What is fracking?
Fracking – short for hydraulic fracturing – is the process of injecting liquid at high
pressure into subterranean rocks, boreholes, etc., so as to force open existing fissures and extract oil or gas.
The purpose of fracking is to release gas trapped in impermeable layers of shale rock at great depth. The picture on the left shows you this process in greatly simplified form: a lot of water is mixed with sand and chemicals and then injected vertically and horizontally, at high pressure, in order to crack the shale and so allow gas and/or oil to escape.
It is not likely to offer a long-term solution for our energy needs. Estimated yields in the UK are 150 billion cubic metres. Conventional gas fields decline relatively slowly; shale gas declines very rapidly because the pressure under the earth closes up the fissures make by fracking.
Why is fracking a harmful technology?
During the fracking process carbon, toxic chemicals and possibly even radioactive material are likely to escape during and/or after drilling activities. Harmful emissions threaten our air, our groundwater, our wildlife, our children, ourselves.
The chemical mix in the fracking fluid is required for ease of drilling and to dissolve or crack the shale. It can contains many chemicals, some of which are carcinogenic and associated with cancer of the cervix, the breast, the endocrine system or the uterus.
The large quantities of water used in the process has to be brought on site – thousands of gallons per frack, usually in tankers. In the South East, where we are prone to droughts and water is scarce, who will have the privilege of water during a drought, big business or residents?
After injection, the fracking fluid will pick up additional chemicals from the bedrock as it travels back to the surface. Millions of gallons of contaminated water will therefore have to be disposed of but will be initially reused for drilling and then stored in silos or in open slurry ‘lagoons’.
Types and amounts of chemicals used will vary in accordance with the geological structure of the site. The fact that geologists can only speculate about folds, fissures or faults at or near the drilling site gives rise to concern on at least four accounts.
1. Water will end up in unintended places.
2 Heavy metals and contaminants introduced, or liberated, during fracking may take years to migrate to the surface or the wider environment.
3. Geological uncertainties mean that any one drilling area could cause small quakes as happened at the drill-site in Preese Hall, Lancashire.
4. It may take some time to spot the cracks on houses, bridges or roads but by that time it will be too late.
The gas makes its way to the surface via the borehole. Most of it will be captured but enough will escape to generate flaring or contribute to our carbon footprint at a time when the UK has promised to reduce it. The UK has no viable carbon capture systems in place.
Once full fracking operations are under way any one site may have up to 40 wells, all needing huge amounts of water delivered by tankers 24/7. More tankers come to carry away drilling waste or slurry, and some tankers will come to transport the liberated gas to the main grid. Such high levels of vehicular traffic will put enormous pressure on roads and the environment.
Fully operational sites will also need to feed the extracted gas into the main grid. Most sites will construct pipelines. This will involve considerable amounts of earthworks further disrupting life for people and wildlife in rural and/or urban environments. People’s concern that swathes of countryside will become industrialised are very real.
The Government and shale gas industry denies that the technology is unsafe and blames pollution ‘incidents’ as examples of bad practice, rather than an inherently risky technique. Remembering the EXXON VALDEZ or DEEPWATER HORIZON disasters, who could now believe that the flow of fluids can be controlled once injected into the ground? Who will pay for damaged roads?
Operators sub-contract all aspects of operations. Operators are often shell companies which can easily be closed down creating difficulties when suing them for negligence (or worse).
How does the UK fracking industry work?
The Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) is responsible for issuing licences to companies allowing them to explore for oil and gas. This is done in Rounds.
On August 18th 2015, the OGA released details of new onshore oil and gas licences issued under the 14th Round. You can see a list of the new licences on this page: http://drillordrop.com/could-your-area-be-fracked-under-the-new-oil-and-gas-licences/
The licences give the companies the right to explore for oil and gas in the licensed areas, but before they can do that they need planning permission too. The local planning authorities (in our case Surrey County Council) have to decide whether to allow the physical works (the access roads, fencing and buildings), while the Environment Agency and Health and Safety Executive have to judge whether the proposed activities are safe for the environment and the workers.
Small companies often gain exploration rights and then raise the money from private backers to undertake exploration works. If they strike a significant resource they usually get bought out by the major global players in the minerals industry and make a lot of money (or get tax concessions to cover losses).
In the UK, there are a number of small players, Cuadrilla Resources for example. They have licences to exploit shale gas in Lancashire and Surrey. Initially, Cuadrilla raised capital to undertake exploratory drilling works. When they “discovered” shale gas in Lancashire they announced this with a great fanfare to the world. That was not for the benefit of the public – it was to attract further investment from private energy investment companies around the globe. That new investment will allow them to undertake the next phase of works to develop the gas production infrastructure (wells, pipes, slurry lagoon, sandpits, chemical silos, etc.) necessary to supply gas to the national grid. Once they have a working gas production system and contracts to supply gas to the grid, they will sell it to one of the large industry players who specialise in gas production.