Skip to main content

Uncertainties about the effects of fracking in the UK

I'm a bit of an energy agnostic. This week I attended a talk at UWE about fracking and its impact on the environment in the hope of making a better informed decision on the controversial topic.

What is fracking?

Jenna Brown, a first year PhD student, started off with an introduction to fracking, or hydraulic fracturing.

Gas molecules trapped in dense shale rocks are almost impossible to obtain by normal drilling. Fracking involves drilling vertically down and then horizontally into the rock. Fracking fluid, a mixture of water, sand and other chemicals, is injected into the rock at high pressure, expanding the tiny cracks and allowing the gas trapped within to escape and travel back up the pipe for collection.




Taken from BBC News

Natural gas is viewed as a transition energy source from dirty fossil fuels to greener renewable energies in the future. It produces almost half the amount of carbon dioxide per unit of energy than coal, which could help us meet the national target of reducing CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050.
Image by Varodrig
Jenna explained that the government see shale gas as a way to improve our national energy security. The British Geological Survey estimates that the Bowland Shale reserve in central England holds 1329 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, although across the entire UK estimates vary wildly because they are mainly based on data from other countries. Jenna highlighted the fact that whilst this is a huge amount of fuel, much if not most of it will not be technically recoverable. Still, it could provide greater energy security in the UK, which imported one trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the first six months of this year.
Water use
Dr. Chad Staddon, associate professor of resource geographies at UWE, spoke about the possible problems that UK water security faces with fracking. As well as the potential to pollute ground water (explained here), Chad was concerned that fracking could pose a problem to UK water security but even more worried that this had not yet been assessed in detail.
Fracking requires a huge volume of water; around 4 - 20 million litres per well in the USA according to the International Energy Agency. This amounts to just 0.3% of US national water usage, however Chad highlighted two important problems with this figure. First, US shale reserves are only around 750m deep. In the UK, our reserves may reach down as far as 3km, meaning we could layer six or more horizontal fracking pipes in a single well. The increased depth and number of fracking pipes means that significantly more water may be required in UK sites.
The second issue is one of local resources. Even in relatively rainy countries there can be pockets of water scarcity, which can be intensified by local demand. Unfortunately, there is little guidance in the published scientific literature to aid the UK in avoiding over-committing our water to fracking at the cost of food production and water security. Parts of the UK, such as the south east, are already at water capacity. Adding the water demands of fracking may lead to local droughts or the costly transport of water from other parts of the country. A 2013 report for the Department of Energy and Climate Change stated that if waste water is recycled where possible, water requirements for fracking could be managed sustainably.
Air quality
Methane emissions in the USA.
Image from United States
Environmental Protection Agency
Dr. Enda Hayes, a UWE research fellow, spoke about the effect fracking could have on air quality management. He was trying to learn more about the emissions from a shale gas well, however the findings in scientific reports varied enormously because no two wells are the same. Different geographies, demands and outputs greatly affect the results, which means that it is very difficult to use US data to try and predict the effect of fracking on UK air quality. Fracking could contribute to particulates and toxic compounds in the air, as well as increased CO2 emissions and methane leaks.  
Less CO2 is produced per unit of energy when burning shale gas compared to coal and oil. However Enda spoke about recent reports stating that the net effect of shale gas on greenhouse gases is likely to be small, and could actually increase emissions if the displaced coal and other fossil fuels are used elsewhere. Another major player in climate change is methane. In the USA, 11% of methanee missions are produced from coal mining, mainly by methane leaking from the mines. Shale gas is mostly comprised of methane, which must be properly contained to prevent even greater emissions from leaks.




Big questions
The panelists agreed that there is simply not enough relevant information to decide whether the benefits outweigh the negatives of fracking in the UK. There are several big questions that I think need to be answered. Just how much water would a UK shale gas well need? Do we have the technology to prevent water and air pollution? Do viable alternatives to fracking exist, and can we afford them?
Is there a perfect energy source? Should we stick to cheap-but-dirty coal or switch to inefficient bird-killing windmills? Are you more scared of nuclear meltdowns or global warming? As David Shukman concluded in his excellent BBC article, "whichever type of power you choose, it is going to make someone angry".
This blog is written by Sarah Jose, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol
You can follow Sarah on Twitter @JoseSci 
Sarah Jose




Popular posts from this blog

Powering the economy through the engine of Smart Local Energy Systems

How can the Government best retain key skills and re-skill and up-skill the UK workforce to support the recovery and sustainable growth? This summer the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) requested submission of inputs on Post-Pandemic Economic Growth. The below thoughts were submitted to the BEIS inquiry as part of input under the EnergyREV project . However, there are points raised here that, in the editing and summing up process of the submission, were cut out, hence, this blog on how the UK could power economic recovery through Smart Local Energy Systems (SLES). 1. Introduction: Factors, principles, and implications In order to transition to a sustainable and flourishing economy from our (post-)COVID reality, we must acknowledge and address the factors that shape the current economic conditions. I suggest to state the impact of such factors through a set of driving principles for the UK’s post-COVID strategy. These factors are briefly explained belo

Farming in the Páramos of Boyacá: industrialisation and delimitation in Aquitania

Labourers harvest ‘cebolla larga’ onion in Aquitania. Image credit: Lauren Blake. In October and November 2019 Caboteer  Dr Lauren Blake  spent time in Boyacá, Colombia, on a six-week fieldtrip to find out about key socio-environmental conflicts and the impacts on the inhabitants of the páramos, as part of the historical and cultural component of her research project, POR EL Páramo . Background information about the research can be found in the earlier blog on the project website . Descending down the hill in the bus from El Crucero, the pungent smell of cebolla larga onion begins to invade my nose. The surrounding land transforms into plots of uniform rows of onion tops at various stages of growth, some mostly brown soil with shoots poking out along the ridges, others long, bushy and green. Sandwiched between the cloud settled atop the mountainous páramos and the vast, dark blue-green Lake Tota, all I can see and all I can smell is onion production. Sprinklers are scattered around, dr

IncrEdible! How to save money and reduce waste

The new academic year is a chance to get to grips with managing your student loan and kitchen cupboards. Over lockdown the UK wasted a third less food than we usually would. This is brilliant, as normally over 4.5 million tonnes of edible food is wasted from UK homes every year. For students, it’s even higher. The average cost of food waste per student per week is approximately £5.25 - that's about £273 per year !  It’s not just our bank accounts that are affected by food waste – it’s our planet too. The process of growing, making, distributing, storing and cooking our food uses masses of energy, fuel and water. It generates 30% of the world’s CO₂ greenhouse gas emissions. The same amount of CO₂ as 4.6 million return flights from London to Perth, Australia! So it makes sense to keep as much food out of the bin as possible, start wasting less and saving more.  Start the new term with some food waste busting, budget cutting, environment loving habits! Here’s five easy ways to reduce