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.
Will the countryside be further industrialized? Locally, yes. The industry states that around 1,000 fracking sites in Britain may be in operation by 2020, each of which will probably be around the size of four or five football pitches. It claims that these few hectares of drilling pads will be able to produce more energy than the entire British wind industry.
However, are these figures correct? Analysis by the British bird charity the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) of government figures suggests that the north of England alone has the potential for as many as 5,000 sites and up to 100,000 wells, in which case the impact of fracking on the countryside would be immense. Fracking needs an infrastructure and streams of heavy lorries to bring in sand, water and drilling gear, and to take out waste water, and — where there is no pipeline accessible — the gas itself.
Narrow roads and bridges may need to be reinforced, depots and buildings will have to be erected, and there will be inevitable extra traffic and air pollution. The sites will work 24/7, so there will be light and possibly constant noise pollution in the vicinity of the wells.
Also, in the wake of the controversy and protests, any fracking site is likely to need high fences, and to be permanently guarded. The visual intrusion of these sites can be lessened with tree planting and landscaping, but this will take time to blend in and is unlikely to be enough to hide the camps, noise and traffic.
Could it increase UK energy security? This is what British Prime Minister David Cameron and the industry hopes. Although the latest estimates suggest that there are about 37 billion cubic meters of shale gas underneath Britain, this massive figure is meaningless until it is known how much is accessible, what the environmental cost could be to extract it and how long the supplies may last.
Many of the formations thought to contain the gas have not been properly analyzed, and the oil and gas industry has a record of overstating its case for political and financial reasons. Lord Browne, chair of Cuadrilla and former head of British Petroleum, argues it is “right” for Britain, but British Green Party Member of Parliament Caroline Lucas, who was arrested on Monday during an anti-fracking protest outside Cuadrilla’s drilling site in the village of Balcombe, on England’s south coast, says it risks locking Britain into an expensive, fossil-fuel future — “increasing our exposure to volatile gas prices and forcing controversial fracking developments onto communities before the full impact is understood.”
Will it lead to lower carbon emissions? The jury is out. Five years ago, some environmental groups argued that shale gas was “an important transition fuel” that might temporarily feed British energy needs while the country makes the switch to renewables. Today they argue that concentrating resources on extracting fossil fuel from the ground instead of investing in renewable energy threatens to undermine the legal commitment to avoiding dangerous levels of climate change.
They see no evidence that the extraction of the gas is doing anything other than increasing the amount of fossil fuels being burned. In the US, emissions have reduced since shale gas was exploited, but this is because the cheaper gas is replacing coal, which is now being exported around the world. There is now a growing debate about whether shale gas really is less carbon-intensive than coal because the fracking process releases methane gas, which is a powerful contributor to climate change.
What impact will there be on wildlife? We have no idea. If it leads to further climate-change emissions, it will undermine the whole world. The RSPB fears that fracking will take place in many areas of Britain that are on the doorstep of important bird migratory routes. Other groups say flaring of gases and the clearances of land will inevitably damage the countryside.
Will it lead to cheaper fuel bills? It has done so in the US, but while Cameron and the industry argue that it could do the same in the UK, there is no evidence that it will. UK fuel prices are impossible to predict more than a few months ahead largely because the country depends on the global market and a handful of global suppliers.
What is in it for affected communities? Landowners and local communities have no legal right to a share in the revenues from the oil and gas, but they will get small payments to compensate them for surface disruption. The government has promised to pay ￡100,000 (US$160,000) for each exploratory well dug and that communities will then receive 1 percent of revenues if the drilling proves to be commercially viable. That could amount to millions of pounds. The companies, on the other hand, will get hefty tax breaks. It is still unclear whether local authorities will be allowed to choose which communities receive the compensation or whether the people most affected will be able to choose how to spend any money.
Will there be thousands of jobs? Cameron and the industry have estimated between 70,000 and 150,000 new jobs. If the industry figure of 1,000 wells is correct, that suggests 70 to 150 jobs per well, which is a lot considering the wells will be largely automated. However, there will be work for the construction, transport and mining industries.
Who is winning the PR battle? Cuadrilla and the industry can count on the Telegraph, the Times and the Daily Mail newspapers and have employed the giant public relations company Bell Pottinger, which has very close links to the Conservative party and specializes in mining multinationals working in developing countries.