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Fracking and the UK - an overview

Fracking has been a leading news story in 2013. Rarely out of the headlines as campaigners protest against its expansion in the UK and the beleaguered bosses of the drilling companies try to put their case to the public. Leaving aside any media hysteria, does hydraulic fracking present the answer to Britain's looming energy crisis, or is it too big a threat to the environment? The Anderselite team did a little research…

The controversial technique is designed to extract gas and oil from shale rock of which there are reported to be trillions of cubic feet lying under the North of England alone. It involves drilling down into the earth before inserting a high-pressure water mixture into the rock to release the gas inside. Water, sand and chemicals are used in the mixture to force the gas out to the head of the well.

The
gas and oil may come out using existing fissures in the rock or the pressure could create new ones which may be attributable to some of the fears about it being the cause of small earthquakes. Also once the high pressure water mixture returns to the surface, it may have picked up other chemical or even elements of naturally occurring radioactivity on the way and this must be safely disposed of. Clearly fracking has some risk factors, which is precisely why news of its expansion in the UK has caused so much anxiety.

The cases both for and against fracking are very strong. In 2012 Professor Robert Mair from Cambridge University chaired a joint committee set up by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering to analyse the environmental, health and safety risks associated with shale gas exploration in Britain. It concluded that fracking was a safe practice as long as it was operated under very tight constraints. He said that the 'heart of any judgment should be evidence-based science and engineering...to ensure that the best decisions are made, unswayed by preconceived notions of risk or benefit.'

 

Such has been the negative publicity about the effect of fracking, that the voices of those stating the benefits, including Prime Minister David Cameron, have been outweighed by environmental campaigners and residents living close to fracking sites. Both have strong arguments. The pro lobby says that shale gas and oil reserves are significantly large as to keep the lights on for many years to come. Such would be the extent of the supply that those in favour, including Mr Cameron, claim that widespread extraction would push energy prices down. He also says the industry would create 74,000 jobs.

The anti-lobby’s argument points to environmental problems associated with fracking, namely minor earthquakes, contaminated water supplies and methane release. The widespread use of fracking in the United States and its widely reported problems have sparked some alarm in Britain. TV pictures showing brown water and even fire coming out of household taps along with earth tremors don't help the cause. There have been criticsms that the industry in the US hasn't been as well regulated as it perhaps should have been and there has been a perceived reluctance by the drilling companies to be transparent about their activities, including the contents of the water mixture used to force the gas out.

 

In the UK a drilling company stopped exploration at Westby in Lancashire in 2011 following several minor earthquakes near Blackpool. Their own investigation found that the most likely cause was the direct injection of fluid into the fault zone. An independent assessment declared that further tremors could not be ruled out but their impact would be minimal. Coal excavation in Britain has caused widespread but minor seismic activity in the past and yet was allowed to continue.

On the issue of water contamination, Professor Mair's committee concluded that it was only a risk if the wells were poorly constructed and maintained. He said that contamination via fractures in the rock to an aquifer is highly unlikely because the drilling takes place much deeper and fracking water simply wouldn't flow up that far. Also the fracking companies must declare the substances they use in the fracturing fluid, unlike in America. In short, regulation in the UK is significantly tighter and there's a long history of checks and balances in the UK oil industry both before, during and after a well is constructed.

While the scientists believe they have answers to fears about earthquakes, contaminated water and a third problem, methane release, which may come out of rocks naturally anyway, there is a moral argument as to whether Britain should be promoting the extraction and further use of fossil fuel. Yes, a new supply of energy could bring down prices at a time when prices have gone through the roof; and yes, it could provide a medium term solution to Britain's energy supplies running out. Fossil fuel usage has to be reduced and sustainable and cleaner alternatives need to be developed so they're more reliable and can cope with 21st century life. Some say money should be put into that rather than exploiting an energy source which contributes to global warming. The Green MEP Caroline Lucas certainly believes so, claiming the economy would be better off if the UK doubled its efforts to develop renewal energy, because Britain wouldn't be so dependent on rising global gas and oil prices.


When it comes to fracking, for every benefit there is someone stating 'but'. Such an untapped reserve of oil and gas could keep the lights on, keep prices down and boost jobs but is it an environmental disaster waiting to happen? Scientists believe tight regulation will minimise the risks.  At Anderselite, we will be watching this situation very closely indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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