Article published in The Guardian digital edition on August 19th, by Adam Vaughan.
You don’t have to look hard for stories of people who think fracking is bad. There are the two children in Pennsylvania who were given a lifelong gagging order over talking about fracking after a settlement with an oil and gas company. A woman in north Texas experienced nosebleeds, nausea and headaches after drilling started near her home. And in Barnhart, Texas, people blame fracking for the town running out of water. Even advocates for the industry admit to examples of people having views near their homes obscured by fracking rigs popping up, or of their homes being devalued by fracking.
Some countries, such as France and Germany, think it’s bad enough to warrant banning, though the latter is considering lifting its moratorium. New York State banned it, citing risks to public health. Yet there is nothing inherently bad about fracking, or hydraulic fracturing. The technique is a way of extracting natural gas, which is mostly methane, from shale rock formations that are often deep underground. It involves pumping water, chemicals and usually sand underground at high pressure to fracture shale – hence the name – and release the gas trapped within to be collected back at the surface.
The technology has transformed the US energy landscape in the last decade, owing to the combination of high-volume fracking – 1.5m gallons of water per well, on average – and the relatively modern ability to drill horizontally into shale after a vertical well has been drilled. In the US, up to 30,000 new wells were drilled and fracked between 2011 and 2014. In the UK, not a single well has been drilled and fracked completely – the only attempt to date, near Blackpool in 2010, was halted halfway after being linked to minor earthquakes. Weighing up whether fracking is bad depends on how you define “ bad”.
Fracking has given America gas prices that are far cheaper than in Europe, created hundreds of thousands if not millions of jobs, and has almost doubled crude production over the last seven years. Some claim it can even take the credit for America’s falling greenhouse gas emissions, though recent research suggests that may have may have had more to do with the recession than a switch from polluting coal to cleaner gas.
What most critics point to, of course, are the potential health and environmental impacts. Concerns include contamination of water supplies, seismic activity caused by the fracking itself but mostly by the injection of wastewater deep underground, and fears that the gas glut from fracking threatens to hinder the development of emissions-free renewable sources of power, such as wind and solar. Then there are fears over the venting and flaring of methane, industrialisation of rural areas and noise from lorries.
There is also a huge debate – too big to cover in detail here – over whether fracking is bad news for the climate, since it unlocks a whole new source of fossil fuels and some academics say it has emissions even worse than coal once methane leaks (a powerful greenhouse gas) have been factored in. Others argue it is good news, as gas produces around half the carbon emissions of coal, which it is displacing in some parts of the world.
In many cases in the US, where fracking got up and running before regulation caught up, the local environmental impacts are not just theoretical but well-documented.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which, in a recent report on fracking’s impact on water, cleared the industry of “widespread” and “systematic” pollution of drinking water, still lists some egregious examples. There can be problems with the well casings – an issue that is not specific to fracking, and which can affect conventional drilling – such as one incident in Bainbridge, Ohio, where inadequate casing saw natural gas move into drinking water aquifers.
Sometimes the water that returns to the surface after a frack gets spilled, such as when 2.9m gallons spilled from a broken pipeline in North Dakota and “impacted surface and groundwater”, in the largest volume spill recorded by the EPA. Since the state’s shale boom took off around 2006, 18m gallons of oil and toxic wastewater have been spilled between January 2006 to October 2014, a New York Times investigation found.
By comparison, even the exploratory phase of fracking for shale in the UK has yet to get off the ground, or under it. But august British organisations say it can be done safely – provided it’s done properly. “I think the shale gas thing has suffered from a lack of high quality public engagement [in the UK]. That is down to industry, government, public bodies, so it [the debate over risks] is unfortunately dominated by social media and press releases and stuff like that, which can skew the issues,” says a spokesman for the Royal Academy of Engineering, which produced an influential report saying fracking should go ahead in the UK provided it’s well-regulated. “If carried out to industry best standard, with close regulation, then the risks can be managed to an acceptable level,” he said.
Similarly, the UK’s health watchdog cleared fracking of health risks in a report, saying it was safe if properly regulated.
It’s not all been plain sailing in the UK though. An environment department report, which the government fought to keep secret, suggested house prices near shale wells could fall and insurance costs might rise. The shale industry’s impact on British democracy has also come to the fore, with a leaked letter showing the chancellor, George Osborne, intervening personally to fast-track the industry’s development. And the UK’s ability to regulate the industry properly has been questioned too, with Cuadrilla failing to report a deformed well in Lancashire to government officials for six months. The company has also breached previous planning permissions, drilling beyond a cut-off date designed to protect wintering birds.
Mike Bradshaw, professor of global energy at Warwick Business School and researcher at the UK Energy Research Centre, says what is needed above all in the UK is a more informed debate. He blames both the industry and the media for the current level of public mistrust over fracking. “This is an industrial activity just like any industrial activity, and like all sources of energy it has environmental impacts. Whether those environmental impacts are greater than other industrial activity is a case for planners and industry,” he says.
But ironically the only way Britons will find out if fracking is bad or not for them, he says, will be for more drilling to take place. Until then, we won’t know whether people will accept it, or whether the gas and oil trapped within British shale is even commercially viable to extract. “I’m not saying that there are not risks. There are risks. They are well understood and clearly identified. What we don’t know is the scale of the risks until we carry out drilling in the UK.” Ultimately, it may just be too early to say if fracking is bad – and what’s bad for one country might not be for another.