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The issue of ‘Hydraulic Fracturing’ or ‘Fracking’ for short, has always been a subject of controversy and media attention. Regarded as both a panacea to concerns about energy availability and prices and conversely as an ecologically damaging, polluting and unnecessary industry. Renewable energy technologies are also often seen in very binary terms; as either an ecological panacea or as money making scams that damage landscapes. The issue of fracking vs. renewable energy is most definitely not a case of either/or. In order to evaluate the issues involved, what is meant by each term must be defined and the various benefits and limitations of each examined in relation to the wider energy context.
Fracking is a method of extracting hydrocarbon gas or liquid from a type of sedimentary rock called ‘shale’ deposits where it is trapped in very fine cracks in the rock. In conventional oil/gas wells it is trapped in a pocket below a layer of impermeable rock, a hole simply needs to be bored through this layer and the oil or gas can be pumped up to the surface. Previously, the inaccessibility of shale hydrocarbons meant that they were not viewed as a viable energy source. However, fracking uses technologically novel techniques to access them.
Initially holes are dug vertically to a layer of shale rock, the drill is then turned horizontally running for miles underground. Once the hole has been dug, “slick water” is pumped at high pressure into the hole forcing the cracks in the rock to widen. The slick water also contains small grains called “propens” [very much like sand] which hold the fissures open. As the rock is broken up, the gas is released and flushed back to the surface and captured.
Potential of the technology
Fracking technology has widespread potential for deployment in regions with relevant geological formations and, as a result, there is keen interest in many parts of the world. The technology has already been widely used in the United States with substantial short term energy returns. This success has further increased interest in using fracking in many countries concerned with mitigating resource shortages and for the potential economic benefits the technology could bring.
Constraints and Drawbacks
However, there are a number of constraints on the extent to which it can be applied. It is a very water intensive industrial process, which is likely to conflict with other land uses such as agriculture, other industries and domestic consumption.
Ecological and safety concerns
There are also a number of ecological and safety concerns that accompany fracking. With many reports of pollution caused by unsafe operating practices, as well as the potentially high carbon intensity of the fuel compared to renewables or even conventional gas extraction. Some pollution may stem from regulatory issues rather than necessarily with inherent issues with the technology; for example, ground water contamination is likely to stem from negligent operating practices. However, though the technology can provide domestic resources of gas, which when conventionally produced is a less carbon intensive fuel than others such as coal, when produced from fracking the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions could potentially equal that of coal. Fugitive methane escaping from fracking sites can also lead to higher levels of ground level ozone, which has been linked to reduced plant growth and could affect crop yields.
As well as environmental issues, fracking has also been seen to have adverse effects on human health. In April 2021, a two-year study in the US highlighted significant health impacts on people living close to fracking sites. A number of toxic industrial chemicals related to the process were found in urine samples. These chemicals can be traced to a wide array of health concerns including cancers and neurological problems. Studies have also found that radiation levels are higher in residential areas nearby fracking sites.
Concerns about the long term viability of the industry
Concerns have been raised about the methods via which fracking operations have been financed, with a substantial component of fracking companies’ profit margins being created by speculative property purchasing. The effect of an increase in domestic gas supplies within the United States from the fracking boom has also led to a perceived glut of the resource depressing domestic gas prices, below the cost price at which fracking companies can operate, causing great disruption in the sector and increasing the risk of future supply shortages.
Obtaining gas from fracking also has a very low net Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI). This refers to the amount of energy that can be obtained from an energy source in relation to the amount of energy that has to be put in order to obtain it. Shale gas yields a very low net energy surplus for the energy input compared to conventional natural gas production [See fig below].
In addition to a low EROEI and economic uncertainties about the business model, fracking wells have very high geological depletion rates compared to conventional natural gas wells. For example, the ‘Bakken Shale’, an area of the United States where extensive drilling has been undertaken has a very steep production decline curve [see fig. below].
In order to maintain levels of output for such a field this high depletion rate leads to what is known as the ‘Red Queen Effect’, where more and more wells have to be dug to maintain output. Whilst this can be continued for a period, there are limitations to this as local resource constraints limit the total number of wells that can be dug.
Renewable energy technologies are those which generate (primarily) electricity from replenishable resources such as sunlight, wind, geothermal heat etc. They provide a range of different technological possibilities to replace or complement energy generation from hydrocarbon sources; though each of these technologies has its own limitations for a range of social, ecological, thermodynamic and design reasons. Nuclear power will not be considered here, as though it constitutes a form of low carbon electricity generation, the supplies of material for reactors are finite and the complexity of the various nuclear tractor designs themselves – and the associated issues of safety – merit their own category.
Renewables also differ from fossil fuel energy sources in a number of ways:
For example, most renewable technologies can generate much greater amounts of electricity in particular areas than others due to local factors such as topography, levels of rainfall, sunlight etc. Solar power offers the most uniform potential for electricity generation [varying with latitude] and greatest potential electricity yield per area [see below].
Additionally, the energy efficiency and amount of EROEI that different technologies can generate differs between different types. Hydroelectricity generation for example, has a substantially higher EROEI than any current wind turbine technology. Many renewables are also relatively new technologies and the efficiency and cost of some technologies are changing rapidly. This combined with the fact that different technologies are best suited to particular geographical areas and country specific energy policies make a case by case examination of these technologies inappropriate internationally.
Fracking vs. renewables?
In the International Energy Context
Existing energy infrastructure is primarily engineered for power generation from fossil fuel sources, meaning that fracking can supplement existing power generation with less additional cost than many renewable technologies which may make it a more appealing investment. Fracking does however have the potential to cause severe localised pollution issues and does very little in real terms to reduce carbon emissions, which is essential to reduce the effects of human induced climate change and meet agreed reductions in emissions in many countries. If strictly regulated, fracking could provide a short-term supplement to natural gas supplies in a relatively safe manner for countries concerned about security of supply.
Renewables, whilst presenting additional engineering challenges to existing grid infrastructure, have the potential, depending on the maturity of the technology, local factors (geographic, infrastructure etc.) and its EROEI, to complement and eventually displace hydrocarbon-based energy generation on a large scale. For this to be realised it will also require financial investment and appropriate policy from governing bodies.
Overall, fracking can serve to extend supplies of current fuels, whereas renewables, in conjunction with measures such as energy conservation, can offer a much more long-term solution to the issues of reducing carbon emissions and maintaining energy supplies.
In the Energy Context of the UK
Though the UK has been able to significantly increase the proportion of electricity in the country generated by renewable sources over the last decade, it is still predominantly reliant on fossil fuels to provide the energy for its economy and the energy required for other uses, such as private transportation and domestic heating which are even more fossil fuel reliant. Natural gas is used for cooking and heating in millions of households, as well as in gas fired power stations to provide a lower carbon form of electricity generation than older coal plants. 
This increase in electricity generation demand on gas, whilst a cost-effective means of meeting carbon emissions reductions targets, requires a reliable supply. North Sea reserves have been declining and there is increasingly international demand pushing up prices. In previous years the UK government looked to fracking as a means of increasing gas supply. They encouraged the development of the industry with low tax rates and issued guidelines to companies who wished to operate in the UK. However, this was not sufficient to allay public concern regarding the ecological and health concerns.
In more recent years, the UK Government has turned away from the process and in June 2021 Environment Minister Kwasi Karteng claimed that there was no longer any interest in fracking in Britain. A study conducted in August 2019 suggested there was a lot less shale gas in the UK than anticipated and so the benefits of the process did not outweigh the negatives.
Recent Developments and the Future of Fracking
While no longer an area of interest in the UK, fracking remains relevant in the US as it has allowed the nation to become a leader in fossil fuel production. While Biden previously supported a ban on fracking, he has stopped short of this, rather pledging to work towards making the process more ecologically sound.
Following COP26, 2021 was a year in which greater importance was placed on moving away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. In the years to come we will likely see what impact this has on the use of fracking. However, it is clear that interest still remains, with major companies having been granted permission to commence new fracking projects as recently as October 2021.
Read more from the REI on the latest developments and updates in Renewable Energy and Green Technology: Electric Vehicles are Transforming the Transport Industry
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