Government gives go ahead to fracking future

Back to frack: a worker at Cuadrilla’s facility in Lancashire, England © Getty Images

After problematic beginnings, the UK’s fracking operation is back on track. The controversial method of gas extraction could be the future for British energy – but is it the right path?

It is a pivotal moment in the world of energy. After months of deliberation, the British government has given the green light to fracking: a controversial method of extracting shale gas from deep underground.

For energy company Cuadrilla, the announcement is an early Christmas present. After triggering minor earthquakes last year, its fracking operation has stood silent. Now, the firm will continue to explore the mile-thick belt of shale in Lancashire, England – albeit under tight restrictions.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has riven the world of energy policy in two. On one side, people like George Osborne say it is a path to a glittering, prosperous energy future. Their opponents brand that idea ‘deluded’ – and fracking a dangerous, dirty, and potentially catastrophic endeavour.

But what exactly is it? Fracking involves drilling wells up to a kilometre below the earth’s surface, and pumping water, sand and chemicals into the rocks, creating fissures that allow the gas to escape.

Once collected, that gas can be burned to produce power. With coal and oil reserves dwindling, the prospect of a such a lucrative energy source on British soil is exciting. What’s more, shale produces less CO2 than coal or oil. That sets it up for a starring role in energy: 30 new gas-fired power stations are set to be built in the UK in the next 20 years.

Good news? Not everyone thinks so. Critics say the ‘dash for gas’ will create as many dangerous emissions as coal, and perhaps more: fracking sites are prone to methane leaks, and more plentiful fuel could just mean that more gets burned. UK activists warn that the expensive fracking effort could fail to provide the boost excited politicians have promised. In the USA, a grassroots anti-fracking campaign flourished after a whistleblower warned it could contaminate New York’s drinking water.

But that hasn’t stopped the frackers. By 2035 shale gas will account for 46% of natural gas extraction in the US and, combined with other new sources, it is expected to make America largely self-sufficient in energy by 2030.

For frack’s sake

In Britain, the coalition leaders hope to follow that example. The new method of fracking, they say, may seem frightening, and many questions still need to be settled. But these are minor hurdles to be overcome: gas power, they say, will mean a vibrant and innovative energy future for Britain.

Activists, however, are not convinced. There is nothing new, they say, about dirty gas power and the risky methods of extracting it: fracking is just like outdated sources like coal and oil which have created climate change and global instability. Now, they say, is the time for a truly radical approach. Renewable, green energy is the future.

You Decide

  1. Should fracking go ahead in the North of England?
  2. What should the government prioritise when deciding the country’s energy policy: providing power cheaply and quickly, or preventing climate change?

Activities

  1. Write a rap that explains how fracking works and perform it to the class.
  2. Create a graphic that clearly displays the pros and cons of fracking in an accessible and interesting way.

Some People Say...

“The government doesn’t care about the environment.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This all sounds really complicated. I think I’ll leave it to the experts.
Really? A lot of the opposition to fracking is coming from people whose lives and communities will be directly affected by the process. If you live in Lancashire, for example, this will be taking place on your doorstep: it might mean more jobs, but also pollution and disturbance. Remember that fracking caused an unexpected earthquake to strike Blackpool!
I don’t live in Lancashire.
That doesn’t mean this doesn’t affect you. This argument is about how we heat and light our homes, power our computers, and manufacture the things we use every day. The problem of how governments source the energy to do that is a huge worry – and fracking and natural gas is one solution of many.

Word Watch

Minor earthquakes
Last April, a series of tremors reaching up to 2.2 on the Richter scale hit Blackpool, a seaside resort in the North of England. Traffic lights fell over and some residents called police reporting an April Fools’ prank. It did not emerge that the tremors had been caused by the fracking until several months after the incident, when work at the site was halted.
Methane leaks
Although most climate change lobbyists focus on CO2 as the primary cause of climate change, methane emissions significantly contribute to global warming as well. The chemical can be found, famously, in animal manure and farts.
Global instability
The US and UK governments are keen to explore gas as an energy source partly to liberate themselves from dependence on oil, which can be found in vast quantities in the Middle East. Depending on a relatively unstable area of the world for power is not an ideal situation for any nation. More recently, oil in Africa has created wealth, but also instability and conflict.

Subjects

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