WHAT IS FRACKING?
BY STEVEN FRENCH
BY STEVEN FRENCH
‘Fracking’ appears to be the word of the moment with countless articles, petitions and campaigns centred upon the topic. But what exactly is fracking and should we be worried about it?
WHAT IS ‘FRACKING’?
Hydraulic fracturing where the term ‘fracking’ is derived from involves, in the simplest description possible, firing high-pressure fluids deep underground in order to break up rocks thereby releasing products trapped by these rocks, such as methane and petroleum which can then be collected.
Proponents of fracking state that not only is this process safe but that it has numerous benefits. Geopolitically nations which can utilise fracking become less dependent on fossil fuels from parts of the world where there is political and economic instability allowing nations to become in charge of their own fuel economy. This is particularly true of the United States, where the majority of fracking takes place, and means that the US has to rely less upon oil imports from the Middle East and other states with which it has strained relations, such as Iran and Venezuela. Geopolitically it has also been claimed that the US is utilising fracking as a method with which to lower the global price of oil, often through large industry subsidies to domestic fracking companies, in order to undermine the Russian economy which relies heavily on fuel exports. It may also be claimed by opponents of US foreign policy that by putting the US in charge of their own fuel destiny this may lighten, what has been claimed by some, a US foreign policy that has been expansionist and aggressive as a result of wishing to control the global fuel supply.
Economically fracking also produces jobs, well over a million in the US have been produced in the direct fracking industry while many more are added through the rise in demand of aligned industries. Perhaps more importantly though is the macro-economic impact claimed by proponents of fracking. Cheaper fuel prices not only assist fuel consumers directly but can boost industry as costs are taken out of production resulting in greater job creation and a fall in prices of consumer goods.
If there were only ‘positive’ sides to fracking the current debate would not however exist. Opponents of fracking oppose the use of the extraction method for a number of reasons:
• Noise pollution, disturbance and destruction of natural habitats occur when fracking projects are established.
• Fracking may lead to methane emissions which have been claimed to play an important role in man-made global warming. Some fracking researchers such as professor Robert W. Howarth states that shale gas, obtained via fracking, is significantly worse for global warming than oil or coal.
• Fracking may lead to land and water contamination. This occurs because the fluid that is used to break down the rocks below the earth’s surface are toxic. Of 2,500 products used as hydraulic fracturing additives in the United States, 652 contained one or more of 29 chemical compounds which are either known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act for their risks to human health, or listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. Indeed this was kept as an industry secret in the US until the US Congress demanded the information be made public in 2011. As only a fraction of the fluid pumped into the land via fracking is recovered it is easy to see why campaigners have their concerns, particularly as the fluid pumped into the land can then seep into water supplies and land that is used to sustain, plant, animal and human life.
• Rocks that are broken down by fracking often contain radioactive materials that are released into the wider atmosphere. While these materials pose no threat to humans or the environment deep underground fracking may release these materials into the surface environment or be caught up with fracking fluid that seeps into water supplies and natural habitats.
• Fracking, due to its interference in the crust of the earth results in greater seismic activity, i.e. earthquakes. Earthquakes as a result of fracking have occurred in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The UK government openly accepted that an earthquake on the north of England was a direct result of hydraulic fracturing.
• Fracking is also more expensive than conventional extraction, and only came into mass usage as a result of a very high (historically speaking) oil price. Much of the industry is now suffering as a result of a falling oil price and is subject to many state subsidies which are paid for by the tax-payer. Some have claimed that the US pays such subsidies not because fracking is economically viable but, as already stated, as a play on geopolitics which may make the process uneconomical in the long-run.
The move towards fracking is opposed not because it is necessarily regarded as more of a danger than conventional extraction of fuels but because it continues on the global economical and social reliance on fossil fuels. A reliance on fossil fuels, when it is claimed that many viable green alternatives exist, does nothing to combat the perils of man-made climate change and the problem of the finite nature of such fuels. In other words fracking as a solution to our fuel needs does nothing but kick the energy challenges of the modern world into the long grass.