Students on the final year Critical Issues in Contemporary Politics module were this year asked to produce blog posts as part of their assessment. The students were asked to write academically rigorous but easily comprehensible posts on current contemporary political issues of interest to them. Three of the best were selected for publication on this blog and will be published over three days. They cover topics from Reform of the House of Lords (Jack Williams), the Fallout from the Scottish Independence Referendum (Andrew Miller) and Fracking in the UK (Charlie Povah). Here is the third, and final, post in this series from Charlie Povah on the Politics For and Against Fracking.
Fracking: What’s the Real Harm?
By Charlie Povah (3rd Year Politics Student)
What is Fracking and why is there so much opposition?
The fracking debate is rarely out of the news these days and there are plenty of people either for or against fracking, but what is it all about exactly? It already takes place in nine out of ten natural gas wells in America, and is currently being explored or sourced in a more limited manner in other countries as a way to produce shale gas when natural gasses and oil would otherwise have to be imported. So why are protestors so virulently opposed to the idea of fracking in the UK? To answer this question it must first be explained what fracking actually is, then the reasons the anti-fracking movement is so against it, and why the UK is still seeking to explore its use despite other countries such as France having placed a moratorium on or banned it completely.
Hydraulic Fracturing, otherwise known as fracking, is the process whereby gas and oil are extracted from shale rock via drilling into the earth and then directing a high pressure water stream at it. The rock then fractures, releasing the liquid natural gas into the well at the top. So far, this seems a fairly innocuous way of extracting natural gases from the earth so that countries with access to shale rock can produce their own fuel rather than importing it from elsewhere. However, the water used in the process is mixed with chemicals and sand, and one reason so many are opposed to fracking are the chemicals used in this process.
What are the chemical issues?
It is contested just how many chemicals are actually used in total because the drilling companies in the majority of American States do not currently have to legally publish every chemical they use, but this is under review and at least one company is due to release this information from October 2014 in an effort to ensure more public trust in the fracking process. However, the website FracFocus lists many of the main chemicals that are often used in fracking, and these include hydrochloric acid, methanol and ethylene glycol: otherwise known as antifreeze.
It is because of these chemicals, among others, that those opposed to fracking are so vocal in their arguments. Organisations such as Frack Off argue that hydraulic fracturing for shale gas is, by definition, a “much more intense” method of sourcing natural gas than usual orthodox methods, such as offshore drilling. On their website, Frack Off contend that the use of chemicals in fracking can lead to methane leaks, “water contamination, air pollution, radioactive contamination, massive industrialisation of the landscape, worsening climate change and earthquakes”, which can cause serious health issues in both people and animals living near the drilling sites, as well as severe environmental problems.
However, a recent Stanford-led study has explained that it is very rare for chemicals to leak into “drinking water aquifers”, and that the real danger to water contamination is the breakdown in the integrity of “steel and cement casings of wells nearer to the surface” as well as the procedures used in wastewater disposal at the sites. It found that the chemicals used can cause corrosion in the steel casings, and that cement can be damaged by “temperature and pressure changes” which occur when equipment is put into and removed from the well, when the casings themselves are pressure tested and by the “production or injection of fluids of contrasting temperatures”.
Solutions for the chemical issues?
The report recommends that drilling companies should maintain the integrity of the wells by ensuring that there are no holes in the steel casings and that the pressure build-up in the wellbore itself is never so high that it will force chemicals out into the ground surrounding the well, thus contaminating the groundwater and the environment. This does appear to be a fairly obvious solution, but if it works then this could be one less issue for the anti-fracking organisations to oppose.
However, it should be noted that this is a report commissioned to discuss fracking in the USA, not the UK, and whilst exploration is happening, “commercial extraction of shale gas has not yet begun”, and so it is possible to learn from mistakes made in the USA so that they will not occur here in the UK. Indeed, a report by the Department of Energy and Climate Change explains that evidence from the USA shows only a low risk of groundwater contamination, and this could be even lower still in the UK simply because of our geology. It states that “”generally there are layers of rock above the shale rock that are impermeable and act as a barrier to contamination”, and that therefore it is not likely that fluids will leak into water sources.
It also explains that any company planning to drill for shale gas must disclose a full list of chemicals to be used to the regulator before approval is given, and that to prevent chemical contamination, any fluid that comes up to the surface as a result of drilling (known as flowback fluid) must be stored safely in closed containers, not using the open pits that are the method of storage in the USA. It does seem then, that the government are very clear in their guidelines for the prevention of chemical contamination as a result of fracking, and if they are adhered to, then the chemical argument from the anti-fracking movement may not be sufficient to prevent it from going ahead here in the UK.
Environmental effects of fracking
It is not however, just the possible problems that chemical contamination to water supplies and therefore the harm to both people and animals that the anti-fracking movement is concerned with. There is also the issue of air pollution that they argue fracking causes because of evidence in the USA that high levels of carcinogens are found around fracking sites. They are concerned with water shortages that could be caused by fracking because of the amount of water used in the process. They are also concerned that sinkholes and therefore issues with seismic activity could occur when a well has been overused, and that this then leads to the need for even more wells to be opened up and drilled to extract the shale gas. They also argue that drilling for shale gas will not actually make any real price difference to household energy bills. The main concern though, is that despite the UK apparently having a large enough amount of shale gas to supply us with energy for “470 years”, it is still a finite resource of fossil fuels, and the government is over concentrating on this energy supply at the cost of investment into renewable energies: energies that would have no risk to the environment, no risk of chemical contamination of water, and no risk of depleting the water supply to UK households.
Reasons why the government is in favour of fracking
Despite the many concerns of the anti-fracking movement, the government still appears intent on exploring for shale gas in this manner. Although the Department of Energy and Climate Change published a report citing several reasons why fracking in the UK would be a preferable and safe way to source energy, but it appears their main driving force for advocating it is the economic benefits it could achieve. The report claims that shale gas could “attract annual investment of £3.7 billion and support up to 74,000 jobs directly, indirectly and through broader economic stimulus”, which is understandably a very attractive prospect when the government is attempting to drive up the UK economy, decrease unemployment levels and bring us out of austerity measures.
There would also be economic benefits for the communities where fracking takes place. The report explains that at the exploration sites, communities will gain benefits of £100,000 at each well site, and at production, communities will receive 1% of revenues, which could range from 5-10 million pounds for each well. Again, this clearly seems like a very attractive prospect for the people living in those areas.
It also argues that a third of UK energy comes from gas, and as coal use and gas production in the North Sea are declining, by 2025 the UK will import around 70% of the gas needed to supply the population if shale gas is not exploited, which would obviously be very costly, and if there were any cuts in imported gas supplies, it could cause problems in our energy security. Plus, fracking is a cleaner source of energy than coal, so it would reduce the UK’s carbon footprint. For these reasons then, the government is currently very much in favour of exploring the possibilities of fracking for shale gas.
There are clearly two very different sides on the fracking debate – the pro-frackers who argue that the UK can learn from the mistakes made in the USA for safer production of shale gas with as little damage to the environment as possible, and that it will bring great economic benefits to the UK whilst ensuring energy security. On the other side are the anti-fracking movement who argue that all the evidence so far (mainly from the USA since we are not currently at a commercial production stage) tells us that fracking is a dangerous and unsafe practice for communities, animals, the land itself, the air, the climate, the levels of water usage and most importantly that it is still advocating the use of the finite resource of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, it does not appear that either side is about to agree with the other, and because fracking is not yet a commercially viable option, we still do not know which side is right – and we might not for some time to come.
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