Fracking: Talkin’ bout a Revolution.

Fracking, the new buzzword within the energy industry, has gained more and more attention over the past few years, both positive and negative. But what […]

Fracking, the new buzzword within the energy industry, has gained more and more attention over the past few years, both positive and negative. But what exactly is this controversial process, and why should we care?

The process of hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, is where layers of shale deep underground are drilled into horizontally before a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is quickly pumped through the borehole. The pressure produced by this process creates many networks of small fractures throughout the surrounding rock, releasing the naturally occurring gas (known as shale gas) from the rock. For more details, National Geographic present an interactive guide to fracking which can be seen here.

The fracking process isn’t new – in fact, it has been around since 1947. However, in the USA the production of shale gas by this process has increased from 1% to 20% of the domestic gas production since 2000. This boom, known as the ‘shale gas revolution’, has created a decrease in the domestic gas prices across the USA and so other countries and geographical regions are investigating the potential for fracking as well. This revolution has been attributed to technological and industrial advances over the past 20 years, alongside the discovery of gas and oil deposits.

The identification of potential gas resources within the shale rocks of the United Kingdom, which spread across the country laterally, has led energy companies to examine the prospects for the fracking industry. The UK currently imports a large amount of its gas, and so extracting our own would be a huge benefit for our energy industry. The total amount of gas resources within the United Kingdom has not been accurately quantified but is estimated to be at least 15 – 172 trillion cubic feet, with revaluation currently underway. The annual gas consumption in the UK is around 3 trillion cubic feet per year, and so this quantity of shale gas would enable the country to become more self-sufficient in terms of energy. The UK would not have to import gas for dozens of years and energy prices would drop significantly. Developments within the fracking industry may also be beneficial to the economy, as more jobs would be created.

But shale gas has its drawbacks. The energy requirements for extraction and electricity production are slightly higher than for conventional gas extraction. The process also produces higher CO2 emissions and would pose a greater risk to the atmosphere if large scale leakages were to occur. Fracking has also, controversially, induced small earthquakes in the Blackpool region.

So if it works for the USA, will it work for us? The think tank Chatham House, who provide independent analysis of international affairs, have compiled several reports which document the growth and progress of the fracking process across the world, and its implications.

The reports highlight the difficulties with fracking in the UK and Europe, which start with the science. The geological strata suggested as a gas source within the UK and across Europe have a higher clay content than their US equivalents, which makes the material less suitable for fracking. In addition, less is known about the material at depth, making the identification of suitable deposits more difficult. Other problems for fracking across Europe include environmental and legislative regulations, and the higher population density means that clearing the land required for the drilling equipment is a larger issue.

Even for the USA the future continuation and expansion of shale gas production is uncertain, as cheap shale gas prices mean that fracking may not be a financially viable operation. However, the costs of running fracking operations in the USA are falling due to the improvements in technology, allowing more efficient gas extraction. There have also been reports of contamination of aquifers with water recovered from the fracking process, and although these appear to be accidental rather than a byproduct of the fracking process, there have been calls for investigations and greater regulation of the industry.

Although shale gas provides a cleaner environmental alternative to coal and oil and would make us more energy independent, the uncertainties and problems regarding the fracking process make this a risky investment.  A greater focus should perhaps be on the development of more secure renewable energy resources, to ensure that the UK can meet its future climate change targets and to protect the economy.

About Helen Ashcroft

Helen is studying for her DPhil in Earth Sciences.