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In what’s being described as a ‘landmark ruling’ for the fracking industry, the Government has approved a fracking application by shale company Cuadrilla.
Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has overturned a ruling by Lancashire County Council against a fracking application by Cuadrilla for a site on the Flyde. This will bring the total number of fracking wells in the UK to five: four wells at the Lancashire site and one in Ryedale, North Yorkshire. Javid has indicated he is inclined to grant permission for a further site, at Roseacre wood. In addition to these sites, there are areas licensed for fracking throughout the UK, including sites near Cardiff and Nottingham.
Fracking is deeply controversial, and it’s an understatement to say that the ruling has been met with a mixed response.
Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracking, uses relatively new methods to access reserves of oil and gas that were once inaccessible or unprofitable. It allows companies to exploit natural gas and oil that are trapped within tightly packed sand and shale. Incredibly high pressurised ‘fracking fluid’, consisting of jets of sand, chemicals and water, is blasted into the ground, breaking open underground reserves. After the pressure is removed, the sand acts as a mechanism to keep the ‘fractures’ open, allowing for extraction.
As of 2015, there were 1.1 million active fracking wells in the USA. There are also a number of fracking sites in Canada. Fracking is banned in a number of countries, including France, Bulgaria and Germany, as well as parts of Australia.
In the prairies of North Dakota, hydraulic fracking is seen by some as a modern incarnation of the American dream. America’s largest fracking site, Bakken Play, once an area of stagnating economic growth, now abounds with newly minted millionaires. Employment rates in the area have skyrocketed. The Fort Berthold Indian Reservation leased their tribal land for drilling and, since 2010, have generated 30 million barrels of oil, and more than $500 million profit. Bakken now produces more oil and gas than it knows what to do with.
What’s more, fracking lowered US energy prices, thanks in part to the shift it allowed from oil to natural gas. Thanks to fracking, the US saw the price of oil drop from $100 per barrel, to $60 a barrel at the start of 2014.
To proponents of the process, fracking opens up a vast new world of of oil and gas reserves. In the UK, there is 1.3 trillion cubic feet of shale gas sitting beneath our feet. If this gas could be exploited, it would have the potential to increase our energy security as well as providing a much needed economic boost. A 2013 report from the Institute of Directors suggested that the introduction of fracking could create 74,000 jobs and generate £3.7 billion per year.
According to Andrea Leadsom, writing in 2015:
“In 2003, we were a net exporter of gas. By 2030 we expect to be importing close to 75% of the gas we consume. By making the most of our home-grown gas we can safeguard our own domestic supply whilst also cutting our carbon emissions.”
Diversification of the energy mix is something that all Governments are mindful of – be that through investigation into new renewables, or the exploitation of existing energy sources.
Cuadrilla CEO Francis Egon, speaking on Good Morning Britain, said:
“The country is running out of gas, and without some form of energy development, we’re going to end up importing all of our fuel from overseas, and we’ve seen that just last week with the ridiculous situation where Scotland is importing shale gas from America, which frankly is crazy.”
Shale gas is slightly more environmentally friendly than coal and oil, meaning that it could be used as a ‘stepping stone’ towards a more sustainable energy mix, weaning us of traditionally generated coal and oil, whilst not compromising energy stability. Reliable, scalable renewable energy sources are difficult to come by, and fracking is often viewed as a practical compromise.
If the US model holds true, fracking also has the potential to usher in an era of cheap gas, reducing domestic energy bills.
Fracking is exploratory within the UK. That means that, of that 1.3 trillion cubic feet of gas below us, we don’t actually know how much will be extractable. If the amount falls to the lower end of the scale, we may see no change to energy bills, little job creation and no economic benefit. Any disruption to the British countryside, any Government investment, will have been for nothing. What’s more, fracking’s effect on gas bills is far from a sure thing: the UK’s gas network is different to America’s. In 2013, Cuadrilla’s chairman said:
“We are part of a well-connected European gas market and, unless it is a gigantic amount of gas, it is not going to have material impact on price,”
Economic impact aside, most arguments against fracking relate to its potential environmental effects. Reports have highlighted the potential for up to 100,000 wells in the UK, each at a size of around 7,000 sqm. Communities in at-risk areas have voiced worries about water, air, noise and traffic pollution, as well as the unpleasant effects of industrialising the countryside. In America, there is evidence that fracking has led to polluted water supplies and rural air pollution akin to a smog filled city.
Shale gas may be seen as a lesser evil in energy generation, however it is debated how low carbon fracking is compared to coal. Anti-fracking proponents have pointed to the paradox of investing in carbon intensive production whilst also supporting the Paris Agreement – a deal between 55 countries which requires Governments to produce and report upon plans to reduce carbon emissions. Environmentalists worry that fracking may divert funds away from renewables, which could be detrimental in the long term, especially if investigation into potentially profitable renewable energy sources is neglected.
Finally, fracking has a controversial link to earthquakes. We know that the high-intensity injection of fracking fluid increases pressure on seismic faults, making them more likely to slip. We also know that earthquakes far afield can trigger smaller tremors at fracking wells. Cuadrilla’s Lancashire site has already registered a couple of minor quakes. There are worries that fracking may affect the world’s vulnerability to earthquakes in ways we don’t yet comprehend.
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