UK Prime Minister, David Cameron today encouraged the public to be fully supportive of fracking in this country. This statement arrives following concerns voiced by pressure groups in Sussex, who allege that the exploratory drilling currently being carried out by prospecting company, Quadrilla, will lead to a full scale fracking operation. Thousands of gallons of water and hydrochloric acid will be injected into shale rock deposits which sit beneath an important conservation area used for overwintering by migratory geese and swans. It is feared that this deadly cocktail will enter the ground water supply with a catastrophic effect on wildlife.
There has been a lot of negative press about this recently, both at home and abroad. So, what is ‘fracking’ and why does it court such controversy?
Hydraulic fracturing, to give it its proper name, is an industrial mining process which entails injecting shale rock beds at extremely high pressure with a mix of liquid, chemicals (some of which are known to be carcinogenic), and sand. This process fractures the rock and causes the release of natural gas from the shale rock layers, which can then be collected via a well. Exploration companies argue that fracking makes natural energy resources available that were previously unreachable, using conventional technologies. They go to great pains to stress that each well is sealed with a protective cement casing to prevent groundwater contamination.
Environmental groups fear that fracking will cause irreparable damage to the countryside and wildlife habitats, if exploration and subsequent drilling is allowed to progress unchecked and unregulated. Such impacts have already been seen in other parts of the world, hence the fears are very real indeed. UK Fracking companies, however, are quick to dismiss such concerns as merely ‘nimbyism’, and insist that every effort will be made to avoid a negative impact on the environment.
Evidence from the U.S. suggests that fracking causes drinking water contamination. Groundwater has been shown to be polluted with methane, and even radiation. Fracking companies insist that wells will be sealed and no such leeching into groundwater supplies will occur. So the human drinking water supply may be safe, but animals drink it too. This means that contaminated meat and milk from farm animals living near fracking wells may enter the food chain undetected. Wild animals and birds drinking from streams near a fracking site would also be affected and certain vulnerable species could be decimated. And veggies and vegans would not be immune to the results of fracking. After all, farmers cultivating arable crops, including fruit and vegetables, could also find their land and its produce contaminated.
And what about air pollutants? The carcinogen benzene and toxic hydrocarbons have been detected near fracking operations, and there are concerns that fracking developments will be established too close to populated areas, leading to cases of chronic respiratory problems and other diseases like Leukemia. As if this weren't worrying enough, fracking produces such large quantities of methane, that its carbon footprint is 20% higher than that of coal.
Small earthquakes caused by fracking are well documented, and there has been no substantiated denial that seismic activity is triggered by the process. This may not at first appear to present much of a threat, but if wells are to be developed close to densely populated areas, even small earthquakes could cause disruption and structural damage.
So, is fracking the key to the next cheap form of energy waiting in the wings to step in as a timely replacement for coal, oil, and natural gas? Or should we instead be focusing on developing safer forms of renewable green energy like solar, wind and wave? I guess that as with most things in this world, money will talk and palms will be greased, and the fears and concerns of the general public could go unheeded.
Image credit: Tobias Akerboom (at hutmeelz)