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What on earth is fracking?

To reflect on the new industrial process of fracking and its possible consequences.

by Claire Rose

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5

Aims

To reflect on the new industrial process of fracking and its possible consequences.

NB Since publishing this assembly, fracking has gained a far higher public profile, and it has come to our notice that some of the content of this assembly is still open to debate. Please ensure that you access the most recent scientific reports on fracking and update accordingly. 

Preparation and materials

Assembly

  1. What on earth is fracking? (Take answers. Beware: on the TV series Battlestar Galactica, ‘frakking’ is used as a swear word.)

    It’s not as rude as it sounds! Fracking is short for ‘hydraulic fracturing’, which is the process of placing pressure on shale rock (that is, clay rock) deep underground to release natural gas that is trapped within the rock. The pressure is created by injecting a liquid, formed of water, sand and many different chemicals, into wellbores drilled into the rock. The high pressure creates cracks in the rock from which the gas bubbles out

    Energy companies have begun using this method to get at natural gas deposits that they are otherwise unable to reach.

    So far most of the drilling for gas using this method has taken place in the USA, but one energy company has recently started to try out fracking near Blackpool, and other UK sites are being explored.
  2. Why have companies turned to fracking as a way of getting natural gas?

    It’s getting harder and harder for us to find all of the energy that we need. Traditional energy supply sites for natural gas (such as the North Sea) are running low. But we rely on fossil fuels – oil, coal and gas – to produce electricity, to keep our cars running, and to heat our homes, so energy companies are looking at different ways to access these fuels.

    Fracking is just one of the new ways they have come up with.
  3. What are the benefits?

    –  One of the benefits is that we can do it here in the UK, rather than having to rely on importing gas from other countries.

    –  The use of fracking could also boost the worldwide availability of gas and so lower the costs of fuel for us all.

    –  Natural gas (the gas obtained by fracking) is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, producing 45 per cent less carbon dioxide than coal and 30 per cent less than oil. So it is a better option for the environment than some other fossil fuels.  

    –  Fracking is complex, and the many hundreds of wells that have to be dug, together with the vast infrastructure that will be needed to support the fracking industry, will result in the creation of many thousands of highly-skilled new jobs.
  4. Is there a problem?

    When fracking first started in the USA, the government assessed whether it could cause any harm to the environment or human health and concluded that the risks were minimal. However, since then some of the people living near to fracking sites have reported effects on their health, including headaches, nosebleeds, dizziness and other symptoms. These worries have caused people to look again at the safety of fracking.

    –  Some people have raised concerns that the highly toxic water-based solution used in the fracking process could be affecting local water supplies. Polluted water has been found in streams near some fracking sites, and since some of the chemicals found in this water cause cancer, this is a potentially serious issue. There is also some evidence that fracking has resulted in methane entering the water supply in some areas, and there are documented cases of local residents being able to set fire to the water coming out of their taps!

    –  Fracking fluid also pulls other chemicals out of the rocks it is travelling through; sometimes this can include radioactive elements, meaning that the fluid becomes contaminated. As with any radioactive waste, disposing of this fluid safely then becomes a big problem.

    –  At each site, hundreds of wells have to be dug, and each well can use up to 9 million litres of water a day. Of this only 50 per cent can be reused (the rest being heavily polluted) so there are worries about ‘destabilization of the geology’.

    –  Linked with the last point, one of the big issues with fracking is that it appears to cause earthquakes. Two earthquakes in the Blackpool area in the UK June 2011 were attributed to fracking nearby (it is ‘highly probable’, according to an independent report) and work was halted while this was investigated. Obviously this can be quite frightening for local residents.

    –  And then there is climate change. Fracking is quite a carbon-intensive way to produce energy – that is, we have to put in a lot of energy initially in order to get other energy, in the form of gas, out as the end result. Each well only produces a relatively small amount of gas, and you have to drill a lot of wells to make it worthwhile.

    (For more information on all of these points, and the reasons why pressure groups are forming to try and stop fracking, see http://frack-off.org.uk/).
  5. What is the response of the fracking industry?

    Representatives of the fracking industry have responded to complaints about pollution by saying that these are individual incidents of bad practice, such as poorly-constructed wells, or faulty storage of water at the surface, rather than representative of the fracking process overall.

    The earthquakes, it is said, could be because of unusual geological factors, not likely to reoccur.

    They also argue that since natural gas is a relatively ‘clean’ form of energy because it pollutes less than some other fossil fuels, it is a better option for the environment.
  6. What does our government have to say?

    There are plans to expand the use of fracking in the UK, and new sites are being looked at in Kent and Wales.

    The UK’s energy select committee has looked into the safety of fracking and is convinced that if it is done properly and the right regulations are put in place, there is no evidence that UK water supplies are at risk (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14432401).

    Further development

    The debate about fracking is complex, but this is an important subject that will affect us all in the UK in the coming years.

    If you want to know more, there are several sources online. The energy select committee report is available on the UK Parliament website, and there is an industry information website called ‘Hydraulic Fracturing Facts’ which is positive about the benefits of fracking.

    On the other side of the debate, there is a national campaign (called Frack Off) demanding an end to fracking in the UK, and environmental groups such as Greenpeace also run anti-fracking campaigns – further information is available on their websites.

Time for reflection

If you live near to one of these sites, how do you feel about what is going on?

If a fracking site were to be set up near you, how would you feel?

Now spend a few moments thinking about our unceasing need for energy. What action could you take to reduce this need?

Music

‘Fragile’ by Sting (widely available to download)

Publication date: March 2012   (Vol.14 No.3)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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