What The Frak is Fracking?

In August 2013, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced that it was 95% certain that climate change is due to the activities of mankind. With the burning of fossil fuels, whether that be coal, oil or gas, huge amounts of carbon dioxide are being released into the atmosphere, creating the greenhouse effect.

Carbon emission levels per country
Carbon emission levels per country

More information about carbon emissions can be found in this excellent Guardian datablog.

In order to try and tackle their carbon emissions, countries are turning to other sources of energy. Denmark for example, gets over 25% of its energy from wind turbines, whereas Iceland is the leading country for geothermal energy, due to its location between the European and American tectonic plates.

Whilst these countries and numerous others are investing in renewable energy sources or perhaps even nuclear power, the US is currently enjoying a high level of success (and an economic boom at that) by harvesting and using shale gas (a natural gas that’s found in pockets of rock).

Image courtesy of Business Insider.
Image courtesy of Business Insider.

As you can see, there are huge shale gas deposits dotted around the United States and the Americans have been very busy, using the process of hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as fracking) to retrieve this valuable fuel.

So how does fracking work?

Using both vertical and horizontal drilling, the sedimentary rock that lies between the layers of shale gas are cracked open by forcing water and other materials down the pipe, releasing the gas from the pockets. Hydraulic fracturing isn’t a new process, it’s actually been around since the 1940’s, but due to its recent success, it’s been catapulted into the public eye. This National Geographic video is a great explanation of fracking:

The benefits of fracking

Let’s start with an environmental benefit. When burnt, shale gas releases half the amount of carbon dioxide that coal does and provides nearly twice as much energy. As a result of this, the United States has seen a huge drop in it’s emissions, it’s actually at its lowest point in about two decades.

The biggest benefit that has come from fracking however, is economics. In 2008, the hight of the economic crises, natural gas prices in the US stood at an average price of $7.97 per mcf. In 2011, this price had dropped to an average of $3.95 per mcf and the US has been spending over $100 billion a year less thanks to fracking. This in turn has led to a new turn in American economics, generating about 2 million more jobs, adding billions of dollars to government funding and finally, the US is now the biggest natural gas producer in the world (which has secured an estimated 100 years worth of gas security for the North American continent).

The drawbacks of fracking

Once again, let’s talk about the environment. Because fracking has only been carried out for a few years, there’s a lot of conflicting data about the environmental impact of this process. In 2011, Cornell University  published some research suggesting that methane could escape from the shale gas wells into the atmosphere, meaning that any positive environmental impact of shale gas could quickly be diminished. But this research has been heavily criticised, with many pointing out flaws in its methodology such as whether or not it was looking at just heat emissions or electricity (or both) and if the team had used a large enough time scale in its research.

The environmental impact of fracking isn’t just seen in the atmosphere, but also in water supplies. As mentioned above, part of the fracking process involves forcing water and other chemicals down into the well to release the shale gas. When the water returns to the top, some of it is recycled and cleaned, but there have been many worries about methane and other chemicals being retained in water supplies. In January 2014, residents in Texas complained of bubbly water coming from their taps and this was investigated by the Environment Protection Agency, before being abruptly stopped.

Finally, we also have the problem of seismic activity. Fracking in the UK hasn’t really started to take place just yet, but we do have shale gas underneath our tiny little rock:



Blackpool has become a place of interest for fracking, but in 2011, fracking activities caused two earthquakes, measuring 1.5 and 2.2, in Lancashire. The fracking activities were subsequently halted, and it’s only been very recently that the company behind the blackpool frackings, Caudrilla, was allowed to apply for fracking permission again (it announced two potential sites in Lancashire this February).

As it always seems to be these days with new technologies and the future of our planet, fracking has been caught in a tug of war between environmentalists and economists. Both sides are producing research to back their respective corners, as well as bash their opponents, and in just a few years fracking has become one of the biggest energy controversies of this still young century.

It’s been interesting, trying to get clear research for this post, and I must say that it’s not been the easiest. My google searches have been full of opinion articles about the positives or benefits about fracking, selecting research to help their argument. Although I studied economics for a year at school, I found the language of economics (and the length) in fracking features very hard to get through. I also found an article in The Guardian (of all the places!) that was written by the CEO of an energy drilling company and I found it to be so peculiar, as The Guardian is a paper that prides itself on its environmental stance. I get journalistic balance, but when I read who the author was, I was immeadiately feeling cynical, and that’s never good. 

I’m not sure about whether or not fracking is the answer to our problems, both environmentally or economically, after all, shale gas will run out some day, and then it’ll be onto the next thing that we can burn.

What do you think about fracking? Comment below. 



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