Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Fracking: What’s all the Fuss?

by Alex Boden

Areas of the UK where it would be possible 
economically to extract shale gas.
The ‘controversial’ process of Fracking has been all over the news lately, with messages emphasising its dangers and risks to our countryside and taking the governments attention away from renewable sources of energy. However, is it as bad as environmentalists are making out and what are the benefits?

‘Fracking’ – is the process in which shale gas is extracted from fissures in rock below the Earth’s surface. It is unlike conventional sources of fossil fuels, which migrate upwards from where they have formed through permeable rock until they reach an impermeable layer, forming oil reservoirs.  Which are then drilled into to extract the oil and gas. Shale gas, on the other hand, is the gas that forms in impermeable shale and cannot migrate upwards. This traps gas molecules within the shale, which can be extracted using the Fracking method of extraction, which involves drilling down into the shale layer and then drilling horizontally along the shale layer. Fracking fluid is then injected, which is made up mainly of sand, water and chemicals. The fluid is injected under high-pressure and opens up the fissures, releasing the trapped gas allowing it to be extracted, making it an unconventional method of extraction.

Fracking has many advantages economically for the UK. Taking the USA for example, extracting shale gas via Fracking has significantly reduced gas prices and expanded oil production. This has given North America oil and gas security for at least the next century, allowing the USA and Canada to be self sufficient on oil and gas resources for the next few generations. A similar level of oil and gas security could be achieved by the UK if Fracking were allowed to take place, and in light of these huge benefits currently enjoyed by North America, why not?

The gas security that would come with it would allow there to be enough funds for more research and development of renewable resources for the future in the UK. If extracted the shale gas would be worth approximately worth £4.2bn a year to the exchequer. Allow there to be short term economic gain now while the Shale gas lasts, creating a more stable economy for renewable sources of electricity to be invested into by the government for the future. Such as in Norway, where the revenue from the selling of their North Sea oil has been invested in renewable resources, 99% of all energy is produced via hydroelectric damns for example. Providing a convincing argument for the benefit of extracting Shale gas to allow investment of renewable resources for the future, money the UK government lack currently. Thousands of real jobs would also be created in the process of building the Fracking sites, and in their use while extracting the shale gas. Again, showing the economic and social advantages of extracting shale gas.

Using shale also has benefits to the environment compared to conventional coal power stations in the UK. As it generates around half the CO2 emissions of coal when used to create electricity. Although, still creating green house gases, would be at a less harmful level than coal powered station emissions. However, cannot match renewable sources of energy in this sense. But linking back to the earlier argument, the extraction of shale gas would allow there to be funds for the establishment of renewable resources as the main source of energy in the UK in the future. So perhaps not in the short term, but in the long term the extraction would benefit the environment.

So why isn’t Shale gas being used to lower your heating bill? – Essentially despite the economic benefits that Fracking would bring to the UK. There are concerns that some of the chemical contained in the Fracking fluid would contaminate groundwater supplies and as groundwater provides nearly 35% of our drinking water, this concern is a very valid. In the UK most of the groundwater is aquified at around 250-350 metres below ground, however the majority of shale gas extraction will take place deeper than 2km below the surface. As long as the Fracking process is properly constructed, the only way that the Fracking fluid could reach the groundwater would be through fractures in the Earth’s crust, which would have to reach from the shale layer at 2km down, up to the water which is, 200m below the surface. Which would only happen if fractures could reach vertically through multiple layers of rock, which would be extremely unlikely as some would be impermeable.

Other concerns include the environmental cost of the massive quantity of water that would be transported to the Fracking sites for use in the Fracking fluid. People are also afraid that areas of natural beauty would be ruined or scared by the establishment of Fracking sites, such as in my local area of the South Downs where protest campaigns against Fracking have been strongly supported by the locals.

With such drilling into the earths crust, it should not come as a surprise that there could be the potential of Seismic Tremors resulting from the drilling. For example, two small earthquakes of 2.2 and 1.5 magnitude were recorded near Lancaster in 2011, although these may not be of destructive force, concerns have been raises as to the extent at which Fracking could cause stronger earthquakes which could have devastating consequences. Although, there is little evidence to suggest that this could happen, especially as the UK does not lie near any fault lines, which could be exacerbated by the drilling.

To conclude, if Fracking were to commence in the UK, economically it would hugely benefit the UK, and socially provide jobs as well as lowering the prices of gas and electricity in the UK. Many areas of the UK are eligible for Fracking (shown in Fig.1) and it would also allow the UK to become independent in terms of fuel sources, benefitting the economy as we would not have to buy fuel from aboard, and with the revenue invest in more hydroelectric power sources for the future. I believe that despite the negatives, which are mainly based on preserving natural beauty and reducing pollutants, that Fracking is too great an opportunity to pass by and would greatly boost the currently struggling UK economy.

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