Hydraulic fracturing or fracking as it is more commonly known, is, in a nutshell, a procedure for extracting oil or gas from bedrock. The method involves pumping high pressure fluid into drill holes in the rocks to create fractures and this provides an escape route for the gas or oil. Some rocks are naturally more difficult to extract gas from and these require extra fracturing by injecting pressurised water into the fractures. Further chemicals are then inserted to enable the fractures to remain open so that extraction can occur. Fracking is a fairly new technique and has already caused a great deal of controversy. Some countries have already banned its use even though there is a huge amount of untapped energy. France was first to ban fracking over concerns that water courses could become irreparably polluted and is of the firm belief that a cleaner extraction method will be developed. In the United Kingdom, fracking was permitted but following several small earthquakes that occurred in the area and at around the same time as the fracking activity, it was banned. The ban has now been lifted with the provisio that if further minor earthquakes occur, it will be banned again. The United States appears to have very mixed views with some states allowing fracking whilst others will not.
The benefits are that there is a vast amount of natural gas and oil that is locked into the rocks underneath the earth’s surface. By tapping in to such a reservoir a nation’s dependency on other countries for their energy supplies could be greatly reduced or even stopped altogether. It would create a huge number of jobs which would benefit the economy. The use of hydraulic fracturing could also extract gas or oil which remains in existing mines or wells and is unable to be extracted using traditional methods. This means that existing wastage can be extracted and put to good use, making the existing well or mine more productive. Fracking is cheaper than other currently available methods for extracting natural gas or oil from rock. New methods for dealing with waste water and other waste products are being developed and these will help prevent pollution and endangerment of the environment.
The number one concern of opponents is pollution. Contamination of the water course is a major concern not only to governments, residents and environmentalists but also to the companies themselves. The water used in fracking can be decontaminated and re-used to a point but there are a number of chemicals that are added and make it particularly nasty if it were to be spilt. At the moment, a good deal of the polluted water is pumped into underground disposal wells and this is where the possibility of pollution of the watercourse could occur. The waste water could leach through the rocks and into waterways causing a massive problem not only to the environment but also potentially to the health of people nearby.
Another concern is the occurrence of minor earth tremors in areas where hydraulic fracturing is taking place. It is not known what the long term impact of fracking will be and we do not know if it will increase the incidences of tremors or quakes in the region.
As hydraulic fracturing is quite new, there is a lot we do not know about the effects of this technique. However, there is such a vast amount of potential energy available that many countries cannot afford not to do it. Technology will advance and better methods for extraction will emerge but in the meantime, we need to be sure that we are not creating problems for the future.
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Graham J Baylis