A Big Fracking Problem

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As hilarious as fracking puns are, the title of this article is still a euphemism for a big fu**ing problem. Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is an industrial technique for extracting natural gas from areas previously thought to provide too low a yield to be worth drilling into. It involves drilling a borehole a few kilometers deep and then drilling out horizontally into a rock bed such as shale. These rocks are too impermeable and non-porous to allow gas to seep into the borehole to be collected so water is pumped into the rock at high pressure to split it open and provide channels for the gas to leak out. It would be a great idea, if the process didn’t contaminate water supplies, cause earthquakes and deplete local drinking water. Luckily the Environment Agency is around to protect us from this kind of thing. Except they aren’t. . .

Last year Caudrilla Resources, an American firm became the first company to attempt this technique in the UK at a site near Blackpool. As ever hanging on the coat-tails of the US where this controversial process has been going on for some years, the UK sought in no way to assess the damage that might be caused by fracking. There is no Environmental Impact Assessment, no Health Impact Assessment, no Life Cycle Analysis and no requirement to get them. Strange considering that fracking is a practice so shady as to have been banned in parts of America, Australia, Canada, France and South Africa. Tim Yeo MP Chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee said that “no evidence” had been found to suggest drinking water might be contaminated and that concerns about other dangers were just “hot air”. Lets try and prove him wrong shall we?

The main issue with fracking is contamination of drinking water. This is because although the mining companies websites proudly state that the fluid they use to fracture the rock is 99.51% water and sand the remaining 0.49% are some very nasty chemicals. On the list of additives released by companies involved in fracking (a list which is voluntarily supplied and not subject to verification due to the additive being a trade secret) there are many carcinogens, teratogens, and toxins to humans and aquatic life. Although a seemingly small amount you have to consider that the fluids are injected up to a rate of 265L per second and although some of the fluid is recovered some 50-80% of it is left in the ground to flow through the newly opened fractures. This also means that the “flowback” water picks up any contaminants in the ground such as heavy metals and radioactive compounds. Oh, and the water that they do recover gets sent to landfill.

Proponents of fracking usually cite the fact that the drinking water aquifers lie far above the area in which fracking occurs so the chemicals cannot enter the drinking supply. But have already stated that the fractures caused by the process cannot be controlled, this could mean that channels to the drinking water above could be formed. When you take into account the increased seismic activity caused by fracking it seems like an even more ridiculous statement to claim that it is totally safe. Even if the chemicals can’t leak into the water then the methane gas can. A study found 17 times the normal amount in drinking water near fracking sites, no one is quite sure what the effects of drinking it are, but you can set it on fire straight from the tap witch is a pretty neat party trick. What we are actually risking is the permanent contamination of a whole water system by a huge pool of dangerous chemicals, it might not be a problem two or five or 10 years down the line, but are we willing to take the risk?

This risk against the long term plays straight into the mining companies hands. It means that they can hold their hands up and say ”Hey, this is safe, there are no studies to show it’s dangerous.” Well there are no complete studies, full stop. All studies performed so-far have been small scale, and easy enough for the mining companies to spread the blame onto other industries or claim that because a sample wasn’t taken before drilling it was always contaminated. A comprehensive study in the US is set to be completed in 2012, so we can expect a lot more planning applications to be submitted before that happens. The Tyndall Centre of the University of Manchester have produced more of a review of the impacts of fracking but it seems their conclusions that “There is a clear risk of contamination of groundwater from shale gas extraction. It is important to recognise that most problems arise due to errors in construction or operation and these cannot be eliminated”, and a number of other troublesome statements seem to have been ignored by the government.

Seismic activity is also a serious concern and actually caused the temporary suspension of drilling in the UK. They can be directly attributed to the drilling having occurred within 2km of the site and at shallow depth. Although only small earthquakes, increased drilling across a whole shale bed will further destabilise it and could increase the ferocity, Arkansas was subject to over 400 earthquakes attributable to drilling in the area culminating in a 4.7 enough to shake buildings. I wonder how well the UK’s historic castles and churches are earthquake-proofed and whether the drilling companies are liable to pay for any damage? Unlikely.

Although a more indirect concern the problem of where to get all the water from is another big issue. Supplies in the areas with shale beds are all under pressure, so although you might save a little on your gas bill the water is going to get more expensive. Other hidden costs to the taxpayer include repair to the roads being savaged by industrial vehicles.

Finally, is mining for gas even a good idea anyway? Fracking only contributes a small amount to the CO2 produced in extracting gas when compared to normal drilling, but it can produce 30-100% more methane which is a greenhouse gas 56 times as effective as CO2 in the process. Most analysis focuses only on CO2 which skews the “environmental benefits” of fracked gas massively. Further to this more investment in fossil fuel sources only slows the development of better green technologies.

As in so many critical areas that need regulation the power of lobbying companies has prevailed over common sense and the safety of the citizens of the UK. Evidence of its danger has been ignored in favour of reducing our dependence on imported pollutants by switching to a dependence on tearing up our own country to produce our own pollutants.

And a little extra reading:

Shale gas: a provisional assessment of climate change and environmental impacts: Tyndall Centre Manchester (skip to the orage boxes in the conclusion for the scoop)

Fracking Chemicals Cited in Congressional Report Stay Underground

UK Committee wrong to dismiss 'shale gas' worries as 'hot air'

Chemicals used in fracking (note these are just the ones voluntarily published by the companies themselves)

Drilling for gas and oil in Dalby Forest February 2007 (Phil Catterall) / CC BY-SA 2.0

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