Is it the key to energy development in Britain or a potential environmental catastrophe? And will the growing environmental opposition to hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, stop it in its tracks?
What is fracking?
Injecting a high-pressure mix of water and chemicals deep beneath the ground to free up oil and gas deposits has been in use for more than 60 years. However, in contrast to conventional oil and gas, extracted from porous rock, shale is relatively impermeable, meaning gas cannot easily move through the shale in which a well is drilled
In order to break open the shale and release the methane, shale gas drillers use a method called hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, essentially pumping large amounts of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure. Therein lies the rub. Fracking is highly controversial and has been banned in France, Bulgaria and in some regions of Germany, the United States, Australia, South Africa and Canada
Why is it important?
Every year we burn billions of tons of fossil fuels. These resources will run out, but as yet in the UK no alternative energy sources are in mainstream use. The newest potential energy source is shale gas
Shale gas can be used to generate electricity as well as for domestic heating and cooking in the same way as natural gas. It is already responsible for 20 per cent of the gas supply in the USA. Early indications show that there may also be many shale rich areas in the UK, and prospecting at sites across the country has already begun
In late June the British Geological Survey announced the world’s largest shale-gas field. The Bowland Shale, which lies beneath Lancashire and Yorkshire, contains 50% more gas than the combined reserves of two of the largest fields in the United States, the Barnett Shale and the Marcellus Shale. It is estimated to hold over ten times the existing UK natural gas reserves, enough for more than 50 years consumption at current rates
Other areas where test drilling is being carried out for shale gas, shale oil and coal bed methane are Balcombe in West Sussex and across the Jurassic rocks of the Weald Basin; Flyde, Lancashire; The Mersey Valley; Airth & Falkirk, in Scotland; The Wirral; and three villages in Somerset; Compton Martin, Keynsham and Ston Easton
But fracking is a divisive issue. There has been much public protest over the suspected environmental hazards involved in the process. In recent weeks, the most high profile protest has been at Balcombe, in Sussex, where protesters have gathered to oppose the exploratory work being carried out by the Cuadrilla Resources company
The sleepy village in West Sussex, which lies on the High Weald, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, has become the epicentre of the fracking resistance. Protester numbers are expected to increase into the thousands as celebrity environmentalists and professional activists join forces with local residents, attracting constant media attention. A permanent protester encampment of about 40 tents stands outside the Balcombe test drilling site, and so far Police have arrested dozens of protesters
What’s the controversy about?
Most of the opposition centres on the use of water. Shale gas requires approximately 30 million gallons of water per drilling site. Approximately one-third of this water is returned to the surface and this flowback fluid typically contains methane, naturally occurring radioactive substances, metals and volatile compounds such as benzene
There are concerns that the fracking cocktail, that includes acids, detergents and poisons, will seep into drinking water. Fracking since the 1990s has used greater volumes of cocktail-laden water, injected at higher pressures. Methane gas can escape into the environment out of any gas well, creating the real though remote possibility of dangerous explosions. Water from all gas wells often returns to the surface containing extremely low but measurable concentrations of radioactive elements and huge concentrations of salt. This brine can be detrimental if not disposed of properly. Injection of brine into deep wells for disposal has in very rare cases triggered small earthquakes
In addition to these local effects, environmentalists contend that natural gas extraction has global environmental consequences, because the methane gas that is accessed through extraction and the carbon dioxide released during methane burning are both greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change. New fracking technologies allow for the extraction of more gas, thus contributing more to climate change than previous natural gas extraction
The Government’s position
The Coalition government supports shale gas extraction with the newly formed Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil set up to oversee this “exciting opportunity”, that “with public acceptance… should contribute significantly to the UK’s energy security, and attract inward investment, to boost growth and jobs in certain areas, and to make a notable contribution to the Exchequer”
Speaking last week, David Cameron said it would be a big mistake if the Government did not encourage fracking across the UK. He said he wanted to dispel “myths” that fracking would lead to earthquakes or pollute the water supply, leading to taps catching on fire
In an article written for the Telegraph on August 11 he added, “We want people to get behind fracking”, insisting it would be safe if properly regulated and would drive energy down bills, create over 70,000 new jobs and provide the UK with a potential 51 years of gas.
However, The Prime Minister has repeatedly declined to comment on whether he would be happy for fracking to be carried out close to his country home in the idyllic Oxfordshire Cotswolds
And that of the protesters
According to Green Party leader Natalie Bennett: “There’s plenty of cause for concern about contamination of aquifers, both by methane and other gases and by the chemicals used in the fracking process. There is also the risk of arsenic, barium, selenium and strontium contamination around wells, and issues around radon gas in the fracked gas have yet to be addressed
“Locally, areas around the wells would be affected by large numbers of lorry movements. Then there is the visual intrusion on the landscape. The extraction of huge quantities of water to be used in the fracking process is also an issue. UK Water, representing the water companies, and the National Farmers Union have also expressed concern about this
“Globally, we know that we can’t use 60-80 per cent of known fossil fuel reserves without risking runaway climate change. So finding more fossil fuels is not good news”
The destruction of natural landscape is a primary concern for Balcombe residents, who fear that their countryside will be destroyed, affecting both their quality of life and potentially reducing the value of their homes
Public awareness of fracking in Sussex and opposition to the process is growing. In February, a nationwide protest group, Frack Off, unveiled a 22 m anti-fracking banner, which a local property developer has given permission to display for four months in full view of trains from London and the South East on a billboard at Brighton station
The debate and the protests continue. Not just from hardline environmentalists, but between the left and right wing national press and from worried residents across the country who have heard the rumble of industrial-drilling machinery roll into their towns.
Whether or not shale gas goes into production in Sussex, or indeed anywhere else in the UK, remains to be seen, but the Battle of Balcombe seems set to rumble on