Energy plan fuels great debate

Ian Rotherham.
Ian Rotherham.
Have your say

Fracking - it’s controversial, untested in Britain but it could spark a potential a £1 trillion fuel gold rush.

Protest groups don’t want it at any cost but the Government is keen and giant oil and gas companies are queueing up for licences to start work in some of our most picturesque spots.

Fracking rigs like this one are a common site in America

Fracking rigs like this one are a common site in America

But what is fracking and how will it affect people and the environment?

Fracking is the process of drilling into the earth to allow a high-pressure water mixture to be pumped into rock or shale to release the gas trapped within. Water, sand and chemicals are injected at high pressure which allows the gas to flow out and back to the head of the well.

Simple enough but by no means straightforward.

Those against it argue that the millions of gallons of water used and potentially contaminated in the process is too high a price to pay. They say that the chemicals used could pollute our drinking water supplies and they believe that extending our reliance on fossil fuels such as oil and gas only increases our reliance on energy sources that help cause global warming.

They insist that the development of renewable energy sources is the only way to build a safe and sustainable energy industry.

Those in favour of fracking say if it is done with proper safety and health safeguards in place it is safe and will help Britain fulfil its energy needs for the next 10 to 20 years.

With the Peak District and much of the old South Yorkshire coalfield potential sites for a future fracking industry, we ask two Sheffield experts for their views.

One is environmentalist and wildlife expert Professor Ian Rotherham of Hallam University, the other is civil and structural engineer Dr John Cripps from The University Of Sheffield.

The Star asked the two men five basic questions on fracking, the environment and safety. Here’s what they had to say.

What are the potential dangers caused by fracking in terms of the chemicals used?

A: Prof Rotherham: “What happens to the chemicals used in fracking? No-one knows yet. No-one seems to be telling us what the chemicals are. I’m not sure why they need to add chemicals but it has been suggested that they use diesel fuel. Surely not?

A: Dr Cripps: “I’m not sure what chemicals are used, if any, but they will have to be carefully monitored. We need to move slowly on this and get experience and do more research. There’s a lot we don’t know.

What might the effects be on buildings/land, bearing in mind the fears raised by the earthquakes that followed fracking in the Blackpool area?

A: Dr Cripps. There is the possibility of minor earthquakes being created and that needs to be carefully monitored and controlled so it does not get to that point.

A: Prof Rotherham: If you start disrupting geology you are going to start triggering things off. If you start pumping water under pressure into the geology it’s going to act as a lubricant and it could trigger more earthquakes. Maybe not major ones but there could be more problems.

Does the water and chemicals used in fracking threaten the water supply?

A: Prof Rotherham: There is a big question about the whole issue of water and fracking. How to get it there and what happens to it when it’s been used. We still have droughts and many areas are really tight for water supplies. The problem of dirty water from fracking leaking into water supplies has to be addressed. It might contain heavy metals and hydrocarbons which are toxic. We can’t have those in water. Like a lot of these questions we don’t know the answers.

A: Dr Cripps: It has been pointed out that most water supplies in this country are not derived from areas that contain shale. In most places it is apart from the aquifer (areas of water-bearing rock used for water supplies). Shale rock is normally deeper than aquifer. It is possible to seal the wells so water or chemicals do not leak.

How efficient is fracking in terms of producing usable fuel?

A: Dr Cripps: It appears to be very efficient. There is energy used in drilling, installing and running an operation like that but it seems the volume of gas you can get is very high. The Government seems to think so and I have no reason to suspect that they are exaggerating for a reason that is not apparent.

A: Prof Rotherham: The answer to that is that I don’t know and I don’t think anyone else does either. I’m sure the efficiency levels will be different in different areas. It won’t be the same here as it is in the USA and Canada I wouldn’t have thought, depending on the type of rock or shale. We did have people to answer these questions when we had mining and oil exploration experts at the University of Sheffield but those people are all retired now.

Are there any long-term geological implications that we know of now for areas where fracking takes place?

A: Prof Rotherham: We do not know what they might be but there will be significant implications. With this process you are impacting on the geology, cracking rock and pulling stuff out. It will definitely have an impact.

A: Dr Cripps: By monitoring very carefully the process within guidelines and using instrumentation to detect potential earthquakes it is possible to control that. Long term the fluid pumped in will occupy some of the space where the gas was and removing that liquid over time will mean that the space will close up. I don’t think that would have much impact. Removing those spaces may cause shrinkage but I think that would only have a small impact.

Would the world be better letting go of its fossil fuel dependency to concentrate on the development of more efficient renewable sources of energy?

A Dr Cripps: This is the point. Some people are saying this is just putting off the inevitable – when we have to find alternative sources of energy. But the energy gap in this country is serious and we are becoming very dependent on fuel from overseas. We mine very little coal and we have some gas and oil left in the North Sea but I think we have to be sure. We don’t know enough and we need to get more experience, do more research and have everything right before we get into fracking in a big way.

Prof Rotherham: The thing about energy is that we are using more and more of it. We use it up and it degrades and becomes heat and we wonder why the planet is getting warmer. I’m not saying this is inherently a bad thing but there is an energy gap in what we produce and what we consume and it is a bad thing to be energy reliant on other countries. I fear the politicians will rush in because it will get them off the hook. We just don’t know enough to be sure.