Fuel for Thought
The Pros & Cons of Fracking
May 21 2014
Fracking, the latest form of extracting natural gas from the Earth and providing us with fuel, has been hailed by many as a sort of “miracle” alternative to the damaging process of coal burning. Indeed, President Obama recently cited natural gas obtained through fracking as a “‘bridge fuel’ that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change”. Basically, until we can put in place clean, renewable energy systems, such as wind, water and solar power, fracking is a fantastic stop-gap.
But is it really as simple as that? Though fracking does undoubtedly have advantages over coal burning, it too comes with its own disclaimers and dangers.
What is Fracking?
Short for “hydraulic fracturing”, fracking refers to the process whereby natural gas, or shale gas, is extracted from the shale deposits in which it rests. This is done by drilling vertical shafts down into the rock, sometimes to fairly lengthy depths. Then horizontal shafts are driven at the base of the vertical shaft, and hydraulic liquid is pushed through these shafts. This causes the shale to fracture and the gas to escape to the surface, where it can be harnessed for energy purposes.
What are the Pros of Fracking?
Fracking is believed to be significantly less damaging to the environment. Specifically, this is because burning gas releases about half of the amount of carbon dioxide that burning coal does. Indeed, since fracking has taken off over the last 10 to 15 years in the USA, carbon emissions have dropped noticeably. Whilst this can in part be explained by the economic recession and the cost-cutting that goes with it, scientists believe that fracking is responsible for almost half of this dropped level.
Furthermore, shale gas is even cheaper than coal, and roughly one third of all natural gas produced in the USA comes from fracking. As such, it seems to be a perfect ‘bridge’ between fossil fuels and cleaner energy, allowing us to limit the damage to the environment (at a cheaper cost) while we strive to put more long-term strategies in place.
What are the Cons of Fracking?
Though it has its advantages, fracking is by no means perfect. As well as releasing natural gas, fracking also leaks methane into the atmosphere, which is itself a greenhouse gas. Because of this, the climate-change benefits of fracking might not be as wonderful as they seem at first glance.
Similarly, fracking also causes toxic contamination of underground water supplies due to the cocktail of toxins pumped into the shale during the extraction process. This is necessary to kill any bacteria present in the gas; however, the toxins can often escape back up to the surface, causing health concerns. Even more concerning, fracking companies are not required to disclose exactly which toxins they use when fracking. This, rather than being seen as a health and safety prerequisite, is viewed more as a trade secret. Basically, we have no idea what sort of nasty pollutants are being pumped into the ground. However, fracking proponent Chris Faulkner, known colloquially as the ‘Frack Master’ due to his outspoken support of the method, has done his utmost to allay these fears at every opportunity.
A third concern about fracking is that a surge in popularity for the method may not act as a bridge to renewable energy, but will in fact slow down its realisation due to the convenience of fracking and investment poured into it. Only time will tell; one thing seems clear, however: fracking is preferable to our current coal-burning habits.
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