The pros and cons of fracking in the UK and why you need to know about them

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Posted Oct 14 2016 by Steve Last of Eco-energy Products

It’s time for all those interested in how society will achieve a sustainable level of impact on the environment to brush up their own thoughts and opinions on the pros and cons of fracking. If you are not in the UK, the chances are that you also will be affected by recent announcements of fracking developments, fully supported by the UK government.

The reason for this renewed interest, in the UK at least, is that it has been a remarkable few weeks for political developments in geological fracking for natural gas, in the UK.

There is now every indication that, once again, fracking issues are likely to become big news in the country. It has been some years since there have been any mass demonstrations against fracking after a period of relative inactivity in the industry. That is now about to change.

This article has been stimulated by two notable fracking-related events: the start of UK commercial-scale importation of Canadian shale gas, and a U-turn in Labour’s policy on fracking.

A spokesperson for energy company INEOS was interviewed about the first super-tanker ship load of Canadian shale arriving mid-week at a UK port. In that interview we were told than INEOS, as well as other energy companies, expected to start commercial production of UK gas from UK fracking within the next 5 years.

Simultaneously, at the Labour Party annual conference, the party did a complete U-turn when it came to their fracking policy.

For the first time the party voted to oppose all UK fracking development. However, amongst all the news of infighting over the leadership, this was not well reported. So, it Is likely that most people in the UK will have failed to see the irony, of a party which, until it lost power in 2010, heavily promoted fracking.

It sold fracking licences and introduced tax breaks for energy companies willing to frack, and created the conditions which now exist for full-scale fracking trials to go ahead.

From now on they will oppose it, and the UK population has another political party that is anti-fracking (as well as the Greens). The question is, when will these parties have the power to affect UK fracking policy?

So, what will you be thinking when fracking tests re-start in the UK? Will you be joining the protestors? Read our list of pros and cons and consider these points:

Advantages of fracking

The advocates of fracking point to several advantages afforded to the UK from developing its own fracking industry, such as:

  1. Security of energy supply in a troubled world

An uninterrupted energy supply at stable prices is essential for a successful economy.

This is particularly important if the UK is to rebalance its economy away from services, and a high reliance for its income on the financial sector. The reason for this is that manufacturing uses more energy than services in general, and some (like steel production) use a large amount of energy.

The world is not particularly stable at this time, so it is right to focus on using the UK’s own natural resources.

  1. Diversity of energy supply

Sensible energy policy involves a diversity of supply, as energy technologies vary in their best uses. Getting our energy from different sources provides another layer of security of energy supply. For example, through fracking (which provides natural gas that can be used without a significant amount of further purification), the nation has not only an energy supply but a hydrocarbon.

This can be used instead of oil to feed refineries to produce plastics, and the thousands of hydrocarbon-based organic chemicals which we all use daily.

Crude oil used in refineries produces a residue that is contaminated and hard to dispose of. In many ways it is better to maximise the extraction of natural gas, and to leave other, more polluting energy sources in the ground forever – which brings us to the next advantage.

  1. A relatively clean energy source

The natural gas produced by fracking emits less carbon per calorie of energy produced than other fossil fuel energy sources.

Natural gas is easily injected into the nearest point in the national gas grid and is then transported directly into power stations, factories, and homes for use.

The energy used in transmission of natural gas through the gas grid to users is much lower than for electricity, and gas heating for space heating homes, and offices is efficient because the energy is converted into heat with little if any further energy losses. This reduces wasted transmission energy which itself produces further carbon emissions.

For the next few years, while the transition to new renewable energy technologies takes place, using non-renewable energy sources with the lowest carbon emissions is the way to go.

If we decide that we want to use our own energy reserves intead of transporting them from around the world, then governments should prioritise natural gas over coal, for example.

Shale gas requires very little infrastructure investment before it can be injected into the national gas grid, meaning that it will be relatively cheap to put to use.

Disadvantages of fracking

The disadvantages of fracking have been described in previous articles in some detail, and they are considerable. They include:

  • Risk of groundwater pollution
  • Risk of localised earthquakes (probably not a huge risk when well-regulated in the UK)
  • Localised noise and traffic congestion
  • Loss of amenities, when fracking wells are sited in areas of natural beauty and national parks
  • A high water demand for the “process water” needed by the fracking technology used, potentially entailing additional stress on water supplies
  • Planning blight on local properties, and suffering by those unfortunate enough to live near a proposed site for a fracking well

The above disadvantages have been well argued in the media, but there is a further disadvantage which may be a larger concern than the others.

There is a risk that, if fracking in the UK develops and becomes profitable to the oil companies, it will accelerate fracking globally. If UK energy companies export their proven fracking technology to other countries, and if that technology transfer reduces the cost of fossil fuel production on a global scale, it will encourage the continued use of fossil fuels, which could jeopardise global efforts to limit climate change.

Finally, if fracking provides the UK with cheap home-produced energy, it allows politicians to avoid the fact that they should be developing renewable energy sources that the world desperately needs to avert the worst consequences of climate change.

How can any politician justify promoting fracking, when at the same time reducing assistance to renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind, hydro and anaerobic digestion? The fact is that the current UK government has been actively cutting renewable energy subsidies since 2010.

Conclusion

There are both pros and cons for fracking in the UK, and many of the arguments against fracking have been well-aired. But, it could be that problems on a global scale caused by a successful development of new fracking techniques in the UK may be far worse than the localised effects of fracking in the UK. The export of a proven fracking technology globally, with its development funded by massive UK tax breaks for the energy companies, is the real concern.

The first demand on a government that purports to be supporting global efforts to minimise climate change, should be to justify the tax breaks it is offering to those that frack for fossil fuel, while at the same time reducing renewable energy subsidies.

The author’s view is that the population of the UK deserves an answer to that question, before the argument for support for fracking could even begin to be made.