Fracking: Facts and Fiction

Fracking: Facts and Fiction
Ollie Stephenson explains why the fracking debate is far from simple

“I’m not a pessimist.  I’ve always had a great deal of faith in people that we won’t succumb to frenzy or rage or greed. ­ That we’ll figure out a solution without destroying the things that we love. I have not lost that sense.’’ So begins Josh Fox’s 2010 film, Gasland, which shot the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, into the public spotlight. We’re taken on a somewhat unnerving journey across the drilling rigs of America, past flaming drinking water, polluted air and billions and billions of dollars being made by some very smart people. With over 1 million wells fracked in the US alone, and the technology now being exported all over the world, it’s safe to say that this is a big deal.

Anti-fracking poster. Image credit: Flickr, Daquella marana
 Depending on whom you ask, fracking is one of two things: either it is the sign of the end of times where fiery tap water and earthquakes will surely spell the end of humanity as we know it, or it is the new wonder technology, greener than Natalie Bennett frolicking in a grassy green field whilst wearing green clothes and promoting ambitious carbon reduction targets. Unenlightening analogies aside, it must be said that for those who have spent much time looking into fracking there’s a lot of noise, and even more money, being made. But let us start with a few reasonably uncontroversial facts.
First, a borehole is dug vertically downwards until the rock containing the hydrocarbon is reached. In order to increase the area of rock that can be reached from one point on the surface, the borehole can then be dug horizontally for several kilometres through the target rock unit. Frackers then pump fluid at high pressures down into the well. The pressure creates a network of cracks off the main borehole, allowing trapped gas to flow from the rock up to the surface. Small particles of sand are added to the fluid to keep the cracks open when the pressure is removed. Chemicals are also added, for example to reduce viscosity and kill bacteria.

That’s the basics of the technology, but where does the controversy come from? Simplifying the matter greatly, the central accusations against fracking are threefold: 1) that it causes contamination of underground drinking water  sources, 2) it gives rise to induced seismicity (earthquakes), 3) methane emission during gas collection and the burning of the gas contribute to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and hence pesky, pesky global warming.

With over 1 million wells fracked in the US alone, and the technology now being exported all over the world, it’s safe to say that this is a big deal.

All of these issues are complicated and a detailed analysis would stretch to thousands of words. Has fracking resulted in water contamination?  Yes, there are examples ranging from unreliable anecdotes to detailed studies that can easily be found online. Can this be avoided? Well, contamination can come from three places; leaking through the well casing, the propagation of fracking-induced cracks from the borehole (normally several kilometres below the surface) to the water-carrying aquifer and mishandling of the wastewater produced by the process. But there is little evidence that cracks can propagate far enough to reach aquifers and that the contamination can be explained by poorly constructed well casings and bad environmental practices. Whether or not this can be totally eliminated is another question entirely; companies say yes, fracking opponents say no.

How about earthquakes? Fracking has been shown to cause induced micro-seismicity, i.e. very small earthquakes (equivalent to a heavy truck passing your house). Other human activities, such as coal mining and some kinds of geothermal power generation, can cause bigger earthquakes than this, but the thought of the ground under your feet being ripped apart due to huge volumes of water being pumped down there certainly doesn’t lend itself to a peaceful night’s sleep or a stable house price.

Probably the largest problem is the emissions issue. As all good Guardian readers will know, climate change is ‘The Biggest Story in the World’ and it’s safe to assume that anything accelerating climate change is likely to be bad. Again the debates rage. On one side, advocates claim gas extracted from fracking acts as a useful bridge, cleaner than coal and giving us time to develop our greener options. Opponents are at pains to point out that ‘cleaner than coal’ is not a very high standard and that gas leaks during the process of drilling and extraction might actually cause fracking to have a worse impact than other, supposedly dirtier, technologies.

Any subject which touches on energy will inevitably draw in a host of geopolitical issues, from shirtless Russian autocrats knocking on the doors of Eastern Europe, to the five Chinese coal fired power stations that have opened since you began this sentence.

­These controversies present us with an important question; when different groups of people who seem to not be obvious idiots have come to different conclusions after careful analysis of a complicated issue, what are we to make of this? It would seem prudent on our part not to rush to one side or the other, instead reserving judgement, considering conflicts of interest and proceeding with caution.

Gasland’s focus on the human impacts of the fracking boom certainly has an emotional impact, but this can cloud our judgement and stop us asking important questions about the validity of the claims presented. Any subject which touches on energy will inevitably draw in a host of geopolitical issues, from shirtless Russian autocrats knocking on the doors of Eastern Europe, to the five Chinese coal fired power stations that have opened since you began this sentence. And where there is power, money and geopolitics, there is intellectual dishonesty liberally applied in the service of obtaining more power, more money and more geopolitical influence.

Flaming tap water in Gasland (2010). Image credit: Flickr, darthpedrius

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The economic benefits often touted by fracking proponents must be balanced against a careful analysis of the human and environmental impacts. But we must also accept that for every new technology there are those for whom it is just too advanced to be distinguished from magic, and thus to be distrusted.

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This leaves not so much a conflict of interest as a giant battle: groups of scientists and politicians swayed by effective corporate lobbying versus groups of environmentalists with an axe to grind and a lack of peer review research. ­These people have the loudest voices and they polarise the debate. In between lie the inhabitants of a planet that looks not to be in great shape, hoping that a solution can be found “without destroying the things that we love’’. What is that solution? I don’t know and I doubt you do either – let’s work on it.

Ollie Stephenson is a 4th year undergraduate in the Department of Physics.