Fracking: thoughts on the controversial battle for future energy

by Jessica Wood

Hydraulic fracturing or ‘Fracking’ as it is more commonly known, is both controversial and hotly debated. Fracking is a process by which a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is drilled and injected into dense shale rock at high pressure in order for the rock to release natural gas from the tiny fissures created. Is it an essential process for future energy use? Are there cleaner and less ‘risky’ options? These are questions often put to experts, but with extensive fracking already occurring in the U.S. it may only be a matter of time before the UK is experiencing large scale fracking for itself. On the 23rd April, 2015 at the Aberystwyth University Arts Centre there was a public forum entitled “Fracking and the Imagination: Scraping the Barrel or Saving the Day?” Attending were natural and social scientists, artists and environmental activists from within Wales and further afield, as well as lecturers from across the department. One such lecturer was Mark Whitehead, an environmental geographer, who I put some questions to regarding fracking and how a human geographer approaches the topic.

Fracking is often justified in that it gives us energy security, something vital for the future sustainability of energy intensive life as we now live it. According to a British Geological Survey’s estimates, if just 10% of the UK’s shale reserves were utilised, then Britain could be powered for the next half century and even replace dwindling North Sea supplies. However, this means the continuation of the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels and a distraction away from a low-carbon future. Mark Whitehead said: “the main risk is that it [fracking] could delay the urgent need to transition to zero carbon fuels”. Doesn’t this raise the question as to whether governments are as committed to addressing the threats of climate change as they sometimes suggest? While fracking is part of the government agenda, and being plugged as a significant rescue for our future energy needs, it will have to be eventually abandoned in exchange for renewable energy.

The fracking process itself, and its impacts on surrounding areas, have come under scrutiny by campaign groups and communities, most recently in Yorkshire with the ‘Frack Free Ryedale’ campaign group. In 2011, the UK’s most advanced fracking project in Blackpool was halted after two minor earthquakes were found to have a possible link. The decision whether to continue fracking at these sites is due in June 2015. Exploratory fracking, as seen in Blackpool, is common throughout the UK, particularly in the North West and South East of England, but with many sites granted, few have been drilled. Perhaps this is due to the issues associated with the fracking process. Not only are large amounts of water needed (in an already water scarce south east) to input into the system, but the wall casings associated with fracking have been met with concern about leakages and possible contamination of ground water. These are profound concerns and according to Mark Whitehead, could represent a real threat to the long term health of the communities which surround such sites.

Although, this article is short and focuses on a somewhat negative view of fracking, it raises important concerns which are largely at the forefront. That said, fracking is part of a much wider and complex argument where both advantages and disadvantages come into play. It is difficult to form an opinion on fracking when it is clouded in so much uncertainty and contradictory evidence. If we focus on personal interests then companies may say yes because of its economic value, where as local communities may so no because of ‘NIMBYism’ (Not In My Backyard) syndrome and its environmental degradation on their local town. Fracking may bring benefits to one entity but often it will have negative effects elsewhere on other parts of society.

What we can conclude on this topic however is it refocuses our attention on fossil fuels. With an increasingly energy thirsty society and with the new Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Amber Rudd, now expressing support for fracking and banning onshore subsidies for wind farms, it appears renewables may be on hold and fracking encouraged. Fracking is not a viable solution for our future energy needs: it doesn’t lead to a low-carbon future nor does it help countries meet their emission targets. The future of fracking therefore is one of uncertainty, as Mark Whitehead says:

“I have this vision of future generations scratching their heads as they look back at fracking and think ‘so confronted with the real and present danger of climate change you chose to fracture the earth’s crust so you could release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – what were you thinking!’”

A fitting conclusion for a topic which continues to divide opinions long before the fracking companies move in, and perhaps, long after they’ve moved out.