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Moving Energy Policy Forward or Sideways? The Shale Gas Fracking Debate

There have been some stunning developments in world energy production over the past few years. Oil prices have fallen to around $50 per barrel, and some are projecting the United States to become energy self-sufficient by 2035. This is a major shift for a country that is the world’s biggest energy importer, currently importing about a third of its energy.

What is the cause of these seismic shifts in the energy landscape?A major reason is the emergence of hydraulic fracturing, aka “fracking” as a method to obtain gas deposits contained in shale rock (a contributing factor is OPEC refusing to prop up oil prices by cutting output as it has historically done). The U.S. is leading the adoption of fracking with shale gas climbing from just 1% of natural gas production in 2000 to 40% today. Many other countries are watching closely and may follow the U.S.’s lead (other countries with huge shale gas deposits include China, Argentina, Algeria, Russia, France, and Poland).

However, fracking is not a panacea, and people have serious concerns. Being informed about energy policy is becoming increasingly important for the public, governments, and organizations, as we make decisions with large economic and environmental impact. If you would like to learn more about fracking, you can sign up for a free online course, Shale Gas and Fracking: The Politics and Science, offered via Futurelearn and taught by Professors Sarah O’Hara, Mat Humphrey and Will Knight, at the University of Nottingham.

What is “Fracking”?

Professor O’Hara, who teaches in the School of Geography at the university, gives us a brief definition of fracking, and explains its emergence:

Fracking is a process whereby we try to release the natural gas that is trapped within sedimentary rocks.  Developments in drilling technology mean that directional drilling is now possible. Combining this technology with improvements in  hydraulic fracturing means that we can now access  deposits that were inaccessible or uneconomical to mine in the past. Hydraulic fracturing pushes water, sand and chemicals into shale rock and splits open the laminations and allows natural gas to be released. It is not a new technology, it was first used in Unites States  in 1940s and it’s been used to improve yields from oil and gas wells ever since. They used to just drill down, but now they can change the direction of the drill to actually turn a corner and drill horizontally. That single advance in technology has allowed us to access and extract shale gas out of formations that we could not previously drilled.

Natural gas, compared to other fossil fuels, notably coal and oil, is generally cleaner 

This illustration shows the process of fracking a well. It is a relatively low-cost method to extract gas, requiring a small amount of equipment and space. Thus, there are many smaller operators in the fracking industry, with wells that are popping up at a rapid pace.

So What’s Wrong with Fracking?

Producing natural gas has some benefits over using other types of fossil fuels: it provides more energy per unit of fuel, and is generally cleaner than coal and oil, producing fewer pollutants. However, many people, groups, and governments have significant concerns about fracking. Professor O’Hara groups these into three areas:

•    Fracking negatively impacts local communities. Although the wells are relatively small, there are many of them, and some of the initial resistance to fracking was in the noise, traffic, and lights that were the result of operating so many wells. This is counterbalanced by the fact that much of the shale gas is in less populated areas, particularly in North Dakota, as you can see in this dramatic night-time view of the U.S.

•    Fracking results significant environmental harm. Here is where the major concerns are. There have been incidents of pollution of sources of drinking water by natural gas or the chemicals used in the fracking process. The groundwater that results from fracking may have heavy minerals and is mixed with the fracking chemicals, and this has to be treated or disposed of safely. However, there are not always strong regulations in place, and not every company follows them. Professor O’Hara notes: “you only need one company that decides to cut corners which can result in a significant incident and set back the industry.” Another possible concern is the link between fracking and an increase in seismic activity. Last year, the state of Oklahoma (not normally earthquake-prone) had over 500 small earthquakes. Professor O’Hara posits that the common groundwater disposal method of re-injecting it into old wells may act to “lubricate” the rock layer, causing it to reverberate from seismic activity elsewhere. As the modern process of fracking is new, it makes sense that the long-term environmental impact has not been fully measured.

•    Fracking may displace investment in renewables. Fracking changes the equation in the cost of energy and the cost-effectiveness of renewable energy sources. This does cause a split of opinions among environmental advocates. Some feel that shale gas is a cleaner option than petroleum and coal, and so increasing our mix of natural gas should be encouraged. On the other hand, others feel that fracking will lower energy prices to an extent that will divert investment away from developing renewable energy. Professor O’Hara sums up this line of thinking: “We should not lose sight of the fact that while natural gas might be seen as cleaner, it is still a fossil fuel and with that comes some of the issues we have around potential CO2 emission and global warming.”

Gas might help us transit towards a low-carbon economy, but we should not allow it to replace the renewable agenda 

Thus, there are many areas of concern to weigh against the benefits of lowering energy costs and increasing the mix of natural gas in our energy use. A major influence in the discussion about the downsides of fracking is the 2010 documentary ‘GasLand’, though some of its claims have been controversial.

Sarah OHara Clip 1 Difficult Energy Decisions

Prof. O’Hara on the Need to Think About Our Energy Future

Take Part in the Discussion through the MOOC

The four-week free course is meant to provide context and education around shale gas and fracking, and then foster discussion among participants regarding their opinions on this topic. Though some UK-specific issues will be addressed more fully, particularly research on the UK public’s opinion on these matters, the topics are relevant for people from all areas of the world interested in learning more and sharing their thoughts. Professor O’Hara expressed her goals for the course:

We want to hear from people what their views are, and listen to opinions about why we should or should not extract shale gas. I am using the MOOC for research and as a tool to facilitate debate and discussion. I am hopeful that the debate is done in a way that people who do not know much about this learn something and then are able to express their views and challenge things.

Is shale gas and fracking taking energy policy forward? Or, like the innovation in drilling technology, is it just moving sideways, and delaying or disrupting what we need to do in order to pursue a sustainable longer-term strategy? To learn more and take part in the discussion, sign up for Shale Gas and Fracking: The Politics and Science, which starts Feb. 2.