The pros and cons of fracking in the UK and why you need to know about them
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 in the UK. 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Dave Darby October 14th, 2016
Thanks Steve. This is very interesting. I fundamentally disagree with some of your ‘advantages’, and think your disadvantages are vastly understated. It all boils down to ecology being much, much more important than economics. There are valid advantages from a ‘mainstream’ perspective – i.e. how best to maximise economic growth / increase exports / keep the whole environmentally-damaging circus going, and a lot of people will be thinking like that. But in the greater scheme of things, they’re not advantages at all, and if we manage to survive the coming ecological collapse, I think that future generations will look back on our quest for perpetual growth in the same way that we look back on witch-burning – i.e. ‘what were they thinking?’.
‘An uninterrupted energy supply at stable prices is essential for a successful economy.’
Depends on what kind of economy you want. If you want a cancerous economy that is primed to grow until it kills us, yes, we need to inject poisons into the ground and burn fossil fuels to do that – it’s all part of the same, crazy game. If we want a stable economy that exists without damaging nature, and everyone has enough but is not constantly clamouring for more, then no, I don’t think we need shale gas or any other fossil fuels for an economy like that. We don’t have an economy like that of course – but that is what we should be aiming for, I think. It’s essential in the long-run. No species can continue to damage its environment forever – nature won’t allow it.
Where I think you’re right is that if we don’t frack for shale gas, we’re not going to suddenly find ourselves in a world powered by renewables – it will mean more nuclear power stations and more crude oil transported around the world – and possibly even a return to coal in some cases. Those alternatives may turn out to be much worse than fracking. It’s for this reason I think that George Monbiot is now a fan of nuclear – I’m sure he’s not in love with the technology, he just sees the immediate alternatives as worse.
This is a rock-and-a-hard-place situation, isn’t it – like having to choose between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. What we need is a new system in which we don’t have to choose between corporate stooges or between toxic energy sources that will hasten our extinction.
Plus it’s not that there’s a risk of groundwater pollution with fracking – it’s a certainty. You can’t pump tonnes of toxic chemicals into the ground and not contaminate groundwater. That’s a fantasy that the fracking industry is weaving. Here’s an article about the kinds of chemicals used in fracking – http://lowimpactorg.wpengine.com/what-chemicals-are-used-in-fracking-and-where-do-they-go/.
I think that ‘global efforts to limit climate change’ are minimal – the place to start is by stabilising the economy, and not one country has got to the starting line yet.
I realise that my arguments would sound unrealistic and naïve to most politicians or to Cuadrilla executives. But it’s the arguments that we can mitigate climate change whilst burning fossil fuels, or that we can have a perpetually growing economy on a finite planet that are really unrealistic, but in an extremely dangerous way.
2Andrew Rollinson October 14th, 2016
I completely agree with Dave.
I started out as a geologist, and from the first time that I heard about fracking I have had concerns about these chemicals moving along faults into aquifers. After reading about fracking and talking to experts since then I have never met anyone who has ever convinced me in the slightest that this issue has been adequately researched. Indeed, everything I have seen of this is that fracking is being politically forced through: for commercial reasons, and to allow governments to pay foreign investors to build wind farms which they say will meet CO2 emissions targets (although they won’t), with shale-gas powered power stations backing up unreliable wind. The whole policy is misplaced.
Having biogas on the small scale (from your anaerobic digesters) is different.
One thing that interests me Steve. Will you please explain and elaborate on the source of information for your sentence: “The natural gas produced by fracking emits less carbon per calorie of energy produced than other fossil fuel energy sources.”
3Steve Last October 14th, 2016
Andrew. Hi! Please, do be aware that I am not at all a fan of fracking. May I say that I don’t think it has been adequately researched either.
“The whole policy is misplaced.”. Yes. I agree.
To answer your question.
I think that a quick Google search will reveal many reference sources which confirm my statement that natural gas (which as far as I am aware comes out pure and clean from fracking) “emits less carbon per calorie of energy produced than other fossil fuel energy sources”.
Dare I say it, a good source would be the US Energy Administration’s FAQ at https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=73&t=11 .
But, it does not really need any official body to tell us this, government funded or otherwise. This fact can be calculated by looking at the chemical compounds for these fuels, and knowing that all these fuels derive their calorific value from breaking the carbon-hydrogen bond during burning, so that each carbon molecule is converted to CO2.
I know that if you look at http://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/fuels-higher-calorific-values-d_169.html for example you will see much higher calorific values for a number of hydrocarbon gases. But, don’t forget that these are the result of cracking crude oil in refineries, and they are not in themselves fossil fuel energy sources. The crude oil they are extracted from is the source and crude oil has in general a slightly lower calorific value per unit weight than natural gas, certainly not significantly higher.
4Andrew Rollinson October 17th, 2016
Thank you Steve,
I see the origins of your statement now. It is confusing though to say it how you did, for it implies that combusting shale gas is more environmentally-friendly (in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions) than other fossil fuels. This is not known at all in terms of shale gas. Life cycle analyses have yet to even suggest a figure to within an agreed order of magnitude (look at current LCA research).
Natural gas does burn more cleanly than coal or oil, and has a high calorific value on top, which all push its efficiency a little bit higher. This is why the remaining supplies should be preserved for domestic heating and cooking rather than centralised power station usage (but that’s another matter).
Why I picked out and responded to this aspect of your post was partly because I am interested in new LCA research, and partly because I dislike how quotes such as these are made and passed about, usually taken out of context, which leads to misunderstanding. The consequences are grave for it influences public opinion. And what we need most is to ensure that what we say is clear and accurate so as to guide our future actions.
By the way, I don’t like this either: “emits less carbon per calorie of energy produced” Per mole, yes. But what about fuel energy density, and all the other associated processing requirements, is the point I am making?
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
5JoeOO January 9th, 2017
Fracking has some economic benefits, but there are also too many risks that should be taken into consideration. One of the problems is that sometimes we damage our future while trying to fix our short term problems. In case you are interested in discussing further this issue there is a poll and a public discussion here: https://netivist.org/debate/fracking-pros-and-cons
6Dave Darby January 10th, 2017
Hi – I don’t find most debates about fracking very interesting. The main ‘pro’ position tends to be one that favours the scourge of perpetual economic growth. Growth is what’s meant by ‘economic benefits’, and it’s destroying the ecology we need to survive. As a little side-show, fracking also involves pumping tonnes of toxic chemicals into the earth. It’s like debating the pros and cons of child abuse. We need to shrink, then stabilise the global economy, invest in renewables and stop burning fossil fuels.
7Cornick October 13th, 2018
I thought it was a very well argued piece, and I too agree that on balance fracking should be stopped.
However, it annoys me that anti-fracking campaigners can happily rail against producing fuel from under their own feet for two hours, say, and then chirpily ask “Right, who fancies a cup of tea” before toddling off to turn the electric kettle on, which is likely powered by gas that comes from poorly regulated gasfields in Qatar, shipped half way round the world, likely at even greater environmental cost that the fracking they’re complaining about.
Hardly anyone objects if it’s out of sight and out of mind, but as soon as the actual reality of your and my CONSUMPTION is in front of us, we object. Well frankly we should object to fracking, and that’s okay, but no less than we should object to gas, oil or coal coming from anywhere. The problem is you and me turning on the heating, starting our cars, jumping on our planes for a holiday. The outrage is justified, but pointing in the wrong direction: It is we as consumers who are the problem.
First remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye.
8Anonymus September 26th, 2019
I agree with all of your pros and cons and think that they are all very balanced out, it’s just the very last few sentences which really bother me: “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.”
How is that the real concern when nearly all of the cons impact the environment and the environment is what allows us to live, if this is destroying the earth and our home then how is The export of a proven fracking technology globally, with its development funded by massive UK tax breaks for the energy companies the real concern?
9Dave Darby September 26th, 2019
Anonymus – I guess it’s the sentence before that explains why: ‘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.’