Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a technique designed to recover gas and oil from shale rock. The process involves drilling down into the earth before a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals are injected into the rock at high pressure which in turn allows the gas to flow out to the head of the well.
The term fracking refers to how the rock is fractured apart by the high pressure mixture.
Drilling for shale gas is at present only at an exploratory phase in the UK after reserves of shale gas were identified across large swathes of the country, particularly in northern England.
More than one hundred licences have been awarded by the government to firms within the UK, allowing them to pursue a range of oil and gas exploration activities in certain areas. But before firms can begin fracking they must also receive planning permission from the relevant local councils.
Today I was in Northallerton as I covered hundreds of protestors from local campaign groups such as Frack Free Ryedale who along with hundreds of supporters from around the country and neighbouring counties and from environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth had gathered outside the County Hall building and in the surrounding grounds to voice their opposition to fracking.
They gathered there as the North Yorkshire County Council’s Planning and Regulatory Committee met inside to decide on a fracking application submitted by Third Energy to frack at their current KM8 well-site at Kirby Misperton near Pickering.
The KM8 well-site has been located there for over 20 years during which time it has been producing gas safely and discreetly from the site. The permit applications will allow for fracking activities to be carried out at the site to evaluate the future potential of the shale resource to produce the gas stored there commercially.
Through the day the committee in Northallerton heard arguments both for and against the planning application. Due to the large number of those who were expected to attend the meeting to speak out against the granting of the application the meeting is expected to reconvene this coming Monday where the decision will be announced.
The opposition to fracking in this area, as in many others around the country has been strong and vocal and it remains a highly contentious issue with individuals, businesses and various environmental groups all voicing their opposition. However the planning officer for the council has already recommended that North Yorkshire County Council approve the application after various consultations have taken place with Third energy.
If the application is approved on Monday then the plan then would be to fracture five different zones at depths of between 7 – 10,000 feet below ground level to stimulate the gas flow. This gas would then be appraised to check the economic potential and subsequent gas production.
Any gas sourced at the site would be transported by an existing pipeline system to Third Energy’s gas fired power station at Knapton.
So are there any advantages to fracking?
Well the methods used to drill allow the firms to access difficult-to-reach resources of natural gas.
In the US where fracking is far more common it has significantly boosted domestic oil production and driven down gas prices. It is estimated to have offered gas security to the US and Canada for about 100 years, and has presented an opportunity to generate electricity at half the CO2 emissions of coal.
The industry suggests that the fracking of shale gas could contribute significantly to the UK’s future energy needs and improve our own energy security.
The Task Force on Shale Gas, an industry-funded body, has said the UK needs to start fracking to establish the possible economic impact of shale gas – saying it could create thousands of jobs.
So why is it so controversial?
The extensive use of fracking in the US, where it has revolutionised the energy industry, has prompted serious environmental concerns. Many areas within the US where fracking is practiced on a far larger scale have many and increasing reports of ill-health due to water contamination.
Fracking uses huge amounts of water, which must be transported to the fracking site by either truck or pipeline all of which comes at significant environmental cost.
Environmentalists say potentially carcinogenic chemicals used in the process may escape and contaminate groundwater around the fracking site. The industry suggests pollution incidents are the results of bad practice, rather than an inherently risky technique and claim that stringent guidelines and processes in place will reduce this risk.
There are also worries that the fracking process can cause small earth tremors and whilst the tremors caused near Blackpool by a fracking operation in 2011 by the firm Cuadrilla were very minor at around 2.3 and 1.5 on the Richter scale this remains an area of concern.
Campaigners say that fracking is simply distracting energy firms and governments from investing in renewable sources of energy, and encouraging continued reliance on fossil fuels and a further increase in already high CO2 levels.
There is little doubt that as far as the longer term effects of fracking are concerned the practice presents more questions than it answers. Mainly revolving around potential water contamination, increased CO2, the effects of chemicals from the process ending up in the atmosphere and more localised issues such as increased traffic disruption.
Whilst a single drilling site may not produce the same wider scale impact like those that have been reported in the US – our only real source of what fracking looks like on a huge scale – or indeed be the ‘end of the world’ scenario here in Yorkshire that some of the more extreme voices shout about it still raises the question of why, as a country, we should be turning down this road at all?
Just because we can doesn’t mean we should?
There are other avenues to explore that have less potentially devastating consequences if they go wrong? Other options that can be looked at to see if they work – solar power, wind, rain, tidal and geothermal heat all remain options to some degree and need to be explored further before they are disregarded as folly.
As I’ve discovered through research ahead of writing this post fracking is a complicated and divisive subject and will remain so for a long time to come but many say that this form of natural gas extraction should be a very last resort rather than the next step.
With the waters muddied by incorrect or mis-information, complex terminology, over-dramatising and scaremongering, financial interests, far left-wing agendas and less than honourable cross party political motivations from all sides and due to the simple fact of not knowing the long-term repercussions of the drilling method and the effects of the chemicals used then complete transparency and legal accountability at every stage is needed and should be demanded from everyone to avoid the gold-rush like chaos that has been seen in the US.
To frack or not to frack is not just about a small Yorkshire village in isolation. It is far bigger than that. The ultimate effects of fracking on the wider environment will likely remain for a long time to come.
Is that what we want our legacy to be? The final decision on the planning application on Northallerton will be announced on Monday.
The North Yorkshire County Council planning committee voted seven to four in favour of an application by UK firm Third Energy to frack for shale gas near the village of Kirby Misperton.
The application is the first to be approved in the UK since 2011 and the application was passed despite the presence of hundreds of protestors, who gathered outside the County Hall building.
Dozens of speakers attended the meeting outlining concerns over the hydraulic fracturing technique. Objectors raised fears about the environment, safety issues, increased traffic, the effect on the landscape, health and the potentially negative impact on the area’s tourism.
However, supporters – including experts in areas such as noise, water, ecology and landscape – addressed or dismissed the concerns, making statements in support of the application.
Environmental groups, local residents and anti-fracking supporters have said they will continue to fight against the decision.
I then took trip to Kirby Misperton in Ryedale to have a look at the area, the village itself and to see where the site is located…
For a further look at information about fracking and its potential effects I highly recommend watching the following programmes linked below: ‘Gasland‘ – an Oscar nominated film by Josh Fox on the impacts of fracking and ‘Fracking – The New Energy Rush‘ by BBC Horizon.