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The Engineer Q&A: fracking

Your chance to ask our expert panel about the challenges, pitfalls and potential impact of hydraulic fracturing.

Fracking is one of the most controversial engineering topics of recent years. Proponents say this method of onshore gas extraction will help the UK reduce both its carbon emissions and its dependence on foreign imports while generating significant income for the economy. Critics say fracking – which involved pumping high-pressure water and chemicals into the ground – risks water and land pollution, and that increasing any kind of fossil fuel production will ultimately work against our goal of limiting climate change.

For our latest reader Q&A we’ve assembled a panel of experts to answer your questions about the challenges, pitfalls and potential impact of fracking. The practice has become well established in the US, generating large amounts of gas but also creating numerous environmental problems. The UK stands poised to follow with its own industry, but how will the engineering, regulation and ultimate impact differ?

Our panel will include:

  • Cuadrilla Resources, the company, chaired by Lord Browne, that has begun exploratory drilling at several potential fracking sites across the UK;
  • John Cooper, sub-divisional director of Mott MacDonald’s oil & gas advisory team, which has been advising industry on the challenges in developing a UK shale gas sector;
  • Dr Anthony Ingraffea, professor of engineering at Cornell University in the US, who has been researching fracking since the 1970s – including work for oil and gas companies – but is now an outspoken critic of the industry;
  • Alastair Chisholm, policy manager at the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, which has warned against pursuing fracking too quickly but also that some of the negative impacts have been overplayed.

Thank you for your questions. The answers will be published in the September issue of The Engineer magazine and here on the website.

Readers' comments (13)

  • Contamination of aquifers caused by well failure is often raised as an issue, yet my understanding is that there is only one case the U.S. where this has been documented, although there are many others due to the failure of open pits which would not be allowed in the UK. Am I correct in my assumptions?


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  • Is it not the case that the longer this valuable resource is left in the ground, the more it will eventually be worth? Given the relative abundance of fossil fuels at present, why the sudden rush?

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  • There is very little information on the problems and solutions of blocking up the gap between the vertical pipe and the bored hole. Is it possible to prevent fluids at different layers from migrating and for how long?

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  • Three comments:-

    Firstly what assurances can be given with regard to the mobilisation of undesirable pollutants from the shale minerals into the water injected into the wells that returns to the surface with the shale gas?

    For example, the mobilisation of arsenic from thousands of bore holes sunk for drinking water in Bangladesh/Bengal was not considered to be a problem in the BGS's initial drilling investigations but arsenic contamination of drinking water is now a major problem affecting the health of millions of people.

    Secondly, how can we possibly know for certain that there are no existing natural vertical fractures in the rocks overlaying the shale formations that would provide pathways to the surface for the injected water? How would the extent of such existing fractures be ascertained and what risk assurances will be given by the exploration company's chief geologist to his insurers that no such fractures exist before the commencement of any fracking operations?

    There was a major tragedy at Mufulira in Zambia in the late 60's when millions of tons of fine tailings stored in a dam at the surface entered an underground mine through a sink hole killing hundreds of miners. Prior to the event no one thought this could ever happen. From then on it was not permitted to mine under existing tailings dams.

    Thirdly, over a hundred years ago during the gold rushes in California, South Africa and elsewhere little thought was given to the long term environmental impact of these mining operations.

    Today there are major problems all over the world with contaminated water from abandoned gold and other mines and waste dumps. The original developers and profiteers are long gone so who is to bear the on-going clean-up cost?

    What assurance will the UK general public have that they will not pick up the bill in the event of problems with fracking operations that do not become apparent until many years from now when the original developers may no longer be around?

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  • An issue in the US is identifying exactly what materials / chemicals are being injected into the well. Local inhabitants should be informed of this information, so that they can monitor their water quality & verify what the company is telling them about water safety.

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  • How will you justify the earthquakes and their impact on local communities?

    What are the opportunity costs of fracking compared to renewables?

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  • We must separate out the engineering and geological realities from the manufactured controversy by political groups and institutes with money invested in alternatives who wish to safeguard their subsidies.

    Much about fracking is speculation by people without relevant qualification.

    If half of the negatives claimed about the process were true there would be ample evidence and we would not be in a situation where 126k wells in the US cannot give us enough data to justify green claims.

    For example, much is made of fault conductivity by non geologists, yet if those 126k fracked wells resulted in fluid transfer to overlying formations the gas characteristics of overlying formations would change over time. This would be startlingly obvious by comparing well logs over time.

    It is the fashion to speculate about fracking (especially by those without relevant geological, engineering or drilling experience or qualifications) - and for newspapers to try and sell copies using headline grabbing. The claims often do not match the evidence.

    With so many wells drilled and fracked the dataset is quite extensive.

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  • Kevin - my understanding is that fracking chemical cocktails use by companies are specific to them and they don't want to reveal what they use for fear of the competition getting hold of their secrets.

    Which to be honest sounds a lot of bull**it to me, there can't really be a significant difference in concoctions for a specific task. But it gives them a 'credible' reason for withholding traceable chemical characteristics and limiting their liability.

    So in 20 years time when it's discovered a particular chemical has caused irreversible damage to the environment, the fracking companies can simply shrug their shoulders and say "we only used water".

    And whilst I agree with fracking, this puerile approach by officials on behalf of the public is insulting and dangerous.

    If companies are to be allowed to frack then every detail of their operation needs to be inventoried and recorded so that in the future they can be held responsible for their actions.

    If that increases the initial cost of extraction, so be it.

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  • Throughout mankind's history, little thought has ever been given to the long-term effect(s) of the whole scale (should that be shale) effect of changes. From Elizabethian writers claiming that DE-forestration (for charcoal) would alter life as they new it, through the coal and other mineral mining and dumping of tailings as massive eyesores throughout the world through to the entire 'oil' situation (at least that for the most part comes up of its own accord) and of course nuclear 'dumps' of extremely toxic material with a life of centuries... the future has always been for someone else to think about. In the end we Engineers (at least our descendants!) will have to think of, find, design, construct and implement solutions. That is of course only after other groups have made their 'pile' from the problem, not its outcome.

    I do accept the possible 'fracking' side-effects as serious: but only until the lights start to go out. See above!

    Mike B

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  • I live in Weeton and experienced earth tremors from the fracking.
    I would like to concentrate on what will definitely happen - increase of traffic on rural lanes (Roseacre is not a suitable location) ,
    insurance premiums increase for post codes where fracking sites are located.

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