Fracking is one of the most controversial technologies of our time, with activists arguing it poses a grave environmental threat. But what exactly is fracking? And why is it controversial?
First things first. What is fracking?
It is short for “hydraulic fracturing”: a process of extracting natural gas from shale rocks, thousands of metres below the Earth’s surface. This gas is then transported to power plants and burned to produce electricity.
How does it work?
First, an energy company drills around two miles down into the Earth, until it hits shale rock. The drill then curves 90 degrees, and drills horizontally for another half a mile or so.
Once the hole is ready, a steel pipe is inserted and encased in cement to protect the earth and groundwater from contamination. A “perforating gun” is lowered into the hole and set off, creating small holes in the horizontal pipe.
This is when the fracking begins. Around 16 Olympic swimming pools’ worth of liquid is pumped into the well at extremely high pressures, cracking open the shale rock and releasing the gas which is trapped there.
The liquid is around 90% water and sand, plus some chemicals to help carry the sand and kill bacteria. Once the water is removed, the sand keeps the fissures in the rock open and gas flows up to the well.
Is Fracking happening in the UK?
In October 2018, the energy company Cuadrilla won a legal battle in the High Court, getting permission to begin fracking at a site in Lancashire. This first began in 2011, but stopped after a series of small earthquakes. (A report found that it was “highly probable” these were caused by the drilling.)
Protesters tried to stop it going ahead by chaining themselves to the site — but they were cut away by police.
Less than a month later, Caudrilla announced that shale gas was flowing from the site for the first time.
Why is it controversial?
Some people are worried about the impact that fracking will have on the environment. There is the risk of earthquakes caused by drilling (although UK regulation now requires companies to stop if there are tremors above a 0.5 magnitude). There are also concerns about the large amounts of water used in fracking, and the risk of chemicals and toxic waste contaminating local water supplies.
What about climate change?
It’s tricky. All fossil fuels produce carbon dioxide when they are burned, but gas produces around half the amount as coal, so it is a cleaner form of energy. However, fracking also releases methane, which is far more potent than carbon dioxide.
In 2018, a landmark UN study said the world must dramatically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions over the next 10 years if it wants to limit global warming to under 1.5C. Many argue that fracking is distracting the UK from converting to renewable energy.
“We need a 21st century energy revolution based on efficiency and renewables, not more fossil fuels,” a campaigner for Friends of the Earth told BBC News.
So why are we investing in fracking?
As things currently stand, renewable energy alone cannot power the UK. Supporters of fracking argue that gas is better for the planet than coal. “Greens who […] chain themselves to fences are responsible for keeping carbon emissions higher than they need be,” wrote Ross Clark in The Spectator in October 2018.
Currently, the UK imports over half of its gas. Fracking would allow it to be more self-reliant, while potentially creating thousands of jobs.
Experts estimate that there is enough shale gas for around 25-50 years’ of energy. That would give the UK time to transition to a carbon-free future, without relying on other countries.
But for environmental campaigners, that is not soon enough.
- Is fracking a good idea?
- The graphic above explains how fracking works. Choose an alternative energy source and draw your own diagram, explaining where it comes from and how it works.
- Hydraulic fracturing
- Hydraulic refers to the mixture of water, sand and chemicals which is pumped into the ground. Fracturing refers to the fracturing of the rocks.
- Shale rock
- A fine-grained sedimentary rock formed from mud. Black shale rock is rich in natural oil and gas, but it is difficult to remove.
- A layer of water which is held underground in soil or rock crevices. It is often used as local drinking water.
- Swimming pools
- Around 10 million gallons of water.
- Simon Blevins, Richard Roberts and Rich Loizou were the the first environmental protesters to be imprisoned in the UK since 1932. They had climbed onto lorries outside the Lancashire fracking site, in a protest that lasted for around 100 hours in July 2017.
- This is the threshold that countries promised to try to limit global warming to in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
- Mostly from Europe and Qatar.