The truth about fracking and shale gas

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A man cautiously holds the flame from a disposable lighter up to a spluttering tap. He stands uneasily, as though he’s ready to spring back at any moment but still keeping the flame as close as possible to the flowing tap. There is a tense moment as the water flow increases, and he remains statuesque and still.

Suddenly, the entire scene erupts into a fiery orange glow. His hand recoils as a billowing cloud of flames engulfs the sink, disappearing within a split second. As the flames quell and he turns off the tap, a sign fades into view which reads “Do not drink this water.” Welcome to the world of fracking.

“Studies show shale gas could be as bad for the planet as coal, so it's little wonder some of the world's leading scientists and engineers want more research into the climate change impacts, essential before key decisions are made.”

Tony Bosworth – Friends of the Earth

What is fracking?

Fracking is a method of extracting natural gasses trapped deep underground in shale rock. These rocks contain pockets of natural gasses trapped in the sedimentary layers, which can be used as fuel. A well is drilled thousands of feet down into the ground to reach shale rock deposits. Then the drilling extends horizontally, extending out in all directions like the spokes of a wheel. “Fracking” actually refers to the process of hydraulic fracturing, in which a mixture of water, sand and around 600 chemicals is pumped in to these crevices at extremely high pressures.

The fracking process basically causes fractures to form in the rock, which allows the natural gasses trapped within to flow out into the well. Methane is the main target of these operations, and the wells are encased in steel and concrete to prevent the gas from leaking out. In the past, fracking was not economically viable, because it’s a pretty expensive method of extracting gas, but with rising prices of fossil fuels, operations have been undertaken across the US and in the UK.

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Water contamination

The scene in the introduction was taken from the documentary “Gasland,” in which Josh Fox, a filmmaker who was asked to allow his land to be used for drilling, aims to expose the dangers of the practice. The famous clip of the flammable water has actually been discredited, as investigative journalist Phelim McAleer discovered that residents of the area had been able to light their water on fire since as far back as the 1930s. He commented, “I checked online, and very quickly I came across what seemed to be pretty good, detailed research that showed people were able to burn their tap water years before fracking ever started.”

Fox may be guilty of misleading his viewers on his specific evidence of fracking-related water contamination, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong. Research conducted at Duke University in 2011 revealed that drinking water wells found near natural gas extraction sites (within one kilometre) had greater concentrations of methane. This increased the closer they were to a gas well, and even reached concentrations the researchers referred to as an “explosion hazard.” There are numerous ways this can happen, including fractures extending further than planned or joining up with natural geological formations and leaking or general mismanagement of waste products.

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The environment

Many professional bodies have argued that the risks to drinking water can be minimised if stringent regulations are put in place, but the environmental dangers of fracking won’t go away so easily. Methane is the main component of natural gas, and it is a serious contributor to global warming. Although carbon dioxide gets all the attention, methane actually causes much more heat retention, particularly in the few decades after it is first released.

Fracking contributes to this problem in both an intentional and an unintentional way. Burning methane is still bad for the environment in the same way all fossil fuels are, but the inefficiency of the extraction process causes more problems. The water that is used to fracture the rocks accumulates methane on its way back to the surface, and any one of the numerous devices used in the process can also spring leaks.

Researchers compared the net greenhouse gas effect of fracking for natural gas to coal, and found that it has at least a 20 percent larger carbon footprint over 20 years (potentially up to twice as big) and a comparably negative effect over 100 years. This shows how the natural gas industry will continue to contribute to global warming, and doesn’t even take into account the diesel-powered drilling equipment or the transportation of the eight million gallons of water required per frack. As a fossil fuel, there is also only so much of it hiding underground. Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, commented that “Anyone who believes shale gas is the solution to our energy needs is being hopelessly naive.”

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The fracking operations that were undertaken in the UK in 2011 led to two small earthquakes in the Blackpool area in April and May. With the process of fracking involving the breaking of rocks, earthquakes seem like an expected consequence, and an independent report later confirmed the link. The reason for it is a little different to what you might be expecting, though.

It is all to do with a tiny fault deep underground. When the water was pumped into the ground for the fracking process, it essentially served to lubricate the natural fault, which allowed the rocks to slip past one another and cause the quakes. The problem is that small faults like this could be very common as you go deeper underground, which means that the quakes could continue.

The two quakes weren’t that severe, though. The biggest one had a magnitude of 2.3, which is hardly the stuff of natural disasters. People will notice the trembling, but there are around 15 similar magnitude quakes every year in the UK, so they don’t cause any immediate problems.