8 Fracking Myths Debunked – Updated
Earlier this year I penned a popular mythbusting guide to hydraulic fracturing, also known as ‘fracking’, the process of extracting shale gas by drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at a very high pressure. This process is intensive and potentially risky because the pressure is required to fracture the shale rocks and release the gas. Fracking is continuously undergoing scrutiny and research and there is still much that we don’t know about it, but we do know more now than we did six months ago when I wrote the original mythbusting article, so I’ve updated the information here.
The original article I wrote was also aimed at a primarily British audience, however several readers in the US contacted me to ask for a similar research-based overview of fracking that is relevant to Americans as well, so here it is.
Myth #1 – Flammable Water Caused by Fracking is a Hoax
In the UK
In the original article I mentioned the unlikelihood of general water supplies becoming contaminated with methane in the UK. However, since then the results of a major study on the link between fracking and drinking water contamination have been published. The British Geological Survey and the Environment Agency have mapped the locations of key aquifers in England and Wales and their proximity to proposed fracking sites, and the results show that nearly half of the areas considered for fracking are at risk of polluting aquifers – ie drinking water sources. This means that, contrary to what I wrote in the original article, the risk of methane being released into drinking water through the fracking process is high in these specific areas. If fracking gets underway in England, which Prime Minister David Cameron assures us it will, drinking water contaminated with methane may become a real scenario for people across the country, even if the water is not contaminated enough to be set on fire when exposed to a naked flame, as has been the case in the US.
In the US
Unfortunately for people in the US local fracking wells are very likely to contaminate their drinking water, as research by Duke University has found that water wells that are in close proximity to fracking sites in Pennsylvania had methane levels that were over six times higher than other wells.
Here’s a video showcasing the potential for water to catch on fire from fracking operations:
Myth #2 – Fracking Doesn’t Cause Earthquakes
In the US
If the fracking debate was to boil down to assessing which is the greater evil caused in the long-term – emissions contributing to climate change, vs earthquakes, the latter is probably the least of our problems. Still, earlier this month scientists linked hundreds of earthquakes across Oklahoma to a handful of fracking sites, and that is worrying news.
The research by three American universities and the US Geological Survey found that about one-fifth of the earthquakes in Oklahoma were caused by just four fracking wells, and that earthquakes could actually occur as far away as 30km away from a fracking site, which is a much larger distance than previously assumed by scientists.
In the UK
Although the news about seismic activity is bad for America, us Brits don’t have to worry about this one.. Or do we? The small earthquakes that occurred in Blackpool in 2011 were linked to Cuadrilla Resources Ltd’s drilling practices, however the British Geological Survey states that ‘both the tectonic history and the present-day stress regime in the British Isles is rather different to many of these areas of exploration and production. Also, it should be noted that many US shale gas plays are in relatively remote locations, with no monitoring networks in place.’
So, no need to worry, right? It depends on how trusting you are of the oil industry, as the report that addresses these concerns by estimating ‘future seismic hazard’ and ‘proposed recommendations for future operations to mitigate seismic risk’ was undertaken by the company at fault and whose operations were at stake – Cuadrilla. I’ll leave you with that fact.
Myth #3 – Fracking is a Sustainable Option
Fracking is in no way sustainable. It is a highly intensive process that increases emissions, causes methane leakage, creates low level ozone in some places in the world, and requires vast quantities of water and mass construction to create temporary fracking sites in green, typically countryside areas in both the UK and the US. Also, shale gas is still a finite resource, which means it’s going to run out one day.
Myth #4 – Fracking is Safe
In the original article I wrote that fracking is not strictly regulated, and this is still true despite immense pressure from concerned citizens and environmental organisations across the globe. To look at Oklahoma as an example, there are no rules for fracking companies to limit the pressure or volume of fracking waste that can be injected into the ground in the state, despite solid evidence that this pressure is what is triggering so many earthquakes.
In addition to this, the fracking process requires the use of toxic chemicals, which have been linked to instances of soil, livestock and wildlife contamination, and as with all methods of oil extraction there is the risk of spills. In February this year a fracking site in North Dakota suffered a major leak, and last year The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) was concerned that methane was ‘bubbling up’ on fracking sites that had been drilled to test for the gas in Scotland.
In the original article I reported that the Environmental Protection Agency was undertaking a large-scale study of the fracking industry, the results of which are due to be published later this year.
Finally, earlier this year ExxonMobil’s CEO Rex Tillerson objected to the construction of a fracking tower next to his home in Texas. Doesn’t fill you with trust for the process, does it?
Myth #5 – Fracking Sites Look Nicer Than Wind Farms
Nope, they’re still eyesores.
Whereas these are not.
Myth #6 – Fracking Will Boost the Economy
Unfortunately when people discuss economy they tend to focus on right now instead of the long-term, so people with vested interests in fracking are arguing that it is creating jobs, which is of course true. But how sustained this job creation might be is up for debate.
Ultimately, shale gas is a finite resource and therefore only a temporary solution to a long-term problem. It’s not doing our grandchildren any favours to frack the planet now, especially not through a difficult, high energy and environmentally destructive process.
Since I wrote the original article an interesting case study has hit in the news in the form of Germany’s renewable energy usage, as 31 percent of Germany’s electricity generation in the first half of 2014 came from renewable sources. Germany also set a solar power record in June of this year, and the country’s Energiewende or ‘energy transformation’ plan aims to shift from nuclear and fossil fuels to renewables and achieve 80 percent renewable energy generation by 2050. Two of the motivations driving energy transformation in Germany are that it will generate economic growth, and make the country more energy independent, and these are both things that are beneficial for the economy in the long-term. In the long-term, fracking can’t boast either of them.
Myth #7 – Fracking is a Popular Choice
In the UK
In May this year the BBC reported the results of a new poll that found that the number of people in favour of fracking in the UK has fallen below 50%. Last year Green Party MP Caroline Lucas was arrested at an anti-fracking protest in Balcombe, Sussex, and was cleared of all charges in April of this year.
In the US
Whether Americans are for or against fracking depends entirely on who you ask, as discovered by the Pew Research Centre survey undertaken last year. Although the survey looks at factors like age, gender, and political leanings, a regional survey might be more revealing, since Santa Cruz, CA has banned fracking, Los Angeles, CA passed a moratorium on fracking earlier this year, and in June this year the highest New York court ruled that its cities and towns can ban fracking within their borders.
Myth #8 – Fracking Can’t Be Stopped
As I wrote in the original article, the key to challenging the fracking industry is to act locally. Don’t just scare people about earthquakes and flammable water – watch the research, know your arguments, and tackle the other side of the argument which is reducing our dependence on oil and embracing energy alternatives in the meantime. Green energy is fracking’s nemesis.
Acting locally means that changes can be as simple as investing in a green energy supplier for electricity needs at home, which won’t necessarily cost more than a fossil fuel supplier. If fracking is happening in your area then write to your local MP, the newspaper, and join your local Greenpeace group to meet other people who want to keep the frackers away.
But most of all, keep up the discussion without spreading the myths. Because there’s really no need to exaggerate claims about what is clearly a dangerous, polluting, poorly regulated, and unsustainable practice, for all the reasons outlined above.