(This article has now been updated. Please see below.)
A Very Short Introduction To Fracking
What is fracking?
Fracking or 'hydraulic fracturing' is the process by which natural gas is extracted from subterranean (usually shale) sediments.
After drilling a well, water and chemicals are pumped at high pressure into the shale formations to create fractures in the rock bed. Sometimes, small explosions are used to blast open pre-existing cracks. When the gas is released from the sediments, it is directed to the surface.
Where's it happening?
Back in 2010, oil and gas companies began to look at the potential for fracking in the UK. Fracking is already big business in the US.
In England, a company called Cuadrilla has identified 5 possible sites for shale gas exploration in Lancashire. Extraction has only occurred at one site.
The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has also granted permission for Cuadrilla to drill a test well at Balcombe in West Sussex. UK Methane and Eden Energy are interested in fracking in the Mendip Hills, while Coastal Oil and Gas Ltd have obtained a licence for a test well at Woodnesborough in Kent.
Why is fracking in the news?
Today Ed Davey, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, announced that the Government would be lifting its moratorium on fracking. This had been initially imposed after concerns that fracking at Cuadrilla's Preese Hall site in Lancashire had caused two small earthquakes.
In his Autumn Statement earlier this month, Chancellor George Osborne signalled that the Government would encourage the construction of fracking wells:
"We are consulting on new tax incentives for shale gas and announcing the creation of a single Office for Unconventional Gas so that regulation is safe but simple. We don't want British families and businesses to be left behind as gas prices tumble on the other side of the Atlantic."
Why the controversy?
London Mayor Boris Johnson has said that fracking appears to be "an answer to the nation's prayers", arguing that "it's green, it's cheap and it's plentiful".
Those who are in favour of fracking claim that it would provide the UK with a cheap supply of 'home-grown' gas, meaning that we are less reliant on importing gas from abroad. Mr Johnson also attests that fracking would "generate tens of thousands of jobs".
First off, there is considerable disagreement about how much shale gas the UK could extract from fracking and whether or not it's economically viable.
The resource is the amount of gas underground. This is not the same as the amount of gas you could extract. That's called the reserve (usually a fraction of the resource) and its size is dependent upon a number of factors: how easy it is to access the site, what infrastructure is in place and whether or not the area is densely populated.
Cuadrilla estimates that there is 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas in Lancashire's Bowland shale. However, this is the resource not the reserve.
Today Mr Davey said that the British Geological Survey is currently working on an estimate of the UK's shale resource. In May 2012, he cautioned: "the shale gas reserves in this country are not quite as large as some people have been speculating".
Meanwhile, the US's Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that the UK's technically recoverable resources amount to 20 trillion cubic feet (a tenth of Cuadrilla's projected reserves).
What would fracking offer the economy?
In the US, where fracking is routinely described as a game-changer, shale gas accounted for 23% of gas production in 2010 - with some 5 trillion cubic feet. The EIA expects this figure to be more like 49% in 2035. What's more, it predicts that by 2020 the US's natural gas production will have exceeded its consumption. In other words, fracking has been good news for the nation's balance of payments.
An increase in energy supply ought to mean a drop in prices. It's certainly the case that US gas prices have fallen since 2008. With the Government taking heat over the rising cost of household energy bills, it is easy to see why fracking might be regarded as an attractive prospect.
Is fracking safe?
These are the main risks associated with fracking:
The UK Government has concluded that the seismic activity caused by fracking is not an insurmountable obstacle; instead, it plans to implement "real time seismic monitoring" with the idea that "operations can be quickly paused and data reviewed if unusual levels of seismic activity is observed."
It's worth noting that the 2011 earthquakes at Cuadrilla's Preese Hall site were almost imperceptible (measuring 2.3 and 1.5 on the Richter Scale). However, after the company voluntarily suspended its Lancashire operation, the government temporarily suspended fracking operations in the UK.
- Water pollution
It's also suggested that fracking might lead to the pollution of the local water supply. In the US there have been reports of the water table being contaminated by pollutants and shale gas.
Boris Johnson insists: "there have been 125,000 fracks in the US, and not a single complaint to the Environmental Protection Agency."
This is just not true. The EPA is currently examining the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources:
"In response to complaints by domestic well owners regarding objectionable taste and odor problems in well water, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency initiated a ground water investigation near the town of Pavillion, Wyoming."
As Mr Davey noted:
"no case has yet come to light in which it has been confirmed that fracking has contaminated an aquifer. But the instances of contamination which have occurred confirm the need for the industry to consistently apply good practice, and the need for proper scrutiny and oversight of the industry to ensure that this is in fact done."
In his statement today, Mr Davey stressed that any company requesting permission to begin fracking must obtain various "regulatory consents":
- planning permission
- environmental permits from the Environment Agency or the Scottish equivalent
- an inspection by the Health and Safety Executive
Even if a company's exploratory drill is successful, it must apply for a separate production licence.
Does fracking contribute to climate change?
Once again, there is little consensus on the answer to this question. Those who champion fracking argue that shale gas is a cleaner fuel than coal. Mr Davey has said that until we have a "convincing" estimate of what future production might be, it is too early to determine the carbon footprint of fracking.
UPDATE: 16 November 2015
The sentence "However, after the company suspended its Lancashire operation, the government imposed a UK-wide moratorium on fracking." has now been amended to read: "after the company voluntarily suspended its Lancashire operation, the government temporarily suspended fracking operations in the UK". We've also added a link to the relevant source which confirms this.
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