As the cost-of-living crisis really begins to bite it is perhaps not surprising that more people are starting to ask for a balanced and realistic assessment of the costs and benefits of fracking. No one wants to forego a cheap, quick and easy source of power at a time when horrible bills are dropping onto mats unless it is really necessary.
So, it is important to objectively and fairly assess the claims and counter claims about a technology that few really understand. At its simplest, fracking can be described as a means of pumping water underground in order to force gas out of rocks with the aim of piping it to the surface where it can be exploited.
Fracking and earthquakes
One of the most widely reported downsides is the concerns about what that does to the rocks. The pressure of all the water that needs to be used tends to disturb the local geology and cause small earthquakes.
It is important to put these into perspective. When Cuadrilla began test fracking at the Preston New Road site near Blackpool the first tremors that it recorded were around 0.4 on the Richter Scale. That really isn’t a very worrying number. Almost no one would have noticed it and it would not have put any buildings at risk.
As the work continued the quakes became more frequent and a little larger. They reached 1.5 on the Richter Scale but even though every 1 point on the logarithmic scale represents a doubling of intensity it was still possible to argue that this was still not a serious threat to anyone in the locality.
Then there was an event that measured 2.9 on the scale. Houses shook and people started to worry about the consequences for their property. Regular events on this scale genuinely would start to cause damage and to inflict cost on people living miles from the site. Since full scale production hadn’t even begun it was logical to expect the problems to become more serious and more regular once the operation was in full flow. The project was therefore cancelled, based on some very hard evidence.
Fracking and water pollution
Unfortunately, the earthquake damage is not the only cost to others that arises from fracking. Nor is it necessarily the biggest. Fundamental to the entire technology is the use of very large quantities of water that is mixed with chemical lubricants and pumped down under pressure.
In an area of complex geology like Yorkshire, it is virtually impossible to know where that polluted water will go. It is also not easy to know where all that extra water is going to come from. UK water suppliers are already struggling to meet demand. There simply aren’t enough reservoirs and pipes to cope with 40-degree summers and increasingly common shifts in the weather from storms to droughts.
It isn’t easy to see how large quantities of additional water can be supplied to fracking wells without consequences for other consumers. Worse, indeed much worse, there can never be any certainty that the water supply to communities many miles away won’t be polluted.
In every country where fracking has been attempted, water pollution has become a serious concern. In Texas they found arsenic at dangerous levels on farmland near the wells. In Wyoming it was diesel. Farmers living near fracking sites in Australia and Canada have reported problems with their water and the prestigious journal Scientific America reported in 2016 that there were health risks from drinking water from sources close to fracking operations.
Fracking and methane
Then there is the issue of methane. Shortly after fracking on a mass scale started, scientists began to detect a spike in methane emissions. The link eventually became so very clear that the National Geographic magazine published a prominent article providing shocking evidence that fracking causes an increase in one of the most powerfully damaging gases that can be released by humans into the atmosphere.
Part of the problem was the sloppy way that wells weren’t properly capped once they had been exhausted. Apparently, there wasn’t a strong economic incentive to clean up the mess once the value had been extracted from the resource, so several of the fracking businesses didn’t bother. Governments locally, nationally and internationally are now having to pick up the bill for the clean-up operation.
Considering fracking from a moral perspective
All of which would provide very strong incentives not to use this technology based on simple technical challenges and economic costs that can’t easily be overcome. There is, however, also an enormous moral problem. Every single responsible scientist is in agreement that humanity cannot extract and burn every last drop of fossil fuels without destabilising the climate in ways that are unpredictably damaging. Much of the stuff simply has to be left in the ground if our civilisation is to survive.
How is it possible to explain to any country that has conventional resources of oil and gas on its doorstep that it needs to be restrained and avoid extracting all of it if the rich Western nations are using risky techniques like fracking to get every drop they can out of the ground? How do we protect the future if we opt for such a risky technology?
There is one very significant upside to fracking. It can make a lot of money. For those who own the fracking sites. Enough money to pay for very professional lobbyists. Enough money to support the political campaigns of parties that seem most likely to approve new wells. Enough money to pay for social media campaigns to try and persuade the public to accept a practice that will do a lot of harm and take a very long time to have a very small impact on the global price of gas and their personal bill.
Those lobbyists have now succeeded in getting a small far-right faction of the Conservative Party into power that seems hell bent on forcing through fracking in some places and attempting to bribe communities to accept it in others. Liz Truss is under the illusion that gas can be extracted from new fracking sites within six months. She has removed the moratorium on the practice and the vast majority of the sites which already have licences are in the north of England.
Only a change of government will help now
The public would do well to look dispassionately at the facts about fracking. Then get very passionate about kicking out this set of unelected extremists who have captured the country and are hell bent on allowing it. Part of the reason that the Conservative Party won power is that during the election campaign they solemnly promised that they would not allow fracking unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely.
The science shows the exact opposite. Make up your own mind on whether that science and those promises will be respected by the band of libertarian radical right ideologues that have now taken over as Truss allows a set of fossil fuel enthusiasts to take charge of what is left of our future.