Fracking- the risks, the current understanding and the plans to approve its use in the UK

Lay summary by Jonathan Longden

Unconventional natural gas development is a method used to extract fossil fuels such as natural gas from deep wells, which relies on methods such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, widely referred to as fracking. Application of UGD methods has grown significantly in the United States, which has led to a comparable interest growth in other countries. Views on UGD vary significantly between different countries, from outright banning to widespread usage, but the UK government have begun approving preliminary plans for exploration of potential sites, using these controversial methods.

Depleted fossil fuel reserves in sites around the UK have led to growing pressures to consider utilising other unconventional sources to safeguard economic security. Although methods such as hydraulic fracturing have in fact been well-established for decades, using them in combination with other new technologies in such a novel manner poses questions about their impact.

Current plans to employ UGD techniques necessitate the use of huge amounts of water, chemicals and sand, which are injected underground, into areas where the geology is far from fully understood. Chemicals associated with these processes have been linked to poor health and research has demonstrated a link between poor health and proximity of residence to the gas wells. In addition, it has been shown that UGD methods carry an increased risk of toxic contamination of freshwater resources and air pollution, which could also pose a risk to the health of residents in the region. One of the leaked and vented gases, methane, is a particularly potent greenhouse gas, which contributes to climate change. If UGD does lead to increased availability of fossil fuels, focus may draw away from the development of renewable or eco-friendly energy sources, which will only compound the environmental issues associated with UGD. Ecological and aesthetic issues associated with the use of large areas of land have been demonstrated, but perhaps more alarmingly, the triggering of seismic events has already been documented in the UK, as a result of hydraulic fracturing. Because UGD sites coincide with communities, a variety of social issues have also been reported by some affected members of the public.

In summary, the authors suggest a range of specific measures, which could be employed to assess the long- and short-term benefits and risks of UGD. Some claim that appropriate regulation of these practices, based on some theoretical research, would ensure safe practice if large-scale production were to begin. However, in such a fast-paced endeavour, it has been counter-argued that better-quality research based on real-world experimental evidence is essential if public safety, environmental health and social wellbeing are to be guaranteed, especially when such substantial gaps exist in our understanding of the technologies.

For further information

Read the Science of the Total Environment original research article which this summary is based on ‘Considerations for the development of shale gas in the United Kingdom(March 2015).

Visit the profile of the research ambassador, Jonathan Longden, who wrote this summary.

STM Digest is a collection of lay summaries published next to original research articles on ScienceDirect, provided free of charge, and accessible to everyone.

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