December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

This month, a ruling banning fracking exploration in Lancashire on environmental grounds was overturned. Is fracking here to stay?

stop fracking sign with daffodils

In 2015, the fracking company Cuadrilla, applied to the Lancashire Council for planning permission to begin drilling for shale gas in the area, but were declined on environmental grounds. Fifteen months later, the government have decided to overrule the local council’s decision, and Cuadrilla are set to begin drilling in the next year.

Operations of this kind have been subject to much controversy amongst politicians and members of the UK public alike, leading to a number of protests, with some attracting over a thousand anti-frackers.

The dangers of fracking lie in unavoidable aspects of the gas harvesting process. In its essence, fracking is the act of extracting natural gas trapped in shale deposits, some thousands of feet below the earth’s surface. The gas is reached by boring holes down to the shale deposits and using hydraulic equipment to fracture the rock. The natural gas itself was formed some millennia ago from the decomposition of organic life-forms in sedimentary deposits.

To extract the gas for burning, topside companies blast the shale rock deposits with a cocktail of sand, water and fracking chemicals (a blend which includes toxic compounds). This is done until ruptures form in the shale and the gas is released for capture.

Scientists have expressed fears that the chemicals present in fracking fluids and even the targeted natural gas, could contaminate local groundwater. A number of studies have emerged which support these concerns, one of which was carried out by Stanford in March 2016. The study observed the quality of drinking water in homes within a three-kilometre radius of a fracking site in Pavilion, USA. The water was found to be contaminated with toxic fracking fluid chemicals. A similar survey was carried out near a fracking site in Texas, with heavy metals and arsenic also detected.

Another major concern is the prevalence of earthquakes following drilling. For instance following Cuadrilla’s last project near Blackpool in 2011, a 2.3 magnitude tremor was detected on the coast.

Whether these risks and concerns have factored in to the government’s final decision to drill for gas in Lancashire is unclear. In a 2014 leaked letter from George Osborne to the Economic Affairs Committee, the chancellor called for rapid action to establish fracking. He urged officials to ‘respond to all asks’ from Cuadrilla, and even includes an outline of how to react if Lancashire Council rejects the applications for drilling.

Perhaps even more insightful, is another leaked document in 2015 from Amber Rudd to Osborne, detailing a 10-year fracking plan for the UK.  In addition, the tax breaks granted by the chancellor to fracking companies in 2013 are the most generous breaks for shale in the world and any energy industry in the UK.

If the drilling goes ahead, it will be the largest scale of exploratory fracking in the UK to date, and the first time Cuadrilla have fracked under homes. Although the jury is still out on whether shale gas can be extracted safely, for now, the UK’s current political climate indicates that fracking is here to stay.

Zeb Mattey is studying for an MSc in Science Communication.

Banner image: Frack Free, Paul Rookes