What is Fracking?
Shale gas is natural gas formed underground in fine-grained sedimentary rock formations. The extraction process is called hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ which involves drilling long horizontal wells in shale rocks deep below the surface. Massive quantities of water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the wells at high pressure. This opens up deep cracks in the rock releasing the gas which can then be collected and stored.
Why does it matter? – International issues
Those in favour of the process argue we need to take advantage of the world’s potentially vast shale gas deposits as an alternative to Coal and to try to keep energy prices down. However there is now serious evidence that Shale Gas is as bad for the environment as burning coal. This is not only the act of burning the gas, but also the environmental impact of the act of extraction.
The UK also has the single biggest known reserve in the world, found by Cuadrilla (an exploration company) deep below Lancashire; there is thought to be a reserve of 200 trillion cubic feet of gas. If correct, this makes Blackpool a lynchpin in the global gas market and if extracted will be a big step back from a decarbonised future. The independent Climate Change committee has warned that if the Government pursues a surge in investment into gas (including Shale) that the UK will be unable to meet the legally binding targets set out in the Climate Change Act (thanks to RTCC for this info and additional comment from Business Green here)
Burning natural gas for energy and heat does produce less CO2 and other pollutants than using coal or oil. It is for this reason that some like George Osborne and the gas industry argue that fracking and an increase in gas use is a positive alternative on our path to a cleaner future instead of coal while we invest in renewables. However there is evidence that large amounts of methane seeping up from the fracking is unable to be captured and simply escapes into the atmosphere. Secondly there’s no evidence that extra natural gas supplies will reduce global coal use. A recent Tyndall Centre report concluded that, without global action to create a carbon cap, developing more gas deposits will mean more fossil fuel us and higher emissions.
A step towards further fracking in Europe is a further step away from the cleaner future we want, as the climate change committee has warned, a further focus on gas takes us back in the wrong direction and is fundamentally unfair to future generations and the half of the world under 30 who will have to live with the decisions of today’s policy makers. It will also ensure that we miss the carbon targets that are bound into law and mean that Europe cannot lead on Climate Policy.
Why does it matter? – Local Issues
Fracking has both local and international impacts. Some of the most high profile media coverage has been on the local impacts of fracking. This is based both on the potential for drinking water supplies to be contaminated by methane or drilling chemicals, this danger has been accepted by the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA although it has been concluded by amongst others the Energy and Climate change committee that fracking wasn’t more damaging than conventional oil and gas drilling all drilling has environmental risks. Other local environmental concerns include the massive quantities of water and chemicals that are pumped underground as a result of this process and waste water that is left behind and the risk of earthquakes in very rare circumstances.
Fracking in the future
There is a high level of debate across Europe between those who on one side believe that fracking could give us an easy path to energy security because of the large supplies thought to be under our earth. Currently there is no EU wide legislation covering Fracking and reports due out at the end of October will shape the European response. Countries like Poland with significant reserves will fight hard for loose legislation so that Shale can become an increasingly larger part of the energy mix. On the other side France is leading the resistance to fracking among European states saying his government will not pursue Fracking as a source of natural gas.
Until recent years, fracking was only seen in the US and therefore we have the most evidence of its impact from there and according to an IEA report accounted for nearly 60% of total production of gas in 2010 and North America still accounts for the majority of Shale gas production worldwide and this growth will continue in the coming decades as Industry and the Government attempt to convince a sceptical public that fracking is safe.
We will continue to see Industry and Governments worldwide attempt to put forth fracking as a way to boost gas production, phase out coal and reduce our carbon emissions but the evidence that fracking is better for the climate than Coal and other fossil fuels is dubious given the reports on the high levels of methane leakage and the sheer scale of gas supplies means that if we step down the route of increased gas use it is very unlikely we will be able to move towards a cleaner future and see an end of the use of Victorian technology producing our energy with fossil fuels. It will also mean less investment in the modern technologies that should be increasingly our renewables output and ensuring a source of clean energy for future generations.
References and Further reading
http://www.worldwiseinvestor.com/news/article/189/Sarasin-engage-with-shale-gas-industry – This is an outline of fracking from an investment perspective looking at the potential environmental impact.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/info/interactive/2012/apr/12/explainer-test-3 – useful Guardian guide to fracking and some of the debates around it.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2011/sep/23/cuadrilla-shale-gas-uk-energy – This Guardian Article outlines how Cuadrilla wants to frack gas from under Blackpool.
http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2012/09/europes-shale-gas-battles – A Carbon Briefing blog outlining the state of fracking in Europe.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHQu3SeUwUI – video by some students in the USA about the issues around Fracking.