Energy issues: Should Britain adopt fracking?

Hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ has been implemented in the United Kingdom for some time, yet until recently there seems to have been a prevailing unfamiliarity with this form of natural gas extraction. The recent proposals for fracking in Balcombe in Sussex by the company Cuadrilla certainly served to arouse greater consideration in fracking operations. One of the reasons why the British government has changed it’s stance on fracking, and why we have seen the promulgation of proposals in Balcombe, are accountable to the rising demands for energy in this country which are exceeding available supplies and putting increasing levels of pressure on British energy companies, our existing infrastructure, and our own government, who continue to endeavour to secure purchase of fuel stocks abroad. At the same time Britain intends to fulfil obligations to invest and make use of renewable energy sources so as to cut our carbon emissions. As a result, Britain confronts a particularly difficult set of problems. How long can Britain delay this issue and what sort of compromise can be met if Britain adopts fracking? Is fracking compatible in the British Isles? Why is there opposition towards it?

There is an argument to suggest that fracking can be successfully managed when one appreciates the effective strategy implemented in Beckingham in Nottinghamshire. For 50 years 13 square miles of the Gainsborough-Beckingham oil field has been exploited for its natural gas deposits trapped in shale strata 3000 ft. below it. In total 53 fracking operations have been carried out since its establishment, but none of them have yet to cause major subsidence, nor has wildlife been adversely affected. Part of this success is as a result of the decision to maintain the RSPB Beckingham Marshes in the area surrounding the site, which has managed to offset the noise pollution generated from it because of the successful bird population whose birdsong muffles the sound of the operations. The survival and the growth in bird populations in the marshes and indeed other species is testamount to the effective maintenance and removal of chemicals and excess water used in the process to prevent significant run-off, which would otherwise be an inherent hazard and the primary cause of environmental damage. At the same time, operations have entailed both short term and long term economic benefits: 35 people locally are in permanent employment supporting 35 families, and the operations fuel local power stations without the tax burden on importing fuel, yielding enough electricity to support 21,000 homes. On the other hand, fracking activity has entailed unintended consequences on a number of occasions. In Britain it has exposed somewhat the natural geological hazards of the process when a mechanism disturbs local geology. Shale gas testing in Blackpool was claimed to be the main cause of two seismic events in 2011: one tremor of magnitude 2.3 hit the Flyde coast in April and a separate seismic event of 1.4 on the Richter scale occurred a month later on the 27th May, which was later confirmed by the British Geological Survey. Nonetheless, recognising that the Richter scale does not translate the damage induced by an earthquake, it was confirmed that this event enveloped no human or economic damage. It would however be foolish to suggest that because the recorded Blackpool tremors had no known human impacts, that this would be the same case elsewhere in Britain with different circumstances, different geology and different levels of vulnerability.

There are a number of environmental problems linked to fracking other than subsidence. Hydraulic fracturing requires significant input in order for it to function as an extraction process. Indeed, each fracking job requires approximately 1.2-3.5 million m3 of water and similar volumes of water each time a well is reopened. Fracking would no doubt necessitate the usage of local sources of water, and therefore would deplete water levels in local waterways and aquifers, which in turn would damage river ecosystems. The fact that at least 650 different carcinogenic chemicals are used in fracking mixtures further advises the potentially negative impacts of fracking, because these chemicals can leach into local water ways and contaminate them. Nonetheless, natural gas has the potential to satisfy a large fraction of Britain’s energy requirements and natural gas upon combustion produces half as much carbon dioxide to burning coal. The 2 hundred trillion cubic ft. on licensed to the fracking company Cuadrilla in Lancashire (Britain uses 3 hundred trillion cubic ft. per year) could potentially provide 25% of Britain’s annual energy needs for the next 30 years according to its CEO Francis Egan.

There is argument to suggest that fracking, whilst posing negative implications for the environment by burning non-renewable natural gas, could nonetheless be used as a means to sustain Britain’s energy requirements whilst it continues to invest into the renewable energy industry. Currently the natural gas provides more electricity for Britain than all renewable energy sources put together, such is the youth of our own renewable energy industry. In 2012, renewable energy sources supplied 11.3% of Britain’s electricity, whilst 41% of the electricity used was generated through the combustion of natural gas. If some of the money gained from selling natural gas was subsidised into projects developing renewable sources of energy, Britain could mitigate the affects of carbon dioxide emissions by minimizing carbon dioxide output whilst sustaining functions in Britain. In addition, making use of natural gas in the United Kingdom would eliminate the need to import natural gas which uses oil in transportation, which is currently adding to carbon dioxide emissions globally.

Although fracking encompasses positive economic and some environmental benefits, it poses realistic negative shortcomings for countryside and rural communities. A clear example of this is Welsh community in the Vale of Glamorgan, where fracking was approved in October this year. The community of Llantrithyd in the Vale of Glamorgan, some of whom rely upon low scale tourism as a source of income, would lose out to the development of fracking operations in the areas because it would permanently alter the natural landscape and views it provides which attracts seasonal visitors. Secondly, Llantrithyd possesses an historic deer park dating back to 1645 whose deer population could be adversely affected by any contamination of local waterways. In addition to this, one of the long term setbacks for local people would be the growth in congestion on local roads following the activity of fracking company lorries transporting raw materials, gas and chemical volumes to and from sites. On the other hand, when one looks at the example of the Gainsborough-Beckingham fracking site, the limitations of fracking as mentioned above are not characterized by this site. One of the main conclusions we can extract from this is that fracking would entail different repercussions for different locations based upon the contrasting characteristics of varying towns and villages. Therefore, there is argument to suggest that if fracking can be successfully integrated into the local scene and way of life, the benefits of fracking could be brought about without as much of the collateral anticipated by communities. This outlook however would have to settle for the intrinsic environmental symptoms of burning carcinogenic, non-renewable fossil fuels, and satisfying the concerns of local people which itself has a political dimension to it.

To conclude, it must be recognised that fracking poses both beneficial implications and negative ones for the United Kingdom. Some communities will lose out to fracking whilst others will gain from it; and nationally speaking Britain would likely benefit from increased fuel independence, but then again the environmental effects of burning fossil fuels are detrimental to us all in the long term. Localised low scale fracking could work if sufficient appreciation were made to the impacts of fracking taking into account the concerns and potential affects to local the area and landscape, and thus generating a holistic plan. Large scale fracking would encroach on too large a geographical area which would entail more complex ramifications. If anything, it should be down to the local communities to decide whether fracking should operate in their area. Nonetheless, the government will not be able to delay the energy needs of the British people, particularly if prices rise further as a result of depletion in supplies. Should this take precedence over the concerns of fracking to communities around the country? Or should the British people reconsider their way of life which demands ever more of the environment, and that a change in culture would do better to prevent the need to bring these measures into effect?


Contributed By Bertie Bricusse

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