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Induced Hydraulic Fracturing: Pros and Cons

Otherwise known as ‘fracking’ this is the relatively new drilling or mining method for the extraction of oil and gas. It is relatively new because it is only now that the process has become commercially viable and has become the rising trend for recovering natural resources in many countries all over the world. Basically the method is to drill a well through rock and then a liquid is forced into the bore at very high pressure, which fractures the rock and releases the gas or oil within it. The liquid is usually water that has been mixed with treated sand or some kind of ceramic material and chemicals. The great pressure produces cracks and then this mixture, which is called proppant, keeps the minute fissures in the rock from closing. Gas or oil then seeps into the borehole and can be brought to the surface. It has now become the common method to harvest what is called unconventional gas or oil. These fuel reserves were almost impossible to get at using the older conventional means. Economically the return on investment was initially minimal, but over time and with technological advancements, fracking has given the extraction companies a new lease of life.

Fracking schematic representation

First attempted in the United States in 1947 it wasn’t initially productive, but a couple of years later this method became a commercial success. Shale and other types of rock formations harbor both gas and oil in tiny amounts. Tight gas is one product that is found in sandstone and sometimes limestone. Also there is tight oil, which is a light crude, while coal seam gas is natural methane that is also trapped deep in rock. In 2000 only 1% of American domestic energy was supplied by this method, but by 2010 it was up to 20% and it is predicted that by the year 2035 it could be up to 46%.

History and Reasons for Fracking

Fracking has slowly gained momentum over the years. The United States has been the leader in this field. It has found huge deposits of these natural fuels, which until recently weren’t a good economic prospect for extraction. It was during the 1970s when significant research was put into this method. In this decade the O.P.E.C. countries demanded higher oil prices for their crude, and the U.S. in particular felt itself held to ransom over the need for oil and petroleum. The majority of the research was funded by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Successive U.S. governments since then have had several foreign producers enacting the same type of energy blackmail. Since then there has been a drive to find and develop domestic energy resources. Not only have the United States looked to domestic production to offset reliance on outside producers and to assure energy security; fracking has also gained interest in Canada and some countries in Europe. Exploration has taken place in the U.K. sector of the North Sea where there are trillions of cubic feet of shale just under the surface. In the 1980s horizontal drilling was introduced; it involves boring a well down to the required depth of the gas filled shale or rock formation, then the drill is then turned sideways and starts a lateral bore. This method is much more productive than vertical boring, which accesses only a small part of field.

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Diagram of a horizontal fracking method.

With horizontal boring the full width of a rock stratum can be reached and fracking can take place over a greater area. This reduces the amount of wells that need to be drilled and is highly economically efficient, reduced costs result in a cheaper domestic energy supply. It is estimated that future natural gas extracted by hydraulic fracturing could add up to 70% of all the natural gas production in North America. Advocates of fracking claim that 45% of domestic natural gas production, plus 17% of oil production would be lost if it weren’t for this method. By 2013 the U.S, China and Canada were all involved in massive fracking operations.

Doubts about Fracking

In many countries there seem to be doubts about the use of fracking, but that hasn’t stopped it from going ahead, and there is no universal consensus on the method. Some countries have banned it and others have suspended the practise to wait for more investigation and studies on the subject, other governments don’t have any hesitations at all. What all of them see is a possible solution or partial solution to their energy problems - each country would like to be energy self-sufficient, without reliance on outside producers. Recently the U.K. has lifted its ban on fracking and has issued many licenses for exploration in mainland Britain. The majority of M.P’s are in favor of exploitation of gas and oil reserves held within shale, they believe it will increase domestic gas and oil production to the point where there is energy security. An added bonus is the creation of jobs and the boosting of local economies, all of which members of parliament encourage. Others doubt that this method of extraction will offer a long term solution or will be good for the environment. In 2011 two small earthquakes were caused by fracking operations outside of the town of Blackpool, but lasting damage was ruled out by mining experts. Pollution and environmental damage are the greatest concerns, when opponents of fracking point out that the practise is prone to pollution, the advocates of the industry claim that any previous damage was the result of bad practise and lack of experience, all of which is now solved by strict regulation and a code of conduct. Many who deal with the problem of energy shortages view shale gas or oil as a short term solution that will give the energy industry a breathing space within which to seek other solutions. Others see it as a permanent solution. Those against fracking point to the risk of lasting environmental damage and the far greater crime of not investing in renewable resources of energy.

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Mixing water with hydraulic fracking fluids.

Shale gas exploitation is a continued reliance on fossil fuel production and adds to the concerns about climate change. It delays and diverts research and funds into other cleaner and more sustainable sources of energy. Although touted as the solution to the worlds’ energy problem, studies in the U.S. conclude that this kind of production won’t have a lasting economic effect. Other studies in Europe also claim that it is essentially a short term bubble.

Against Fracking

Although most governments see induced hydraulic fracturing as the way ahead to increase fuel production there are many bodies that oppose it. Most of these lobbies are the different environmental and health organizations. One of the concerns is the chemicals which are used in the liquid mixture that is injected into the boreholes. After the mixture is pumped out it is left in open pits to evaporate into the air, and there is a real danger of carcinogens and other toxic chemicals being released into the atmosphere. Also, these chemicals can seep into the groundwater and pollute drinking water. In one rural town near a fracking site in the U.S. the residents claimed that their tap water had become so polluted that it was flammable, and probably the greatest chemical risk is from methane gas. This gas and others can leak from the well holes and cause respiratory, neurological and sensory problems. It is estimated that leaks from shale drilling are over a third to half more prevalent than from conventional drilling. More greenhouse gases are produced by this method, methane being the worst of them, and although it has a shorter life in the atmosphere it can have longer lasting damage. For this reason shale gas is seen as worse than coal for its impact on the climate; coal releases less methane than natural gas, but twice as much carbon dioxide. In the U.S. and Canada they prefer to use the cheaper natural gas over coal because it emits less carbon dioxide when used for generating electricity. The methane given off from shale gas contributes more to global warming than coal emissions.

The U.S. Lobby against Fracking

The fight against fracking has also been led by the North American environmental lobbies. One website gets its message across very simply by using figures about the industry. It can be said that these figures are estimates and should be considered averages, but they are shocking all the same. When fracking is in operation it takes four hundred or so tanker trucks to ferry the liquid mixture to the site, and there are around half a million gas wells already in operation in the United States alone. A well can be fracked up to eighteen times and it takes on average of eight million gallons of water to do this. The waste liquids that remain are left in stagnant pits to dissipate into the air, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) within it can be harmful. It adds up to seventy two trillion gallons of water, and another three hundred and sixty billion gallons of various chemicals used in the process per year. Also, contaminated drinking water occurs with much more frequency near fracking sites. A study carried out in a rural community near a fracking operation investigated all the effects associated with this new industry and the various consequences it had. Apart from increased health problems in general, there was a significant rise in public safety risks. Although the fracking operation brought the benefit of increased local employment, and business in general, it had other social side effects. This included water pollution, deforestation around the site, and increased traffic around the area, which in turn led to noise levels rising. The increased traffic was mainly heavy trucks and there were more road accidents related to that. The infrastructure of the roads was damaged by greater use and the repairs had to be paid for by the local taxpayers. Although most companies sign contracts with the local authorities and are liable any for damages caused, it isn’t always easy to collect compensation. One effect was the Boomtown cycle, which has both positive and negative effects. More employment and a general rise amonst local businesses because of the fracking operation is welcomed, but with them also comes a higher cost of living, as outsiders exhaust all the local resources such as housing and food, and prices rise, causing local inflation. Of course, not everyone can share in the boom equally, some are left by the wayside and this causes resentment. The worst effect is the boom-bust cycle leaves the local economy in recession after the fracking operation has run its course and there’s no more gas or oil to extract.

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A fracking site during fluid injection.

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A fracking site that has been depleted.

The Lobby for Fracking in the U.S.

The lobby in favor of the fracking industry is very strong and has managed to manipulate loopholes in the environmental and safety legislation with the cooperation of many politicians. The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 and the Clean Water Act of 1972 which were both enacted to ensure safe water for all citizens, have been knowingly circumvented by congressmen and women in aid of the companies engaged in the extraction of shale gas and oil. With huge tracts of shale deposits that cover several states, politicians can’t resist trying to grab a piece of the pie for the people they represent, and hopefully ensure their own re-election. There have been accusations of outright bribery, but it is mostly self-interest on behalf of elected officials, and those interests coincide with that of the energy companies. There are some new fracking rules and regulations, but they only pertain to public lands not private. The exemptions won through tough lobbying by the energy companies relate to exemptions of monitoring hazardous or harmful toxins released into the atmosphere through the fracking process, and still no requirements to reveal the chemical contents of the liquid mixture which is pumped into the wells, which now come under the heading of commercial trade secrets and don’t have to be justified.

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This fight has taken place at both the state and federal levels, and has virtually ripped out the two most important planks of the environmental lobby. It is a clear case of particular interest over the general interest, profit and alleged energy security over the well-being of the people. The fracking lobbyists point out that natural gas from shale is much cleaner than anything used before to generate power and that soon the United States could even become an energy exporter, but they ignore the fact that it is the extraction process that people are afraid of.

Elsewhere

Despite the allure of a domestic clean energy supply that could last for the next hundred years, both France and Bulgaria have banned it. It has been reported that over two hundred and fifty communities in the United States have said no to fracking, even the rise in employment and the potential savings on cheaper energy hasn’t tempted them. In the U.S. it is estimated that half a million jobs have been created by the fracking industry over the last ten to twenty years and there are more to come as it expands. The American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is conducting an in-depth study of the industry and its impact on people, animals and plant life. It will focus on well integrity and the waste management of the polluted water mixture that is used. The study will also investigate the effects of water shortages because of the vast amounts of water used, but the study won’t be out for a long while yet, and companies continue to open new fracking fields with little restraint from the governments of the world. In Britain the government is so determined to give the energy companies free rein that they want to change the trespass laws. This is so that companies can drill under someone’s property without informing or asking permission from the owners. This is a response to the over forty-five thousand property owners that have filed suits and used other legal means to block fracking underneath their homes, which is possible using horizontal boring. Because the government haven’t been able to convince the public that fracking is a safe procedure, they have taken away their ability to oppose it with this move. It has been estimated that over six hundred cancer producing chemical products are used in the fracking mixture. All this despite the unregulated use of harmful chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, and other poisons to control bacteria’s, in the pipe casings and their potential migration to the surface has not stopped many governments from championing fracking in the pursuit energy self-sufficiency.

References

1. Fracking -The Pros and Cons http://www.elsevier.com

2. M.P.s urge Backing for U.K. shale gas http://www.bbc.com

3. The Danger of Fracking http://www.dangersoffracking.com

4. Fracking: A Look Back https://www.asme.org/engineering-topics/articles/fossil-power/fracking-a-look-back

Science | Environment


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