Frackin’ heck

Apparently, self-classification as a scientist brings with it some kind of assumption that you know stuff. Despite the fact I’m about as credentialed as Dr Nick from the Simpsons (“Hi everybody!” “Hi Dr. Nick!”) and do as much cutting edge science on a daily basis as Dr Dino and convicted tax fraud, Kent Hovind, people expect you to have a knowledge about stuff beyond the ken of the ‘lay person’, whoever he is.

It’s not that I know things, or even that I do science (in the meaningful sense) on a regular basis. The distinction is that, even as someone who works on the fringes of science and research, it’s about attitude, an attitude towards learning and reading about new things beyond the headlines and sound bites, into the underlying principles. Then, and only then, can an opinion be formed safely.

This isn’t an attitude reserved for scientists though, before I suffer from delusions of grandeur. Anyone who cares about being rational and skeptical could (and should) examine the evidence for any position and at least make an attempt to rationalise their viewpoint before speaking out. On issues like badger culling, GMO’s, embryonic stem cell research and euthanasia; there’s evidence to be read beyond the emotional appeal of fluffy animals, innocent babies and the dubious commercial practices of multi-national biochemical industries.

One issue lately that has become loaded with emotion instead of evidence, in the popular press anyway, is that of fracking. I’m a chemist, and not a very good one at that, not a geologist, so my understanding is limited. However, as a rationalist and skeptic, I felt obligated to read up on the mechanics behind it before formulating an opnion and I felt it only right to share that. Disagree if you want, but please do so after considering the evidence.

So what is ‘fracking’?

Fracking, or to give it its more technical term; hydraulic fracturing, is a process of extracting oil and gas from rocks. Simply put; you drill a hole into a likely geological formation and force liquid down a pipe into the rock. This splits the rocks with tiny cracks, along which the oil and/or gas can be extracted. It’s that simple. It occurs naturally all the time (albeit without the extraction of the oil and gas) and we’ve been inducing it artificially for about 60 years. In 2010, it was estimated that 60% of all oil and gas extraction worldwide was done through hydraulic fracturing. It’s not new and it was, until recently, rather uncontroversial (for an activity involved in the petrochemical industry that is).

Why all the fuss now?

As the price of anything is wont to do, the cost of fuel has increased over time. This is due to a combination of inflation, demand exceeding supply and the easily extracted (and cheaper) deposits being exhausted (you could insert the need for an increased profit margin in here too). Because the price of fuel has increased, the amount of economically viable resources has also increased; that is the resources that previously were technically available, but not worth the cost to extract. It’s the reason why all those predictions in the 1970’s and 80’s of oil running out in 30 years hasn’t come to pass – yes, with the price of fuel back then, it wasn’t worth drilling for the oil, but it is now. This means that oil and gas fields previously unusable are now viable. There’s been a measure of technological advances too, mainly in the type of liquid pumped into the rocks to do the fracking, but essentially it’s a question of profit versus cost. And the profits to be made are immense – if estimations are accurate, a field in Lancashire alone could provide the UK’s gas needs at current consumption for about 57 year. Such excessive estimates are probably hyperbole, done to satisfy investors and the stock exchange, but are still indicative of the potential in these fields.

These new opportunities though, instead of being in far-off Artic lands, or some tin-pot banana republic no-one cares about, are right next door to middle-class, affluent and, above all else, politically connected home owners. Instead of the environmental effects of fracking only being the concern of hardline greens who want to save the polar bear, or the lefty do-gooder who wants to feed the Africans, it’s now impacting Disgruntled of Tunbridge Wells. And he knows how to write to his MP.

Is there a problem?

Someone is drilling a big, deep hole to crack the rocks and pipe in a mix of acid, organic solvents and goodness knows what else and you don’t think there’s a problem?

Well, it’s not as simple as that. As mentioned above, we’ve been fracking for a very long time and built up a fairly good idea of what happens when we extract hydrocarbons like this. Environmental activists have raised the issues before, but it’s never really been taken seriously. Now, as fracking moves into areas with more political influence, these issues are more prominent.

The main problem is of the contamination of ground water. The drilling goes quite deep, far deeper than your usual groundwater level, and the fractures cannot travel that far up. Stories of tapwater being so heavily contaminated with methane that it becomes flammable is an issue brought on by the petrochemical industry but it’s not down to fracking, its due to inconsiderate drilling through much shallower sandstone rocks and releasing the methane that builds up inside those rocks naturally.

There’s also the issue of inducing seismic events; whilst this is a real issue, and earthquakes are something we shouldn’t really be attempting to create, careful analysis of the geology of an area, and cautious drilling techniques, limit any seismic activity to minor tremors undetectable to anything other than dedicated equipment. Like any industry, if its being done with a sense of corporate conscience, adverse effects should be limited. Humans have been messing around with our environment for ten thousand years. It’d be naive to expect fracking to be held to a standard that we don’t apply to other similar industries.

To put it briefly, fracking has environmental concerns, and some of them have the potential to be quite serious. But they’re no more critical than other industries that rely on the extraction of materials from the ground and, as usual, environmental concerns are balanced against economic gains. Whilst we’re still drinking oil and demanding plastics, environmental affairs are always going to be compromised.

So should I be for fracking, or against?

Do your own research, you lazy arse. Reading somone’s written opinion on the internet and basing your opinion on that alone is exactly what I’ve been trying to argue against, for frack’s sake. However, this is my blog post, and I’ve got the right to put forwards my own opinion. Do your own research, make up your own mind, but for goodness’ sake, make sure it’s informed. Even if you disagree with me, if you can back it up, I’ll respect that.

So what is your opinion?

Complicated.

Well, no, it’s a bit simpler than that. From a scientific and rational point of view, fracking is a useful and economically viable mechanism to extract gas and oil from resources buried deep underground. It has direct environmental and health concerns no worse than other techniques of a comparable nature and considerably less than things like strip-mining and deforestation. It also has the potential to reduce our reliance on sources of energy from nation states with a political point to prove and it could generate a lot of money and employment in those areas where the drilling takes place. I’d be quite hypocritical to oppose it simply because I live near a potential well-head, or I’ve got some social opposition to the motives and techniques of massive multinational petrochemical corporations. I’d also be foolish to support it, just because I like to drive my car and £1.35 is too much for a litre of petrol. My view point is this:

 

Why are we still digging up the remains of prehistoric plants and animals and burning them?

 

We have economical electric vehicles, we have synthetic plastics and medicinals, we have a pressing and urgent need to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we’re creating and we have no need to build vast fossil fuel power plants when there’s proven alternative technologies capable of providing all the energy we’d ever need, if only people had the willingness to support them.

Fracking may not be as bad as its detractors are making out, but the real issue is why we need to do it in the first place.