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Science, Maths & Technology

Fracking: No need for all the fuss

Updated Friday 20th September 2013

Geologist David Rothery considers the benefits of fracking against the environmental concerns.

Fracking operation Creative commons image Icon By Joshua Doubek (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons under Creative-Commons license A fracking operation As a geologist, I’ve followed the fracking news with interest.

I am well aware that we live on a finite planet, and that by far the best answer to humanity’s increasing demand for resources would be a reduction in global population coupled with more efficient, and environmental friendly, energy usage.

In the meantime, we in the UK face a national problem. We rely on gas for a lot of our energy. It’s cleaner than coal, but we’re running out. I’m very uneasy about relying on Russia and other eastern nations to supply a major fraction of our energy needs, which is the prospect we face if we don’t produce gas of our own.

Fortunately, there is a solution that could provide half a century’s supply of gas for the UK, by the end of which time we can hope that nuclear fusion, geothermal or renewable energy generation will have matured enough to take over.

The solution is to use the methane gas that is trapped in shale, which makes up about 50% of the sedimentary rock that underlies much of the UK. The way to get at this is by hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which releases the trapped gas so that it can be collected.

It really pains me that fracking has got such a bad press. Some mistakes seem to have been made in the USA, where bad practice may have allowed contaminant to seep into the shallow water table, and thence into the tap-water of homes using borehole water supplies. Correct procedures would avoid that in the UK, as indeed in most of the USA where fracking procedes very nicely, thank you.

Then there’s the issue of fracking causing ‘earthquakes’. This needs some context. The Earth’s interior is trembling all the time. As I type this, I see that in the British Isles there were nineteen earthquakes ranging in magnitude from 0.7 to 3.3 in the past 50 days. You can check for yourself here. These were all natural. Few of them were strong enough to be noticed even by the people nearest to them, and there will have been hundreds more too small to be worth recording by instruments.

In 2011 there were two ‘earthquakes’ caused by fracking in Lancashire. These were magnitude 2.3 and 1.5. To call such events ‘earthquakes’ make them seem far more spectacular than they were. Earth tremors would be more appropriate. No damage was done, but fracking was halted while an independent investigation was carried out. This concluded that fracking had ‘unlocked’ a previously stressed fault, and allowed it to slip. Basically, there would have been an ‘earthquake’ there eventually (maybe not for hundreds of years), and the fracking just made it happen early.

This was a useful experience for scientists and engineers, and there is now an agreed protocol to halt or pause future fracking activities if any unusual seismicity is noted.

What no one seems to have pointed out is that by releasing a locked fault prematurely, the resulting earthquake is smaller than if the stress had been allowed to continue its natural slow build up to the point when it let rip with a larger, but entirely natural earthquake decades or centuries into the future.

So, my informed opinion as a geologist, is that properly conducted fracking is not a threat to the local environment, and could be a short- to mid-term solution to our energy needs.


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