The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, is convinced that ‘fracking’ – or hydraulic fracturing – of shale gas and oil is the answer to the country’s energy supply worries and economic troubles. However politicians such as Caroline Lucas, environmental groups and thousands of local protesters are more than aware of the downsides to this ‘dash for gas’ and are desperate to shout about them loud and clear. So what is fracking, what are the benefits and what are the risks?
Horizontal hydraulic fracturing is an intensive method of fossil fuel extraction. Where gas or oil lies within the earth in layers or shales, there is the possibility of extracting it by pumping sand, chemicals and a huge amount of water into the shale and letting the fuel come up into a well. The horizontal method is new while conventional oil or gas drilling is vertical. The US has recently undergone a huge ‘fracking revolution’ and the UK has granted over 100 licenses for exploratory drilling while other countries such as China and Poland are also in the process of undergoing this process.
The benefits of fracking are largely the benefits to any kind of fossil fuel extraction. Our whole economy is powered by fossil fuel, so nations are always desperate to pull more and more out of the ground – especially as oil extraction around the world starts to decline. For the UK specifically, fracking would create a lot of profit, helping our economy to grow. It will also create jobs, and possibly improve our energy security, although this isn’t definite because the companies that frack will actually just sell the fuel to the highest bidder in Europe – as the whole EU has an integrated energy supply system. Cameron claims it will lower domestic gas bills – but there is evidence to the contrary. Caudrilla itself – one of the biggest companies involved – has admitted that the effect on gas bills will be marginal, if anything.
So there are some economic benefits. But there are many downsides. First off, this ‘dash for gas’ completely contradicts the 2008 Climate Change Act, as the continual investment in fossil fuels not only pollutes the atmosphere and deepens the climate change problem, it also diverts investment potential and public spending away from renewable energy technology.
There is also a risk of earth tremors – tiny earthquakes – caused by fracking sites. This happened at an exploratory site near Blackpool, causing significant public concern.
Fracking also has significant health risks, as the gas and chemicals can (and often do) leak into the groundwater of the area. This will not only put aquatic wildlife in jeopardy, but can also contaminate local drinking water. If this happens, the health and safety risks to local people are severe.
The industrialisation of the countryside is also an issue to many people who live in rural communities. Huge noisy trucks chugging through small villages create traffic congestion and localised atmospheric pollution.
The aesthetic value of the English landscape is also damaged by industrial fracking plants. Not only is this a shame in itself, but it will also lower local house prices, which in turn will have a negative economic effect on local areas. Households very near to a site may even have trouble getting house insurance.
At the moment both government and the public are massively divided on the fracking debate. It’s proving to be a very controversial issue, with campaign groups such as Frack Free Somerset and Frack Free Sussex cropping up to organise the opposition. The testing site in Balcomb, Sussex, has seen thousands of protesters from both the local area and all over the country camping out for days on end, desperate for their views to be taken seriously.
If he’s serious about democracy, David Cameron will listen to the people rather than the pound signs. Is that really too much to ask for?