Fracking is a term that has been all over the media for some time now but what exactly is it and why is it generating so much discussion?
It has been well documented that there are finite resources of fossil fuels in the world and one day it will run out completely. In the meantime, drilling companies have investigated other ways to source their oil and gas. They believe that fracking is the answer.
What is it?
Fracking, otherwise known as hydraulic fracturing, is a well stimulation technique designed to recover gas and oil from shale rock. The process firstly involves drilling down into the earth, usually horizontally to the rock layer but sometimes vertically. Next a water mixture made up of water, sand and chemicals and known as ‘fracking fluid’ is injected into the rock at a high pressure to release the gas inside. Once the pressure is removed, small grains of sand or aluminium oxide hold the fractures open.
Hydraulic fracturing was first used commercially in 1950 but wasn’t used on a large scale until around 2003. By 2012, there had been 2.5 million ‘frac jobs’ carried out worldwide with over 1 million of these in the US.
What are the advantages?
Fracking means that drilling companies can reach oil and gas resources that were previously very difficult to access. This offers greater gas security, essentially meaning that these resources can last for longer into the future. In the US, it has also driven down gas prices as production has increased. Some fracking has been carried out in England and a report by the Energy and Climate Change Committee suggested that shale gas in the UK may help to secure energy supplies although it may not bring down gas prices.
Why is it controversial?
The main concerns about fracking are environmental ones. Firstly, fracking uses a huge amount of water which must be transported to the site. There is a risk of ground and surface water contamination with potentially carcinogenic chemicals as well as air and noise pollution.
Another concern is that fracking can potentially trigger earthquakes. Two small earthquakes of 1.5 and 2.2 magnitude were recorded in the Blackpool area in 2011 following fracking. In areas with more active faults, this could be much worse.
There is also concern from environmental campaigners that fracking is basically lulling energy firms into a false sense of security and distracting them from investing in renewable sources of energy. Fossil fuels are still a finite resource so a continued reliance on them is ill advised.
What does this mean for the UK?
No fracking has taken place in the UK since 2011 following the earthquakes near Blackpool. There have been reserves of shale gas identified across much of the UK but there is a lot of opposition to fracking. Currently drilling firms have to apply for a fracking license if they wish to carry out any fracking in the future.