Fracking all over the world

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 12.39.45  Andrew Wade, senior reporter

This week saw the Scottish government implement a total ban on hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – instigating a bunfight of Bake Off proportions in The Engineer’s comments section.

Cuadrilla’s experimental fracking well near Blackpool caused 2 “seismic events”

One critic of the decision suggested England should stop supplying electricity to its northerly neighbour (he would do well to take a look at energy flows around the UK and Scotland’s progress towards 100 per cent renewables). Others accused the Scots of Nimbyism, suggesting the 60,000 respondents to the public consultation – who were virtually unanimous in their opposition to fracking – simply didn’t want the process taking place on their doorstep.

Considering the potential environmental and health impacts associated with fracking, the cries of Nimbyism seem a little unfair. It’s a term that’s long been associated with onshore wind, with many decrying the turbines as eyesores on the landscape, and others even claiming adverse health effects caused by living in proximity to wind farms. The latter has been largely chalked up to the nocebo effect (think placebo in reverse), whereby negative physiological symptoms can be brought on by psychological means. As for turbines being eyesores, that’s one for the philosophers. I have no issue with them aesthetically and take a degree of pleasure from knowing they help keep the lights on. Others have entirely different opinions, and are quite entitled to them.

Fracking, however, is a different kettle of fish. While the evidence so far is not conclusive, there are widespread concerns in the US that fracking has led to contamination of groundwater. In December, the Environmental Protection Agency published its long-awaited report on fracking, concluding that “hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources in the United States under some circumstances.”

(Credit: Mark Dixon via CC)

The EPA tempered its findings by declaring there were gaps and uncertainties in the data, and that “it was not possible to fully characterise the severity of impacts”. Nonetheless, this represented the largest ever investigation into the effects of fracking in the US, and confirmed – to some degree – the anecdotal evidence of the past decade suggesting fracking can contaminate drinking water.

Now, objecting to wind turbines because they spoil your view of the surrounding dales is one thing. Objecting to fracking due its association with the contamination of drinking water is quite another. Supporters of fracking claim that it can be done safely and that the cases in the US where contamination has occurred are the result of bad practice and rogue operators. While this may well be true, I imagine it’s scant consolation for those who can no longer drink from their taps. And it would not exactly fill me with confidence if the trucks were rolling in to frack in my backyard. Rogue operators in the energy sector are not entirely unheard of. Corners sometimes get cut in pursuit of profit.

At the very least, the people of Scotland have the right to be cautious. The shale gas located there isn’t going anywhere, and at any rate is estimated to be relatively limited in comparison with reserves south of the border, which are due to be explored in the very near future.

Fracking has scarred the landscape in some parts of the US

Aside from the immediate threat to local environments and the consequential health effects, there are of course other reasons to be skeptical of fracking. Even if the extraction process was somehow proven to be entirely safe, its fruits are anything but. Fracking releases large amounts of methane into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas significantly more harmful to climate change than carbon dioxide over the short term. A Harvard study from last year showed that US methane emissions increased by more than 30 per cent over the 2002–2014 period, a rise attributed by many to the expansion of the shale gas industry.

While some – including the UK government – see fracking as key to the UK’s future energy security, efforts would be better spent investing in renewables to deliver an entirely green future. The combined solar, wind, hydro and tidal resources of this country are staggering. Managed correctly, and integrated with pumped hydro storage (which The Engineer will be looking at in an upcoming issue) and battery resources, the UK can build an energy system that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels. It won’t be as easy as pumping high-pressure water and chemicals into the ground, but it’s a much more exciting engineering challenge. And the payoff will be immense. Let the bunfight commence.