Debate | What the Frack?

Households across the UK have been told that they must prepare for a sharp rise in energy bills within two years as Britain comes “dangerously” close to power shortages. So, is Fracking for shale gas the solution to our energy needs? Shale gas is a natural gas found within shale formations underground and fracking is the process that aims to collect this gas for use in our homes and businesses. However, the process itself is very controversial. It has already been banned in France and has sparked much protest and debate across the UK. LS debate asks, should fracking for shale gas be permitted in the UK?


Hafiz Abu

President, Society of Petroleum Engineers

One of the most essential drives of human development is energy. Insecurities in the energy sector give rise to very serious consequences: high mortality rates, poverty, famine to mention but a few. Over the years, the North Sea has been the main source of energy in the UK. However, for the first time since production started in the North Sea, UK oil output fell by 1 million barrels per day last year and we have begun to rely on importing oil and gas to meet this shortfall resulting in escalating household energy bills. It is in light of this that cheaper and economic viable sources of energy are necessitated.

An increase in natural gas production is a significant game changer in securing the country’s energy needs and shale gas presents a growing source of this natural gas. In the US, electricity and gas prices have significantly fallen due to the contribution of shale gas to the energy market. World Energy Outlook, 2012, estimates that with such increasingly penetration of the shale gas production, the US could be approaching gas self-sufficiency by 2035 and we need to take similar measures in the UK.

The British Geological Society (BGS) has estimated that there is 37.6 trillion cubic metres (tcm) found in the shale formations of this country and using a recovery factor of about 20 per cent means this could yield a 13,000 billion cubic meters (bcm) of shale gas. Not only will this contribute heavily to securing our energy needs but the economic benefits of harnessing this gas is also a game changer for this country’s struggling economy.

However, the main issues that engulf this debate are the perception of the environmental risk associated with the use of fracking. Most predominant are concerns of earth tremors. Earth tremors have been part and parcel of us in this country for decades. Mining activities in this country has caused numerous unnoticeable tremors and fracking is even thought to have much lower magnitude on the Richter scale, usually around 1.5 ML. At such magnitudes, tremors are not felt at the surface and this can be likened to quakes caused by traffics.

Another concern is that the chemicals used in fracking may contaminate ground drinking water. However, compelling evidence has also shown that this is a myth. Fracking operations generally take place at depths of about 10, 000 ft subsurface, but in most countries, including the UK, no drinking water is found below 1000 ft subsurface. Since the beginning of human civilisation, all forms of energy production have had consequences on the natural environment and it is important to minimise these effects on the environment.  Fracking is not a new technique to the oil and gas industry in this country. A report by the Royal Academy of Engineering indicate that, over the past three decades, out of the over 2,000 wells drilled within this period, around 10 per cent of these wells are currently producing using hydraulic fracturing to enhance oil and gas recovery. It is therefore a tried and tested technique that will benefit us all.

To conclude, it is palpable that with proper policies, regulatory systems and continual improvement in the use of this technique, fracking for shale gas in the UK will be a blessing and not an environmental or social nemesis.


Emma Friend

Equality and Diversity 

Sadly, fracking is another short term and ultimately illogical approach to sourcing energy. It’s hard to argue against the attraction of cheaper energy and more jobs, but these quick-fix gains come at the price of lasting damage to the environment and to public health. Our default response to rapidly depleting energy sources has been to just dig deeper and drill harder, blithely denying the fact that our actions create toxic environments that others then have to live in.

One of the most depressingly irrational things about this approach to obtaining energy is that most of the energy produced goes back into fuelling the extraction process, creating a vicious and wasteful cycle. It is a well known fact that fracking is an incredibly inefficient undertaking, as each gas well requires an average of 400 tanker trucks to even transport the water needed to and from the site. And that’s 1-8 million gallons of water, mixed with around 40,000 gallons of chemicals to complete each fracking job. Only 30-50 per cent of this fluid is recovered, so most of it is left in the ground and is non-biodegradable. Despite claims that gas is cleaner than its coal and oil counterparts, methane, the natural gas that companies are drilling for is a heat trapping gas which is 105 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Methane leaks at every stage of the process, from production and processing to transmission and distribution and it is this methane that is not only poisoning our air supply, but also damaging our o-zone layer.

Gas companies have generated a lot of hogwash over the question of whether fracking is a menace to public health, but the evidence is undoubtedly against them. There have been over 1,000 documented cases of water contamination next to areas of gas drilling as well as cases of sensory, respiratory and neurological damage due to ingested contaminated water. According to recent research, around 35 per cent of gas wells are leaking right now and 60 per cent of wells will completely fail over a 30 year time period. The Society of Petroleum Engineers themselves admit that stronger cement won’t solve this problem as high stresses and rock movements deep underground will cause a significant proportion of wells to fail no matter what.

The environmental, health and safety hazards are established (albeit ignored), but what’s possibly more frustrating is that this is such a massive step in the wrong direction. Fracking has enabled the government to shift the public attention away from renewable sources; instead of beginning to change our ‘quick fix at any cost’ approach, we’re leaving an even bigger mess for the next generation to sort out.  Gas is already starting to displace renewable energy as they battle it out on an asymmetrical playing field. The costs of wind and solar are decreasing, but without enough input from the government there’s little chance that they will become the cheapest. The true costs of fossil fuel extraction to society and the wider environment cannot be ignored and those making these decisions do us and future generations a disservice by refusing to fully acknowledge them.

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