The problem with fracking

Fracking is the process of blasting water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals deep underground in order to get out the gas or oil.

It’s not just gas, it’s also oil they’re hunting for.

Here are four reasons why this is a really bad plan.

1. It could frack the climate

The world already has far more gas and oil than we can burn if we are to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of global climate change. Finding more will only make it worse.

In fact, analysts like the International Energy Agency warn that most of the gas we’ve already found should stay in the ground. The last thing we need is new discoveries of expensive, hard to extract gas.

Fracking fans say gas is better than coal but it turns out simply replacing coal with shale gas may do little good over the next few decades – especially if the gas leaks out, sending super-warming methane into the atmosphere.

Frankly we’re well past the point of swapping between dirty fuels. Not only should we stop using coal – right now – we should be cutting down on our gas habit too.

The government’s climate advisors say emissions need to fall by more than 80% in just a few decades, that means cutting down on the gas yet Cuadrilla’s own analysis suggests they won’t even be producing much gas until the 2030s.

And that’s if we’re talking gas. A lot of the fracking could actually be for oil, especially in the South.

Fracking for oil is even worse for the climate than normal oil production (according to this report for the Norwegian government) and, as the IEA research shows, we already have far too many people pumping dirty oil into the world.

2. It could frack the countryside, too

Smashing rocks to get at the gas on an industrial scale isn’t easy.

An analysis by Bloomberg suggests that to match what we get from the North Sea with fracking (about half our demand) would need 10-20,000 wells scattered across the countryside in clumps of 6-10 on so-called ‘drilling pads’.

Each well would spread like an octopus underground potentially running for miles deep under land and homes. Cuadrilla, the company currently drilling in Sussex, say they would need fewer wells on site – but only because they would run even more wells underground.

New roads would be built for the thousands of polluting diesel trucks laden with chemicals, fracking fluid and waste fluids travelling to and from the drilling site. A report for Cuadrilla suggests that in drilling areas 6-17 trucks a day could be needed – over five years.

On site a drilling rig would move from well to well, pumping water underground and collecting the gas or oil in a 24-7 operation. During the exploratory phase flaring may take place burning off any gas the company finds.

3. And it could frack our water

Fracking uses so much water that the water industry has warned it could make our shortages even worse.

But there is also another risk to our water. If things go wrong on the drilling site (or in transit) then contaminated water from fracking could spread into the environment, polluting ecosystems.

The fracking process involves potentially toxic chemicals at almost every stage.

Injected fluid contains chemicals including hydrochloric acid, the drilling process often involves muds containing chloride and the waste fluid – which comes back up – contains potentially toxic minerals as well as low levels of naturally occurring radioactive materials (or Norm) from the rocks.

As the UK’s Environment Agency found, flow-back fluid from the Lancashire shale contained “notably high levels of sodium, chloride, bromide and iron, as well as higher values of lead“.

The shale is fracked deep under ground but if something goes wrong with the well, gas and fluids can leak into the ground or water supply higher up.

Studies in the US have indicated this may be happening in areas with lots of drilling in Pennsylvania and Texas where contaminants including were found at higher concentrations in water wells closer to fracking sites.  The studies can’t show conclusively what caused the contamination – but the US Environmental Protection Agency is in the middle of a long-running investigation into shale gas and water.

And then there is the risk of a leak from fluids held at the surface.

According to a study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), “spills or leaks can … occur during the transport, mixing and storage of the water and flowback”.

It’s happened more than once. In fact  there are claims of spills, accidents or fines for firms engaged in drilling activities hereherehereherehere and here.

The Government insists its tougher regulations will mean none of that happens in the UK. Fracking firms have to get lots of permits and won’t be allowed near sensitive water tables – but most of the monitoring will ultimately be down to firms like Cuadrilla, and when has that ever gone wrong before?

4. It won’t bring down bills

The government wants people to believe that fracked gas will send energy bills crashing. But the problem is, there aren’t any facts on the government’s side.

In fact, the guy who Cuadrilla hired to do their spin put it most simply when he was talking to us at a public meeting. He said they’d done some research and the impact on bills would be pretty limited, “basically insignificant” was how he put it.

Why? Well firstly because nobody actually believes they are going to succeed in plastering the country with the thousands of wells it would need to produce very much gas. A government report thinks UK shale will make up about 5% of what we use.

But what if they do? Well it will still make no difference (except to the countryside).

Firstly every single expert we’ve found (apart from George) thinks UK shale is going to be quite expensive compared to the US, quite possibly no cheaper than gas already is, in fact. All that water, all those trucks, wells far deeper than in the US and those pesky rules about not damaging the environment.

What’s more, we already produce lots of gas in the North Sea yet our bills aren’t low. That’s because we’re connected to a European gas market. We’ve got pipes all over the channel and the North Sea.

Cuadrilla will sell their gas to the highest bidder. We already export gas at the same time as we import gas for more money. That’s just how the market works.

Oh, we almost forgot, the exploration in the South East – that’s not for gas, its for oil, shale oil. Shale is not going to reduce anyone’s gas bill and, thanks to the market, it’s not going to reduce anyone’s petrol bill either.

Some like to argue that maybe fracking here won’t actually lower bills, but if we frack all around the world it will do. Well, it’s possible but fracking isn’t just running into trouble in the UK.

In France the practice is banned. In Poland most of the firms exploring for gas have pulled out arguing reserves were not economic to extract and in China where shale gas extraction is threatened by water shortages fracking has barely begun and the country has already missed early targets. Experts at Chatham House have argued geological, economic and political barriers mean repeating US style shale gas extraction elsewhere may not be possible.