What is fracking and why is it getting so much conflicting press?

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Hydraulic fracturing or fracking is the fracturing of rock by a pressurised liquid, generally used to harvest shale gas, tight gas, tight oil and coal seam gas. The process is achieved typically by mixing water with sand and various chemicals and injecting it at high pressure into a bore hole to create small fractures along which fluids such as gas, petroleum, uranium-bearing solution and brine water may migrate to a well. The pressure is then removed from the bore hole using small grains of sand or aluminium oxide to hold the fractures open and allow the rock pressure to return to normal.

The earliest use of hydraulic fracturing was in 1947, and the first commercially successful applications were in 1949. George P. Mitchell is considered by some as the ‘father of fracking’ because he successfully applied it to the Barnett Shale in the 1990s. As of 2012, 2.5 million hydraulic fracturing jobs have been performed on oil and gas wells worldwide, nearly half of these in the United States. With traditionally harvested fossil fuels becoming more scarce and global fossil fuel prices rising all the time, companies and governments are turning to fracking for its economic benefits. By harvesting the vast amounts of previously inaccessible hydrocarbons that the process can extract, countries like the United States of America and the United Kingdom hope to replenish their supply of these fuels and relieve their dependence on oversees supply.

Proponents of fracking are facing a great deal of opposition to the process due to a range of environmental considerations. The main concern of anti-frackers is the issue of ground water contamination and the consequential depletion of fresh water, plus the vast amount of water needed for the process to be carried out. The migration of gases and hydraulic fracturing chemicals to the water table, the probable spills and the ‘flow-back’ effect that further add to surface contamination may well have a detrimental effect on the health of the people that come into contact with them and certainly on supplies of drinking water. This and the many other arguments against fracking, ranging from noise and air pollution to fracking causing earthquakes, have led to the practice being banned or suspended in many countries. However some countries, most notably the United Kingdom have recently lifted their bans, choosing to focus on regulations instead of outright prohibition.

Environmental campaigners say that fracking is simply distracting energy firms and governments from investing in renewable sources of energy, and encouraging continued reliance on fossil fuels. “Shale gas is not the solution to the UK’s energy challenges,” said Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Tony Bosworth. “We need a 21st century energy revolution based on efficiency and renewables, not more fossil fuels that will add to climate change.”

Reserves of shale gas have been found across large areas of the UK, particularly in the north of England. No fracking is currently taking place, and drilling firms must apply for a fracking license if they wish to do so in the future. However with the US claiming to have significantly increased oil production and driven down gas prices through fracking, offering gas security to the US and Canada for about 100 years, plus the fact that fracking has presented the opportunity to generate electricity at half the CO2 emissions of coal, It seems inevitable that fracking companies will be employed here in the UK before long.

Are we letting our need for affordable fossil fuels get the better of us? Only time will tell. Some say that we need to fill the time between our dependence on fossil fuels now, and our future technology of cleaner, renewable energy sources that are yet to be developed to a point where they can sustain us. For the time being fracking is being pushed forward in this country and is set to become widespread in the not too distant future. David Cameron is offering councils that back fracking money in tax revenue and urging opponents to ‘Get on board’ saying that opposition is ‘irrational’.

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