Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is an extremely controversial issue in the United Kingdom. While fracking is capable of reaching oil and natural gas deposits which would otherwise be inaccessible, it has also been linked to environmental issues. The two primary points of controversy are the risks of induced seismic activity and potential contamination of aquifers. A related secondary concern is the safe disposal of fracking fluids. On the other side of the scale, proponents cite fracking’s economic benefits, as based on possible price decreases with a greater market supply.
A brief history of fracking in the United Kingdom
A procedure commonly known as “fracking” has been used for decades in the United Kingdom. It first became popular during the 1970s and 1980s, when the rising price of oil first made this kind of fracking economically feasible. During this time, its primary use was in North Sea oil fields. It has also been used to stimulate existing onshore oil wells in the United Kingdom, such as the Beckingham fields, which have been fracked since 1969.
However, although it shares a popular name with shale fracking, the older form of fracking is not really hydraulic fracturing at all. The geology in these established oil fields does not require new stone fractures to access new reserves of oil or gas. Instead, a mixture of steam and solvent chemicals is pumped into the oil reservoir of a slow-producing well. This pressurized mixture loosens the oil in existing fissures and makes it easier for the oil to pool back to the surface. This oil can then be collected with the same nodding donkeys or other drilling equipment which had been used all along.
This form of “fracking” cannot contaminate previously uncontaminated aquifers, because it doesn’t force open any new cracks in water-impermeable rock to reach previously concealed pockets of natural gas. In fact, it is commonly used to access oil, not gas at all. It also cannot induce seismic activity, again because steam is not being forced into small pockets in water-impermeable rock for the specific purpose of opening new channels.
Nevertheless, the popular use of the same name has caused some of the mass media to assume similarity between older fracking techniques and shale fracking. They then dismiss concerns about shale fracking altogether, based on this mistake.
The shale fracking which is growing in use today is a much more expensive and disruptive process which is intended to force open rock fissures to reach new reservoirs of natural gas. In many cases outside the United Kingdom, entirely new wells have been drilled into previously non-viable areas. This form of fracking was made economically viable by rising natural gas prices around 2007.
As of the time of writing, there are 2,152 inland wells in the United Kingdom. The BBC quotes the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) that roughly 200 of these wells have been fracked. However, the same sources also use the same word for both types of oil or gas recovery.
Induced seismic activity
Minor seismic activity is common with shale fracking. However, most of these earthquakes are below the sensor threshold, with the vast majority of them less than Richter magnitude 1.
However, there have been three known cases of hydraulic fracturing-induced earthquakes strong enough to be felt at the surface. One of those was in the Blackpool area of Lancashire during 2011, where the stronger of two seismic tremors reached Richter magnitude 2.3. A brief moratorium on shale fracking was soon lifted by the DECC, without implementing the regulations on induced seismicity recommended by the Royal Academy of Engineering.
In the United States, where more than 25,000 wells are drilled every year, shale fracking has sometimes resulted in serious groundwater contamination. People living in nearby areas have sometimes been able to light the water coming out of their faucet on fire. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has abandoned at least two high-profile lawsuits based on this issue.
As of the time of writing, this level of fracking-linked aquifer contamination does not exist in the United Kindgom. However, there are few regulations in place to prevent its occurrence in future, especially if the scale of fracking is increased.
The chemicals used for fracking can also contaminate groundwater, or even potentially seep into major water systems such as the Great Lakes. As well, small quantities radium and other deep-earth minerals also seep into fracking water in the gas production process. Standard sewage treatment is not capable of completely removing those chemicals from fracking water, and cannot remove the radium at all. Thus, the safe disposal of fracking water is also a concern.
Another water-related concern is the large volume of water required for shale fracking. In the arid southwestern United States, this may have drained an aquifer completely dry on at least one occasion. However, the United Kingdom has a much wetter climate than Texas, so aquifer depletion is a correspondingly lesser concern in the United Kingdom than it is in the United States.
The Royal Academy of Engineering has recommended that “the United Kingdoms’s environmental regulators should work with the British Geological Survey (BGS) to carry out comprehensive national baseline surveys of methane and other contaminants in groundwater.” This survey should be done in conjunction with extensive before-and-after groundwater monitoring, including the groundwater near abandoned wells. To date, neither recommendation has been adopted.
It is popular lore in the United Kingdom that shale gas reserves may prove to be larger than the North Sea gas field. The DECC’s statements are much more cautious, stating that “no-one knows at this point what proportion, if any, of the gas in the ground will ever be practically and commercially producible.”
Proponents of shale fracking point out that an increased supply of natural will make prices fall, just as it did in the United States. However, when it comes to natural gas economics, the situation is different for the United Kingdom and the United States. It is very hard for the United States to export any of its natural gas production. Nearly all of it must be used domestically, without alternative markets. As a result, the increased supply from shale gas directly affects the price.
In contrast, the United Kingdom is tightly linked into the EU and Russian network of natural gas supply. Thus, even if the shale gas reserves turn out to be as large as expected and if most of them are practically and commercially producible, the total new production of natural gas would still be a small fraction of the total production across Europe. Consequently, the effect of shale gas on natural gas prices in the United Kingdom is likely to be minimal.