The Fuss About Fracking

Oil Well

Image: Victor Habbick/

Induced hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’) is a means of mining natural resources (typically oil and gas) from the ground. The technique was developed in the 1940s in the United States, but classical drilling remained the method of choice for many decades. However, over the last decade as classical wells have become depleted, fracking has been gaining favour around the world as methodologies have improved and countries seek to exploit native resources that were previously inaccessible and, thereby, wean themselves off expensive imports.

Basically, the technique involves injecting water mixed with chemicals and sand at very high pressure into a rock formation that contains the desired resource. This process induces small fractures to occur in the rock, which can be held open by the sand particles in the injected fluid. Once the hydraulic pressure is withdrawn, the oil or gas seeps into the fractures from where it can be extruded. The targeted rock formations are usually of low porosity and permeability (such as shale), so that extracting the oil or gas locked in them by any other means would be nearly impossible or economically unfeasible.

Estimates vary between reports, but gas derived from fracking could account for half of North American production by 2020. According to a report commissioned by the United States Department of Energy and in order of potential recoverable shale gas, China, USA, Argentina, Mexico and South Africa possess considerable shale gas reserves that could be exploited. Given the high or rapidly increasing energy demands of these countries and others, it is no wonder that governments are turning to home-based fracking to address their energy needs.

However, there has been a concomitant increase in opposition to fracking arising from environmental concerns. The paucity of unbiased research makes reporting on the environmental impacts of fracking difficult – studies promoting the technology are often produced by mining groups, whereas studies condemning it are often funded by environmental organisations. Thus, both sides have a vested interest in the outcome of their research and, for that reason, little of it can be considered reliable. Opposition to fracking mainly stems from the increased air and water pollution that can occur. Methane and hydrogen sulfide are typical by-products from the fracking process that can be released into the atmosphere and, overall, emissions are up to 12% higher from gas produced by fracking than from conventional wells. There have also been concerns about chemical and radiological contamination of water supplies (although fracking is usually carried out well below the levels of freshwater aquifers or in formations that are geologically isolated from them). More worryingly perhaps is the vast amounts of water required for the process, which can deplete water resources leading to water shortages for local populations.

These concerns have prompted some governments either to ban fracking completely (France and Tunisia), temporarily suspend it (United Kingdom) or to impose strict regulations on fracking companies (Ireland). Indeed, the controversy has spawned some big-budget movies such as Gasland (which received an Academy Award nomination) and The Promised Land (starring Matt Damon).

However, the most fundamental point of the entire fracking debate is that it involves the production and consumption of a non-renewable carbon-based resource, which results in large-scale greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, governments are still being led astray by the energy corporations that control access to these resources and, thereby, continue to amass huge wealth in the short-term at the cost of long-term environmental degradation. The alternatives to carbon-based energy (such as wind, solar and hydroelectric power) have developed significantly in recent decades and undoubtedly could play a greater role in energy provision if given the same attention and funding afforded to oil and gas. Why such alternatives continue to play a minor role in the energy debate has a lot do with lobbying and the financial might and influence that energy corporations wield over politicians. Thus, fracking is just the latest means of a restricted elite to sequester wealth and monopolise resources and should be viewed with concern not only for its environmental implications, but also as the continuation of an out-dated and unjust economic practice.

About the Author John O'Brien

Dr. John O’Brien is a zoologist with significant experience in Biology, Chemistry, Geology, Industrial Microbiology, Medicine, Pharmaceuticals and Mathematics. John has worked extensively in both the academic and animal conservation fields. John holds a Ph.D. in Conservation Genetics from University College Dublin, Ireland

Leave a Comment: