Science

Impact Climate Monthly: Fracking in the UK

As part of a new monthly online feature, Impact will be investigating the latest news, projects and discoveries in the battle against climate change.

One of the foremost debates in the UK at this time is the process of fracking and it’s consequences for both economic gain and potentially damaging environmental effects. Currently the debate is being framed using the example of the United States who have recently begun using the technology.  With a view to highlighting the importance of this topic in national debate there is the exciting development of a new free online course run by our very own University of Nottingham introducing this topic.

Fracking, more specifically known as hydraulic fracturing, is a process used to obtain natural gas or oil from within porous shale rock buried deep underground. Hydraulic fracturing first occurred during the 1940’s in Kansas. The process involved gasoline and sand being injected into a rock containing gas. Despite the limited amount of gas escaping, it still marks the first modern style use of fracking.

After drilling down into the Earth, a mixture of water, additives and sand is focused at rocks at high pressure, which consequently fracture them. Sand is inserted into the miniscule fractures keeping them open during the procedure. “Fracking-fluid” is injected into the holes which allows the gas/oil to flow freely out and be collected. The composition of fracking-fluid consists of a combination of additives that are still not entirely known.

The University of Nottingham is running a free online course in the coming months about fracking and the debates concerned with it.

At present, the United Kingdom’s electricity is primarily produced by burning natural gas and coal, contributing 47% and 28% respectively. On a relative scale, coal produces 1.8 times more carbon dioxide than natural gas. Fracking can provide more natural gas; potentially ensuring a reduced  demand for coal. Gas, it burns more cleanly contributing less to the greenhouse effect. Implementation of this technology in the United States has proved that fracking is certainly beneficial to consumers economically as the price of natural gas dropped by around 47% compared to predictions without fracking; gas bills decreased by $13 billion per year.

Conversely, fracking has many problems too. The first being the huge quantities of water required, approximately 4 million gallons per well are needed which in turn rely on 400 tanker trucks to transport the water to the site. Fracking fluid, as mentioned before, is a very covert topic within the industry. The composition of it is still shrouded in secrecy but the estimate is that around 600 chemicals are on a menu of potential additives, some are reported to be VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) and others may be toxins such as methanol. These chemicals may pose risks not only to the environment, but also through contamination into groundwater, and furthermore to the workers using them.

“Firstly, we wanted to learn more ourselves [the educators] and putting a course together was a good way of making sure that we did”

The University of Nottingham is running a free online course in the coming months about fracking and the debates concerned with it. The course is entitled “Shale Gas and Fracking: the Politics and Science”, and is available via the Future Learn website and runs for four weeks. No prior knowledge of the topic is required and at the end of the course there is an option to purchase a certificate of participation.

Professor Matthew Humphrey, the lead educator on the course, explains his reasons behind the development of the course. “Firstly, we wanted to learn more ourselves [the educators] and putting a course together was a good way of making sure that we did. Secondly, from what we did know we thought there was a good deal of misinformation out there, and we wanted to put together a balanced course that would reflect the latest scientific knowledge. Finally, we wanted to create a forum where people on different sides of the fracking debate could come together and communicate in a reasoned manner. So we solicited contributions from industry, from policy makers, from anti-fracking groups, and from independent experts”.

He goes on to explain the contents of the course: “We start with an account of what shale gas is, how it is formed, and what the fracking process entails. We then go on to look at the economic and energy security implications of shale, the possible environmental implications of its development, and finally regulation and community relations”.

“We were delighted with both the take-up (over 9,000 joiners) and the level of engagement”

The course has already had a first outing and on its success Professor Humphrey commented: “What pleased us most about the first run of the course was the way in which learners engaged, both with each other and with the experts that we brought in to our on-live discussions. Learners approached the course in a very open-minded manner, and engaged seriously with the learning materials. We were delighted with both the take-up (over 9,000 joiners) and the level of engagement”.

The debate around fracking will continue fervently, it has proven in the U.S. to lower the prices of fuel and acts as a bridge towards a carbon free fuel future, especially when compared to the dirty coals being burnt presently. However, there are many secrets to fracking that activists want to be made a public concern, such as the composition of the fluid used. There are also ongoing tests to prove whether or not fracking is responsible for a number of seismic activities in the United States. Currently there isn’t enough information for the public to fully make up their minds on the issue and thus more data is required before a  conclusive decision can be reached.

Luke Norman 

The course “Shale Gas and Fracking: the Politics and Science” opens again later on in the year. To find out more check out the hashtag #UoNShale on twitter.

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Science editor for the University of Nottingham student magazine IMPACT

One Comment
  • David Burley
    25 July 2015 at 12:20
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    3 points:
    1. Although ‘low volume’ hydraulic fracturing first occurred in the USA in the 1940’s the ‘new’ high volume version has been used in the USA for a little over a decade – and in the UK has been used only once in 2011.
    What is the difference? Here’s an analogy. If someone fired a gun, the bullet (low volume) might hit someone; it might not. But if someone fired a machine gun (high volume) the risk of injury is much, much higher.
    2. Energy prices in the USA have lowered because USA has been unable to export the shale gas economically, and a plethora of drilling companies have created more supply than demand. When USA’s liquification plants are completed gas will be exported and USA will see domestic prices rise.
    3. It is now questionable whether shale gas is a bridge to a carbon free fuel future. A report this week shows that USA’s reduction in emissions us largely down to a downturn in USE of fossil fuels – not a switch to shale gas.

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