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Arguments for and against fracking: Economic boon or climate hazard?

The arguments for and against fracking range from it being a boost to the economy to its potential to harm the environment - here we analyse the thinking of those in favour and those opposed to hydraulic fracturing

After a lengthy back and forth in which all the arguments for and against fracking have been put forward, shale gas extraction has finally begun in Britain.

Energy firm Cuadrilla cleared all the hurdles in the way of beginning the first complete frack in the UK earlier this month.

Campaigner Bob Dennett made a last-minute appeal to the high court requesting an interim injunction that would have put the company’s project on hold, but presiding judge Mr Justice Supperstone denied it, citing a lack of evidence from the claimant.

Although drilling then started within days, it was halted yesterday (Tuesday 23 October) after a tremor at its Presto New Road site, near Blackpool.

Hydraulic fracturing – the horizontal drilling process for extracting shale gas from deep underground by using a high-pressure injection of water and sand to create cracks in rock formations in order to release natural gas – has been a subject of global debate for decades.

Industrialists have been at odds with environmental campaigners over whether the potential energy and economic benefits of the process are worth the potential risks it poses. Here, we analyse the arguments for and against fracking.

arguments for and against fracking
A diagram of how fracking works

Arguments for and against fracking: What’s the economic impact of fracking?

For

Those in favour of fracking argue it is a technology that provides benefits the world cannot afford to live without.

Their reasoning follows that renewable energy is not yet ready to meet the demands of the planet’s population on its own, and therefore using shale gas – which has enough supply to last 200 years, by some estimates – is the only viable alternative to the continued consumption of other fossil fuels.

Hydraulic fracturing began in the US in 1980s and came into its own by 2005, with every year since then experiencing growth in shale gas production in America.

The country’s 2012 Energy Outlook report predicted hydraulic fracturing will account for almost half of its natural gas production by 2035.

Today, the Marcellus geological region in Pennsylvania – the largest fracking area in America – produces gas equivalent to 250% of the entirety of Britain’s output, and has accommodated 322,600 jobs.

As for the UK, a 2014 study by professional services multinational EY argued if the country was to drill 4,000 wells over an 18-year period, fracking would generate £33bn in supply chain investment, while creating 64,000 jobs.

 

Against

Other research disagrees, however, with a 2013 environmental assessment report by consultancy Amec finding that fracking in the UK would create fewer jobs, in the region of anything between 16,000 and 32,000.

Hydraulic fracturing is also highly water-intensive – wells require anything up to 20 millions gallons of water and a further 25% on top of that needed for drilling and extraction.

This has a major impact on local water sources and the communities that use them – which are numerous, with a 2013 Wall Street Journal study finding more than 15 million Americans have lived within a mile of an exhausted fracking site since 2000.

Fracking
A landscape of fracking sites (Credit: Bruce Gordon at EcoFlight)

Additionally, residents often have no say as to whether a hydraulic fracturing operation may be approved near their home, as the approval process considers the oil beneath the land, rather than the land itself.

According to experts, this can have a knock-on effect on housing markets, with potential buyers having to take these considerations into account.

 

Arguments for and against fracking: Does fracking harm the environment?

For

The pro-fracking camp argues the claims from environmentalists concerning the potentially damaging impact of the process are as spurious as they are overstated.

And there is research to back this up – a 2014 US Department of Energy study found no evidence that chemicals from the fracking process had contaminated groundwater at one Pennsylvania drilling site, which has been one of the chief complaints from those opposed to the process.

Moreover, after a study of the Orito Field in Colombia found that just 15% of the proppants – the tools used to keep the fractures in the earth from collapsing – can be removed, analyst Berkeley Research Group spoke in favour of fracking.

Its managing director Rick Chamberlain told Live Science: “There are no long or short-term problems with leaving frack proppants in the fractures.”

And as far as muddying the countryside is concerned, the riposte from supporters of hydraulic fracturing is most of what happens takes place underground, with only temporary drilling sights spoiling the view for a handful of months before they move on.

 

Against

Anti-fracking environmentalists have plenty of research to support their assertions, however, and might point towards the well in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, as evidence.

In 2011, it malfunctioned and spewed thousands of gallons of contaminated water for half a day, showing the potential disasters associated with hydraulic fracturing.

Also that year, Duke University tested drinking water at 60 fracking sites across Pennsylvania and in New York.

Its researchers found levels of methane in the sites’ drinking water, which they told ProPublica, “Fell squarely within a range that the US Department of the Interior says is dangerous and requires urgent ‘hazard mitigation”.

arguments for and against fracking
A fracking drill crew (Credit: Cuadrilla)

Others argue that if the energy industry focuses its attention on fracking, there will be fewer resources funnelled into renewable energy research and development, which comes at a cost to the climate and environment.

Fracking has also been linked to water pollution, with studies showing an increased number of dangerous and hazardous chemicals being present at hydraulic fracturing sites.

There have also been concerns about the impact of fracking on seismic activity.

When Cuadrilla was first given a licence to drill in Lancashire, it had to stop after a tremor measuring 2.3 on the Richter scale was recorded nearby in April 2011 – followed by another at 1.5 the following month.

In a report, the company admitted it was “highly probable” that hydraulic fracturing was the cause. 

Events were repeated this week when a tremor measuring 0.4 was recorded next to the Preston New Road site, forcing it to temporarily halt operations once more.

 

Arguments for and against fracking: How Cuadrilla won the legal argument

In a recent case in the UK, the regulatory and health and safety arguments for and against fracking were put into play.

Environmental campaigner Mr Dennett sought an injunction against energy firm Cuadrilla’s planning permission to proceed with its fracking operation at the Preston New Road site in Lancashire.

Presiding judge Mr Justice Supperstone denied the application, however, on the grounds that there was no evidence to support his argument.

arguments for and against fracking
The Preston New Road site in Lancashire, where Cuadrilla will now carry out its fracking operation (Credit: Cuadrilla)

The campaigner’s case rested on two main claims: Cuadrilla’s assertion that its planned operation posed only “medium risk” was false, with it in fact posing “high risk”, and that the firm had not outlined and co-ordinated the necessary emergency protocols.

Cuadrilla’s acting QC Nathalie Lieven countered these points by citing the 16 inspections of the firm’s site and planned operation from the Environment Agency since the start of 2017.

She also highlighted the workplace health watchdog Health and Safety Executive’s assessment of the project, which substantiated that of Cuadrilla’s, while also noting the £94,000 daily cost to the company of delaying the fracking process.

Lastly, Ms Lieven recounted the “extensive” process through which the firm had been through to establish emergency procedures, which included several reviews of its site by the Lancashire County Council.

Mr Justice Supperstone said: “Cuadrilla has gained all the necessary regulatory permissions required to proceed with its operation, with detailed assessments from the Environment Agency and the Lancashire County Council emergency services.

“This court also finds that Lancashire County Council has conducted all necessary protocols with regard to procedure in the event of an emergency.

“The fire and police departments have reviewed Cuadrilla’s facility in great detail, and emergency briefings have been made available to schools in the area.”

Announcing his final ruling, he added: “On this basis, I am entirely satisfied that the claim formulated here is unarguable.

“I am satisfied that the claimant has failed to establish that there is a serious issue to be tried.

“For that reason alone I am denying the sought injunction.”

Despite the decision, the arguments for and against fracking will continue to linger as shale gas looks set to become an increasingly important part of British industry.