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Fracking in the UK

Burning fossil fuels is a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions (GGE), and, greenhouse gas emissions (water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O)) are the principle cause of man-made climate change. Given this fact, governments throughout the world should be moving away from fossil fuels and investing in, and designing policies that encourage development of, renewable sources of energy. But the British Conservative government, despite public opinion to the contrary, has all but banned the construction of onshore wind turbines and is encouraging fracking in England. The Tories are the only UK political party to offer support for this regressive form of energy production, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens having all promised fracking bans should they gain political office at the next general election.

Hydraulic fracking is the process of releasing gas and oil from shale rock: huge quantities of water, proppant (usually sand) and chemicals are injected at high-pressure into hydrocarbon-bearing rocks, rocks that can be up to a mile down and were once thought to be impermeable. This process of fracturing (or cracking) forces the rocks to crack open, and gas held inside is released and allowed to flow to the surface.

Shale gas is a fossil fuel, and when combusted produces GGE, albeit at around 50% less than coal or oil, but GGE nevertheless. The leading fracking company in Britain is the energy firm Cuadrilla. An organization that according to its website, aims “to be a model company for exploring and developing shale gas in the UK,” they state that they are “acutely aware of the responsibilities this brings, particularly with regard to safety, environmental protection and working with local communities.” Really?

After protests by the local community and various court cases (Lancashire County Council had refused drilling rights, but the Secretary of State ignored community voices and approved the company’s request on appeal), Cuadrilla recently commenced fracking at its Preston New Road site in Lancashire. However, as in 2011 when the company was forced to abandon drilling, work was suspended for two days out of four because of earthquakes. Tremors measured 0.5 on the Richter scale, which breached the seismic threshold established following the 2011 earth tremors. Instead of abandoning the project as the local community and environmental groups are demanding, the firm’s chief executive, Francis Egan, wants the Government to raise the threshold.

Another Regressive Step

America is home to hydraulic fracturing, where it’s been taking place for decades. Greenpeace state that as of 2012 the “fracking industry [in USA] has drilled around 1.2 million wells and is slated to add at least 35,000 new wells every year.” Fracking has led to US oil production increasing faster than anytime in its history, resulting in lower domestic gas prices. The US Energy Information Administration record that around two thirds of gas is now produced by fracking and almost half the countries crude oil.

Shale gas is spoken of as a positive alternative to coal, but it’s just another filthy fossil fuel that is adding to GGE, which in turn are driving climate change. Fracking has a substantive impact on the natural environment and the health of those living within the surrounding area. Earthquakes, air pollution, soil pollution, carcinogenic chemical leakage and contaminated groundwater are the primary risks.

An enormous amount of water, which needs to be transported to the site incurring significant environmental costs, is required in the fracking process. The amount of water used varies per well: between 1.5 and 10 million gallons is required every time a well is fractured. Greenpeace relate that, “in 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 70 to 140 billion gallons of water were used to fracture just 35,000 wells in the United States.” The water is mixed with various chemicals to make fracking fluid, a toxic cocktail that can be further contaminated by “heavy metals and radioactive elements that exist naturally in the shale.” A significant portion of the frack fluid returns to the surface, “where it can spill or be dumped into rivers and streams…fracking fluids and waste have made their way into our drinking water and aquifers. Groundwater can be contaminated through fracking fluid and methane leakage and the energy companies have “no idea what to do with the massive amount of contaminated water it’s creating,”

In addition to water and soil pollution, fracking adds to existing levels of air pollution as methane gas is released into the atmosphere through leaks and venting, a study conducted by Cornell University found that “over a wells lifetime, 3.6 to 7.9 percent of methane gas escapes” in this way. Unlike CO2, which sits in the atmosphere for centuries or millennia, methane only lasts for decades, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change asserts that it warms the planet by 86 times as much as CO2 before then degrading to become CO2.

Many countries recognize the retrogressive nature of fracking and have passed legislative bans or moratoriums; England is the only country within the UK where it is currently allowed. More than 100 fracking licenses have been awarded by the government, but in order to start fracking they need permission from the local council. Fracking is universally unpopular amongst the communities where sites are located or proposed; on 13th October the Gasdown-Frackdown action saw thousands of people from six continents take to the streets demanding an end to fracking and calling for long-term investment in renewable sources of energy. Fracking is not an environmentally sane way to meet the energy needs of a country, it is part of the problem not the solution and it should be rejected totally. What is required is a global energy strategy rooted in environmental sustainability. As Friends of the Earth rightly say, “a 21st Century energy revolution based on efficiency and renewables, not more fossil fuels that will add to climate change.”

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Graham Peebles is a British freelance writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and India. 

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