Oil and Gas Production: Dangers of Fracking

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Article courtesy of Brian Sallery | October 5, 2014 | East African Business Week | Shared as educational material

As I previously predicted Uganda has now found a substantial reservoir of natural gas and the government will be looking at a development plan to fully utilise such a find.

Therefore It now seems a good time to return to the controversial issue of fracking. In the UK, the North Sea natural gas reserves are on a major decline and supplies are quickly running out, therefore the British government has submitted to the demands of the oil industry to start fracking on UK soil. So what is fracking and why is it causing so much discontent? The Earth is made up of a number of layers, after you drill past the water table you will eventually come to a type of rock called shale, which is sedimentary and fine grained in nature comprising of a mixture of clay flakes and other minerals such as calcite and quartz.

Usually a drill will go into the rock in a vertical manner. However a technique called bi-directional drilling allows the drill head to be turned to allow for horizontal drilling. This is necessary because the shale rock traps small deposits of gas as minute as a millimetre in diameter inside fissures within the rock. A high pressure mixture of slickwater and proppants (grains of sand) is injected into the rock to increase the size of the fissures and release the gas molecules to flow out of the well head. So the term fracking is in fact a shorthand version for the hydraulic fracturing of rock.

You may not consider this to be very unconventional way of extracting gas, so why is fracking causing so much controversy? Fracking was primarily pioneered in the U.S, and it has overhauled the U.S, energy industry, but at a cost. The problem is it uses large amounts of water and unless there is a plentiful source nearby that water has to be transported to the fracking site which increases the production costs and its associated carbon footprint having an environmental impact. The other issue concerns contamination of local water supplies by possible poisonous waste materials. However oil companies are quick to blame rogue drillers for the occasional reports of groundwater contamination.

Probably the most worrying thing about fracking is that is causes natural tears in the rock structure to become bigger which can as a result cause earthquakes. In 2011 the traditional English seaside village of Blackpool was hit by a small earthquake as a result of local fracking in the area. Decades ago scientists discovered they could effectively turn an earthquake on and off by injecting water into the ground and the causal link between fracking and earthquakes is high. Even hardened opposition to the fracking debate such as Dr. Cliff Frohlich of the Institute of Geophysics at the University of Texas has now had a change of heart after hearing that three well documented earthquakes occurred due to fracking in the area. Therefore when governments grant oil and gas companies a licence to start fracking then the environmental and social impact on a community must be properly assessed before drilling starts.

 

So what are the advantages of such a practice? Fracking does allow access to previously unreachable supplies of gas which can then be used to augment the national supply and keep down gas prices by reducing the need to import expensive gas from abroad. The Energy and Climate Change Committee suggested that shale gas could significantly aid the UK gas market for the next 100 years. As a result the UK government have changed the national trespass laws which allow a land owner to stop land access to any company or individual. Now laws are being changed to allow licensed drilling companies to drill under a person’s home without their consent.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) have published a consultation paper detailing how they wish to grant access rights to drill 300 metres under a person’s home to remove petroleum and other energy sources and this is in stark contrast to the current laws where a landowner effectively owns everything from the surface down to the centre of the Earth. A recent survey carried out by YouGov found that 3/4 of the British public were totally opposed to this form of drilling and as fracking involves horizontal drilling which may span land belonging to multiple landowners. Major fears involve trespass, the breakdown of the local community, the damage towards property and the risk of life if the fracking triggers an earthquake.

There are a number of issues involved and the fact that the people of the UK are airing their concerns gives the rest of the world a very important perspective of events. It will be interesting to see how the British government handles the situation and balances the country’s energy needs against the needs and the rights of the people. Should one take precedence over the other? From a personal perspective I strongly believe the democratic rights of the individual should be protected. However the government of any country has a duty to protect the people who reside there and the need for a regular and consistent energy supply is vital to the economy and the people. Every year in the UK many old and vulnerable people die in our ever increasingly harsher winters because they are unable to properly heat their homes and therefore die of hyperthermia. In Uganda the problems associated with the cold may not be as important, but now that gas has been discovered in profitable reservoirs the process of extraction and the effects on local communities are just as real whether those issues are in East Africa, the U.S or the UK.

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