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.

Research Excellence Framework- ‘It’s quite a complicated beast’

by Sara Elizabeth Fisher

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is probably not a concept well known to students, perhaps deeming the research conducted by departments somewhat detached from our own education. However, Aberystwyth’s recent performance in the REF suggests that not only should we be aware of what it is and its impacts but we should also be proud to be taught at such an institution. I spoke to Professor Colin McInnes who leads the Research Excellence Framework for Aberystwyth University. So what exactly is the REF?

‘Every 5 years all departments in all universities are given the chance to have their research quality assessed and the benefits of having this are twofold. Firstly profile and peer recognition, if you do well you are seen as being a strong and successful department in research terms and secondly the money, there is money attached to how well you do’.

This REF is measured by three main areas; the first is quality of the research, the second is the research environment and thirdly the impact of the research. A composite score is given of the three areas. The last submissions went in November, 2014, however departments within the university start preparing for the submission on average ten months before the assessment. This year’s results were released in December. Participating in the REF is a sign of departmental strength. So how did Aberystwyth do?

‘We did roughly as expected. We can’t compete with the large, science intensive universities we are just not big enough, we don’t get the same grant capture, the same quantity of staff going in. So if you compare us to a Manchester or an Imperial College London we are not going to do as well simply because of size and subject mix. If you take that into account we were very satisfied with how we did. We maintained our position, which is probably punching a bit above what we would consider our natural position’.

However, some departments within the university did extremely well, with one of those departments being Geography and Earth Sciences which ‘did better than last time and matched our expectations within the department. In other words we thought the department was very strong and we thought it should do very well. Our hopes were realized when the results came out so we did very well’.

At this point many people will be asking why this matters to students and why we should take notice of such frameworks. This is an important factor for students as post-graduation we will be recognised as coming from a good department and we can take pride in being part of a research leading institution. Perhaps the most obvious and attractive benefit of doing well is that high achieving departments attract quality staff and as a result the teaching is somewhat cutting edge, learning what is new and important in Geography. As Professor Colin McInnes states ‘the REF is one of the key indicators to how good a department is’. There is also a financial incentive to doing well in the REF, often six figure grants are made in the light of good results and this has a positive impact on student experience and opportunities at the university.

Research counts and research speaks, perhaps understanding more of what happens outside the narrow confines of our degree will teach us to perhaps value our experience on a different level. It is easy to judge a university on location and rankings on various things but I would argue that a closer look at the actual output of a department is an extremely strong representation of what your degree will be like. From my perspective my three years studying Human Geography has been extremely interesting. It far surpassed my expectations. Many of my friends have remarked on how varied my modules are, studying underground art, monuments and world religions is typical. The type and quality of research produced in the Geography department, I believe is in evidence in the modules provided and the enjoyment of the degree we study.