Fracking under high pressure
A report published last week by Public Health England stated that fracking poses little risk to public health, so long as the process is properly practiced and regulated. The report focusses only on the public health risks emanating from chemicals and radioactive material, and stresses that the accidents which have occurred elsewhere are not likely to be repeated in the UK since we have such tight regulatory controls.
However, whilst this report might well hold some truth regarding the specific public health risks, it detracts from the wider environmental problems fracking faces.
Fracking is the process of extracting natural gas trapped in sedimentary rock miles underground. To obtain it, a drill will first bore vertically down through the earth. The hole is then lined with cement to avoid leakage of substances and extended in various directions through horizontal drilling.
To get the gas flowing, fracking fluid (up to four million gallons per well) which comprises of water and numerous chemicals, is pumped down the shaft at extremely high pressures. The pressure of the fluid creates cracks in the shale rock.
Sand, which is also pumped in, lodges in the cracks to keep the fractures open thus allowing natural gas to flow up the well. The chemicals perform various functions such as reducing friction and corrosion, stopping bacterial growth and stabilising the clay.
Under proper regulation, as the report states, this should pose no problems to health. Nevertheless, given its complexity and unpredictable nature, this can never be a risk-free process.
Few papers have actually been published on the health risks of fracking. Additionally, analyses tend to look at the implications of one ‘frack’ per site; whilst the reality is that an area may be drilled 12 or more times to get the most out of it.
A number of studies have suggested that the process is a source of both groundwater and air pollution. Dangerous molecules such as NOx and precursors of ozone may be released through emissions from the engines powering drilling as well as oil tanks, gas flaring, valve leaks and much more.
During normal fracking, some 70% of the fluid travels back up the wells and has to be collected, transported and treated. However, groundwater contamination can be easily caused by an accidental fracture in the cement lining of the pit or a spell of heavy rain, causing the flowback wells to overflow.
In addition, numerous environmental issues continue to shroud this subject; our unswerving reliance on fossil fuels, the processes’ enormous water demands and the danger it poses to our countryside. Despite the report’s calming efforts, many are yet to be convinced that fracking could ever be a healthy solution to the UK’s energy crisis.