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Fracking: What Is It and How Will It Affect You?

Those most involved in the study and procedures of fracking are geologists as it concerns natural processes of the ground beneath our feet - the soil and rock formations and of course the fossil fuels that organisations and governments wish to exploit. Most people involved in technical aspects of the fossil fuel industry are geology graduates. Because of this vital industry and the wealth of jobs available, typically graduates with a BS / BSc can expect a good entry-level job. Graduates in GIS (Geographic Information Systems / Science) will also find useful employment in the petrochemical industry and with the technology still being realised, a first degree will usually be enough - though some more advanced jobs may request MS / MSc or a PhD.

At the moment, it appears there is no greater environmental issue - or one so politically divisive - as fracking. To some it is a short-term stopgap for dealing with our increasing energy needs while our energy requirements of the future are secured. To others it is only dangerous and delivers very little benefit to the economy (for something which is only a short term measure anyway) for maximum damage to the environment. What is it? And what are the implications for fracking around the world?

What is Fracking?

Fracking is a slang term that caught on as a truncation of “hydraulic fracturing” (1) and is a process by which natural gas reserves, deep beneath the surface of our planet are brought to the surface to be used as part of our ongoing energy needs. These gas reserves were previously inaccessible before the development of the fracking process (2). Supporters of the technology maintain that it could guarantee energy security for decades, keep costs down and help the fledgling economic recovery. This is certainly the argument of the UK government who has gone to great pains to persuade people - many of whom are against fracking (and not just environmentalists) - that it is safe for the natural geology of the country and will be good for the economy (3, p3). Proponents also point to that natural gas releases less carbon than burning of any other form of fossil fuel (1).

The process is simple -drilling down deep through to the shale levels and then drilled horizontally to fracture the rock. A high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals is then forced down into the vent to further break up the rock and release the gas; the result is that the natural gas and oil reserves locked up in the rock (and previously impossible to get to) can be driven to the surface and drawn off. This fracturing of shale rock can occur naturally, and often does, but not a huge amount of gas is released when this happens. The modern process developed in the 1960s following experimental tests in Europe, the USA and the Soviet Union (4). It did not become common though until the 1980s when the first drilling commenced in Texas, USA (5). Even then, it remained a rare and expensive process with great economic potential equal only to the damage potential to the environment, cases which has been the matter of some study recently. That was until 2002 when technology had developed so far and the world would start to see an increase in energy prices that in 2014 has still not subsided, would become viable for wholesale drilling.

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Why the Fracking Controversy?

Divisive both politically and scientifically, there are points made on both sides for why we should and should not drill to reach these difficult pockets of natural gas. Most of these concern issues of public health; proponents point to the fact that when drilling enterprises adhere to legislation and follow safety protocols, it is a safe method of extracting - and that they provide a vital service to safeguard energy supply and provides jobs in a difficult economy. Let's take a look at some of the key arguments in the debate:

Why Fracking is Good

The UK uses a lot of natural gas thanks to large deposits in the North Sea - it is reported that the island uses relies on gas for 33% of its annual energy needs, this reliance has been greater since the 1980s when the coal mines were closed. It is estimated that 25% of the gas used in 2012 generated electricity, 20% in industrial processes and the remaining gas generated used in cooking and heating buildings. The UK relies heavily on this fuel and expects to continue to do so (3, p3) even as it seeks alternate power arrangements in nuclear and renewables. Too much is imported; fracking in the midlands, the north and parts of the southeast (where most of the reserves are located) is expected to relieve the concerning level of reliance on foreign imports. North Sea stocks become increasingly harder to access (of note is that some of these deposits have been acquired through fracking through other types of rock) and the UK government sees fracking on dry land as part of the answer (3, p4).

Both the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering believe that fracking can be carried out safely with respect to the environment and health of people who live in those areas (3, p8) but recommend proper and solid regulation of those wishing to frack, particularly in densely populated areas. The UK government has done everything it can to assure people that this solid legislative framework is already in place and regulations will be enforced against those granted contracts (3, 9-10).

In the USA, it is claimed that mistakes of the past have been properly learnt, proper legislation has been put into place and modern fracking is far cleaner and safer than it has ever been (6, A273-4). Despite feeling that the situation is much improved, environmental groups in the USA still feel that new legislation and regulations have not gone far enough. Natural gas presently provides 25% of the USA's supply (8) and is expected to increase by 2034 to 43% (7), partly to reduce reliance on coal and reach expected carbon emission targets. As noted by the UK environment and government agencies, it is cleaner as a technology and as it develops, safer too and fracking currently takes place in 33 states in the USA (6, A274).

Why Fracking is Bad

In Texas where fracking has the longest tradition, the EPA measured atmospheric pollutants in a study following concerns of local residents. They noticed that the carcinogen benzene was 55 times higher than recommended safe levels (5). What is most concerning is that some of the State's most populous urban centres sit on the largest deposits of shale gas; the potential for urban pollution is therefore of the utmost concern. Despite reassurances that the correct procedures are now in place with proper legislation, that a drive to obtain those deposits may lead to a horrific accident - in large urban population centres, this has the potential for catastrophe. Evidence for fracking causing earthquakes, despite how media portrayed the study in recent years, is limited and highly unlikely to reach magnitudes that may cause any damage (12). Nevertheless, several countries - most notably France, has banned the practice altogether thanks to public pressure (15).

It has also been noted that Congress exempted fracking from regulations on safe drinking water in 2005 (8). This is the major concern of critics, especially in light of one recorded instance in Pennsylvania where a damaged casing of a fracking well resulted in a water supply exploding. There are several more suspected cases where the evidence is ambiguous (8) and one potential compelling case in Wyoming (9). Experts remain split on what impact could result from a worst-case scenario (2). The state of New York banned the process and the state of Pennsylvania passed it - both taking massive amounts of data and cautious advice on-board. Most interesting, is that methane pollution of the water supply in the two states is of similar levels (2) but closer to the wells in Pennsylvania, concentrations were much higher (10, p8173).

Environmental experts have recommended long-term sampling and examination of commercial and residential premises in the areas closest to fracking wells (10, 8175-6). A number of potential health issues have been noted by relevant bodies, one of which resulting in an extended study in DISH Texas (13) surrounding not just contamination of the water supply but also air pollution and the possible problems of wider health issues. There are also concerns about the environmental impact, not just for pollution, but also where there may be stress on existing water supplies for the pumping. In temperate areas that can rely on annual rainfall (England, the north eastern US states for example) this is less of a problem than areas that are more arid (11, p3-4 & 6-7) except when there is drought. The United Kingdom can indeed suffer extended summer droughts resulting in a “hosepipe ban” to conserve water.

There are ongoing legal battles, particularly in the USA as campaigners attempt to stop drilling in areas where disasters are a potentiality (14). Legal issues concerning these court cases may yet prevent further expansion of fracking.

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Fracking Outlook

There have been too few sociological or scientific studies since the 1980s and 1990s, but with a renewed push for fracking by governments and energy companies, relevant bodies are being called on to look at the full scope of environmental and health issues. One study in 2012 suggested higher mortality rates in farm animals including reproduction problems and illness (17) and included studies on people living in the area.

Even the economic argument is up for debate with few studies on the impact of the local communities affected by the fracking (16, p122). They may deliver wider benefits for the power needs of a state or country but to some, the environmental and health cost to the local area may be too high. Wider studies into health conditions are also ongoing (18).


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