The prospect of thousands of oil and gas wells being drilled both in the UK’s rural heartlands and old mining and industrial areas has divided Britain. Government and industry argue that hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, will bring jobs, energy security and cheaper bills. The activists say the “dash for gas” is reckless and its potential for polluting water supplies and locking Britain into fossil fuels outweighs the chance of jobs.
Rival arguments have been made about the risks and benefits of fracking. What are the most urgent and most controversial questions?
Will it cause earthquakes? Fracking involves pumping liquid deep underground to split shale rock and release oil or gas supplies. Injecting fluids underground is known to increase pressure on seismic faults and make them more likely to slip, but the tremors produced by fracking are mostly so small that you will not even notice them.
The industry got off to a bad start in Britain when a major fracking company named Cuadrilla registered two quakes measuring magnitude 2.3 and 1.5 on the Richter scale at its first exploratory site in Lancashire, northwest England. They were not enough to damage buildings, but they scared people and gave opponents an open goal.
A new peer-reviewed report in the journal Science this month found that powerful earthquakes thousands of kilometers away can trigger swarms of minor quakes near injection wells like those used for fracking.
Will it affect water supplies? Not on a national level, but each well will need millions of liters of water to be injected underground and fracking companies will have to compete with farming, domestic use and other industries for an increasingly scarce resource.
The south and east of England are already water-stressed regions and liable to experience future shortages. Meteorologists and climate scientists predict more droughts as a result of climate change, which will add to ecological pressures on rivers and underground supplies. Water companies are rubbing their hands in expectation of selling more, but are nonetheless concerned.
Is the water safe? This is hotly debated. Friends of the fracking industry insist that tens of thousands of wells have been drilled in the US, and there has not been not a single proven case of groundwater contamination. The word “proven” is crucial, however. Many studies suggest links between fracking and deteriorating water quality. The problem is that the injected water is mixed with a cocktail of chemicals and the process of pumping it below ground releases gases such as methane as well as salts and metals. In addition, much of the contaminated water used in the fracking process resurfaces, and is classed as hazardous waste that needs to be treated — an added potential pollutant.
Proving water contamination by fracking is next to impossible because there are always natural pollutants, but the possibility exists and water companies must be wary.
Will it bring wealth and social harmony to the countryside? Probably not. All the lessons from the US are that fracking divides communities and sets people and groups against each other. Folk tend to be strongly for or against the process and the influx of fracking money into communities creates new tensions. Some US communities say they have felt let down by the companies and are disappointed that fracking did not lead to the promises of jobs and financial rewards for everyone.