Tuesday, 13 September 2011

What the frack?

First up, apologies if you have arrived at this article via Google expecting a montage of Battlestar Galactica's favourite expletive. This is actually about the environmental process of Hydraulic Fracturing, that has become a matter of local interest in recent months following the awarding of licences in Central Larne, Lough Neagh Basin, Lough Allen Basin, Rathlin Basin and Rathlin Island. Now I'll be the first to admit that my scientific knowledge in this area is pretty thin on the ground. It's a fairly new process in this part of the world, though fracking has been used for several decades in other parts if the world including the US and it's never been anything I've had to brush up on in the past. So today I thought I'd do a very simple guide to fracking, with a couple of videos approaching the process from different points of view. Hopefully this will get the basics down and lay the ground work for any future debate.

So, what is fracking?
The wiki definition states: "hydraulic fracturing, often called Fracking, Fracing[a] or hydrofracking, is the process of initiating and subsequently propagating a fracture in a rock layer, by means of a pressurized fluid, in order to release petroleum, natural gas, coal seam gas, or other substances for extraction"
Simply put this is the process of breaking up rocks using water and other chemicals, creating more opportunities to release fossil fuels such as gas and oil from between the fractures created.

Why the fuss?
I guess this depends on what your values are. On the one hand this process does increase the amount of fossil fuels you can extract, which in turn increases availability and some would argue reduce cost. In the US this process is credited as being a key process in the increased use of natural gas, and as a means of weaning the nation off (foreign) oil. However, it can also be seen as a means of further investing in a dependence on fossil fuels, when money could be spent on renewables.

There have also been some concerns as to the safety of fracking on the surrounding natural environment and contamination of water supply, as demonstrated on this report from the BBC.

Whether these problems are an inevitable consequence of fracking or a result of irresponsible drilling companies is still being debated (see below), but either way it raises further questions as to how the process is monitored and regulated, and due high levels of concern, Fracking has already been banned or suspended in several countries.

When it comes to Northern Ireland, I suppose my biggest concern aside from those mentioned is the amount of water that is required to carry out industrial scale fracking. From www.hydraulicfracturing.com;

'Drilling a typical Chesapeake deep shale gas and oil well requires between 65,000 and 600,000 gallons of water. Water is also used in fracking where a mixture of water and sand is injected into the deep shale at a high pressure to create small cracks in the rock allowing gas and oil to freely flow to the surface. Fracking a typical Chesapeake horizontal deep shale gas or oil well requires an average of 4.5 million gallons per well.'

This is stated as a one time spend, but figures and fracking amounts vary from source to source (and will depend on the scale of individual projects I'm sure), so I'll try not to cling on to one particular figure. Regardless, I'd love to have more clarity on any project that relies heavily on, or is known to affect our water. It is less than a year ago that NI Water was failing to meet demand as a result of bad weather, and significant chunks of our recent election were dedicated to the prospect of water charges and the urgent work that needs doing to our ageing treatment and delivery systems, not to mention the preservation of wetland and marine areas. Awarding licences for a process that will increase pressure on these systems and possible have an adverse affect on supply, just seems a little flawed to me.

But like I stated earlier, this is a relatively new area for me, so if you have any more expertise to add, please do so in the comments section, and check out the following links to learn more.


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