Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is a technique used to collect natural gas, petroleum and brine from underground. The process consists of drilling a well and fracturing rock with a highly pressurized liquid, which is usually water mixed with sand and chemicals. When the rock is fractured, the liquid is removed and the sand grains and chemicals hold the cracks open for the gas extraction.
It began as a commercial procedure in 1950 and is still carried out worldwide, with the USA being responsible for most of the world’s fracking. In the United Kingdom, it was first used in the late 70s to extract oil and gas from the North Sea. In 2011, after the practice provoked two minor earthquakes, that were intense enough to feel and caused minor deformation of the well, fracking was suspended at Preese Hall in Lancashire. The event raised concerns and the extraction of gas was regulated nationwide.
Now, it has resurfaced in the news because of a new series of events. In 2015 Cuadrilla, the exploration and production company that works in the Lancashire area appealed the regulation stating they had “been through an exhaustive environmental impact assessment”. As the Cuadrilla chief executive, Francis Egan said; they had “assessed everything: noise, traffic, water, emissions, etc.” Eventually, in October 2016, the company was given the go-ahead by the government. The council and the public didn’t agree with that conclusion, but this month Lancashire became the first place in the UK to begin fracking after the temporary ban 7 years ago.
There have been many demonstrations opposing the retake of the technique. For the first time ever in the UK, people have actually been sent to jail for protesting against fracking. On the 26th of September, three men caused a public nuisance at an almost 100-hourlong protest in Lancashire; they climbed on lorries outside Cuadrilla’s site to disrupt any activity and they were sent to jail on an initial sentence of between 15 and 16 months. After less than a month spent in prison and many demonstrations of support from the activists outside, the Court of Appeal judges ruled they shouldn’t have been imprisoned.
The fracking that has just began at Lancashire has just come to an abrupt temporary end after starting the 15th of October, as it triggered a 0.4 magnitude earthquake on Tuesday the 23rd. It was a low level seism and it couldn’t be felt on the surface, so the work was paused as a precaution and then resumed again after the danger wore off. Cuadrilla have said that they are monitoring seismic activity closely and that only tremors higher than 0.5 will put an immediate stop to the drilling, so fracking continues in England.
It is understandable why fracking has the population divided. On one hand, it has become one of the most used techniques to extract fossil fuels because it reaches deeper than other extraction methods, and it gives an easier and higher access to more natural deposits than ever before. It fuels heating, cooking and powers cars; plus it generates plenty of jobs in the industry. The practice in the UK also reduces the dependency on foreign oil: having reachable gas in our own countries lowers taxes and brings an independence from geopolitics as it becomes unnecessary to import the fossil fuels.
In spite of that, people are marching and protesting hydraulic fracturing because of the environmental impact it has. It uses so much water that then goes to waste because it becomes polluted after being mixed with the chemicals. The companies aren’t legally obliged yet to reveal what chemicals those are, so it makes it impossible for people living close to fracking sites to protect themselves from contamination. This enormous use of water increases the number of droughts and the drilling generates consistent noise pollution. People are concerned it might be sweeping the focus from researching and developing renewable energy sources as well.
Hydraulic fracturing is still banned in Scotland and Members of the Scottish Parliament are looking into having a finalised policy by spring 2019. Right now, it’s just a moratorium (a temporary prohibition) that’s holding the practice back up in the north. Petrochemical firms, politicians and citizens are waiting to see whether fracking will be brought back to Scotland, with some hoping it will and others hoping it won’t.
Even if it seems like Holyrood wants to permanently ban fracking or at least extend the moratorium, it’s a matter of waiting to see what 2019 will bring for Scotland.