that fracking hasn’t always had such a dirty reputation. Shale gas, its product, gives off 50% less greenhouse gas emissions than coal when burned.
In fact, in 2019, former energy minister Andrea Leadsom hailed fracking as “a bridge to a zero-carbon future” and cited it as an opportunity for economic growth and the creation of new jobs – perhaps even the development of a northern powerhouse.
Recently, this sentiment has been reinforced by Conservative MP Lee Anderson, who condemned the ban as “total lunacy”.
“At a time of increasing insecurity over fuel supplies, we should be using the huge shale gas resources beneath our feet in the UK,” he told Daily Mail.
Other vocal champions of fracking have emerged from the Conservative Net-Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG) who sent the prime minister an open letter, signed by 30 MPs – including Lord Frost.
It argued that lifting the fracking ban could:
“allow us to combat the cost-of-living crisis, level up, create jobs, opportunity and a renewed sense of community in the north, improve our energy security, reduce our reliance on imported gas, stabilise energy and achieve net-zero without increasing the cost of living for already hard-pressed working families.”
However, the NZSG’s hopes for the UK’s untapped reserves ought to be taken with a pinch of salt. According to research by the British Geological Survey, these deposits are estimated at around 1,329 trillion cubic feet – around half of the gas consumed by the UK each year – although this remains an estimate. Even then, there’s the problem of who actually profits from reserves which, in private industry, are usually sold off to the highest bidder.
And, on top of this, even fracking’s greatest advocates can’t avoid the sticky environmental concerns, beneath the veneer of shale gas’ appeal.
Number one on the list is groundwater pollution, which occurs when fracking fluid resurfaces and runs the risk of contaminating drinking water or endangering wildlife.
The BBC reports that 16% of fracked oil and gas wells spill. There have been more than 66,000 spills over the past ten years, the largest of which was over 30,000 gallons. This statistic becomes even more concerning when we take into account the hazardous chemical additives frequently found in fracking fluid, which alter pH, increase viscosity, and minimise bacterial growth.
Under US law, around 70% of these additives remain undisclosed to the public as ‘confidential business information’ — but methanol, ethylene glycol, and propargyl alcohol, all of which are hazardous, are in the mix.
Supposedly, under Environment Agency regulations, the use of toxic chemicals is restricted in the UK. This however does not account for natural contaminants, such as radioactivity and heavy metals, which contaminate the water during its journey underground.
A 2015 EPA report found that fracking activities “have the potential to impact drinking water resources” through “water withdrawals in times of, or in areas with, low water availability”; “spills of hydraulic fracturing fluids and produced water”; “fracturing directly into underground drinking water resources”; “below ground migration of liquids and gases”; and “inadequate treatment and discharge of wastewater”.
Many of these leaks and spills can occur during the fracking process, but may also happen during transportation or wastewater disposal. As relatively few water treatment facilities can cope with the volume and toxicity of fracking fluid, the safest solution is to bury it in reinforced tanks underground or reinject it into the earth, where it then becomes a problem for future generations.
The industrialisation of the countryside
So far, licenses have been approved in Scotland’s Midland Valley, the Bowland-Hodder area in Northwest England, and the Weald Wessex area in Southern England — all of which are home to beauty spots and wilderness under the ever-growing threat of eradication.
But wildlife is not the only concern, as communities will also experience huge disruption.
A developing fracking industry would inevitably have a knock-on effect on local economies, driving away tourists, devaluing nearby homes and choking tranquil country roads with HGVs - which will also contribute heavily to air pollution.
For whilst shale gas is cleaner to burn than coal, the extraction process raises red flags.
It is estimated that between 3% and 8% of natural gas escapes into the atmosphere during the fracking process, meaning that wells worldwide have already leaked millions of tonnes of the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
This has also caused issues on a local level, contributing to ground-level ozone near fracking sites. This can exacerbate respiratory problems, and expose workers to toxic levels of benzene — a known carcinogen.
These concerns were initially brought to light in an Air Quality Expert Group report, which remained buried until days after Cuadrilla received its first mining permit in Lancashire. It calculated that a fracking industry of 400 wells would raise nitrogen dioxides by between 1% and 4% and volatile organic compounds by 3-4%. Considering that fracking – if successful – could grow exponentially, this is a major concern.
However, the most significant issue with fracking is undoubtedly the UK’s u-turn on fossil fuels, mere months after pledging to cut carbon emissions by 78% by 2030.
A second wind for fossil fuels?
As fracking is our only means of extracting oil from the deep and impermeable shale layer, it has enabled us to reach previously inaccessible deposits. For the US, fracking provided 100~years more fossil fuels, which will have lasting impacts on the future of our planet.
Greenpeace Head of Energy Rosie Rogers has also voiced concerns about a new source of fossil fuels:
“After a decade of hype and bluster, all the fracking industry has given us are two holes in a muddy field and some minor earthquakes.”
“If the UK and Europe want to end their dependence on Russian gas, the quickest way to do that is by insulating homes, installing heat pumps and boosting renewables. These are tried and tested technologies, quick to deploy and getting cheaper all the time.”
A very political problem
So, amidst heated debates over Russian sanctions and rising energy costs, fracking has become a very political problem. But even if we turn a blind eye to countless reports of serious ecological risks, fracking is not a viable path to a greener future. Nor is it the panacea that MPs like Lee Anderson have hoped for.
Despite all the noise around fracking, only 17% of Britons support its return.
Even landowners who could profit from the venture have raised concerns over residual liability relating to pollution incidents, whilst many regional MPs fear for the impact that the industry could have on tourism, wildlife, and local economies. Plus, as this emerging industry will be costly and time-consuming - potentially taking upwards of a decade to start paying out - we are wasting precious time which would be better spent developing renewables.
The trouble with fracking is that it appears to provide a quick fix to a much deeper problem - our persisting reliance on fossil fuels.
It’s time to start thinking about long-term energy solutions: until we brave the realities of climate change and acknowledge our earth’s dwindling resources, we will continue to divert crucial time away from developing green infrastructures that could benefit both people and planet for centuries to come.