What is fracking? A brief history

What is Fracking

What is Fracking

Fracking has been in the news a lot in the past decade, and it has plenty of supporters and fierce critics. Some think that the shale gas collection technique is the future, whilst others criticise it as a severe threat to the environment.

The process is called ‘fracking’ because it involves fracturing rocks by creating a large amount of pressure in them – a process known as hydraulic fracturing. It is a technique used to extract shale gas, a natural gas which occurs in shale formations.


How does Fracking Work?

Fracking involves drilling down into rocks, and filling them with millions of gallons of water, creating pressure in order to release the gas inside. The water, containing lots of chemicals, is pumped at a high pressure into drilling pipes, in order to widen fractures in the rocks, and allow the gas to flow freely.

The process has the advantage of allowing companies to access harder to reach areas underneath the ground to find reserves of gas, though this venture is not without its risks.

The Fracking Process Infographic Diagram

Image: ECIU

When did fracking start?

The process of hydraulic fracturing first began in 1947, however, the first discovery of fracking’s possibilities can be found even earlier, in 1862. During the Battle of Fredericksburg, between General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac, a civil war veteran named Col. Edward A.L. Roberts witnessed the effects of explosive artillery fired into narrow canals which obstructed the battlefield. This process was later patented by Roberts, as ‘improvement’ – exploding torpedoes in wells in order to extract oil.

Fracking gained traction over the years, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that experiments began to try and refine the process. During this time, politicians were also instrumental in promoting the newfound drilling technique – Gerald Ford mentioned shale oil as part of a new energy plan in his 1975 state of the union address.

In the 1990s, American businessman George P. Mitchell pioneered a refined method of hydraulic fracturing, combining it with horizontal drilling to extract shale gas. The method has since been changed and in many ways improved, but it is Mitchell who is credited with this technique, which is still used today.

Where is fracking taking place?

Fracking has gained popularity in the last 70 years, with the fracking boom beginning in Texas, Kentucky and Virginia, before spreading to North America. In recent years, China and Canada have also conducted large-scale fracking projects. Large companies such as BP are now beginning fracking projects in other regions, such as the Middle East.

The process of fracking in the UK has been the subject of debate since planning for fracking projects began onshore in 2008. In 2011, the first hydraulic fracturing project, which took place in Lancashire, caused two minor earthquakes and was suspended early. Although the risk of a full-scale earthquake was later determined to be minimal, the incident inevitably lead to further scrutiny.

Fracking Protests New York

Protests against fracking have taken place across the UK every year, halting the progress of most projects in the country. In July 2017, one company even went as far as moving drilling equipment onto a fracking site at night to avoid protesters.

Advocates of fracking have recently reported that they expect to see breakthroughs in 2018, with the first extractions expected to take place early in the year, starting in Lancashire and North Yorkshire. Despite this, polls have reported that public support for fracking in the UK is at a record low.

Fracking in National Parks

The UK Government agreed in 2015 that fracking could take place in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and World Heritage Sites, at a minimum depth of 1200 metres underground. To this end, the government created the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil (now known as the Shale Gas Team) in December 2012, to develop the shale gas industry in the UK. To date, it is estimated that around 2,100 conventional wells have been drilled in the UK.

What are the dangers of fracking?

There are worries about the dangers of fracking from environmental activists, politicians and local residents where fracking takes place.

One key environmental issue surrounding fracking involves the contamination of water at fracking sites. Much of the water used during the fracking process ends up returning to the surface of the ground, and this water contains harmful chemicals. This means that the surrounding area is at risk of contamination, and the water cannot be easily displaced or cleansed.

Additionally, the large amount of water used for the process can mean there is less water readily available in the local lakes and rivers. Millions of gallons of water are needed for fracking.

Politicians have had mixed opinions on the benefits and dangers of fracking. After senior MPs in the UK called for a ban on fracking in January 2015, then Prime Minister David Cameron rejected these protests, saying that the success of shale gas in the US could be repeated in the UK. Then-chancellor George Osbourne reportedly appealed to ministers to fast-track fracking projects as a “personal priority”. The thumbs up from these key government figures happened at a time when hundreds staged multiple protests around the country against fracking.

In contrast, Theresa May, the current UK prime minister, has shown a lack of interest in fracking, and projects in the country have almost completely stopped up to now.

Does fracking cause earthquakes?

Since fracking began, critics have linked the process to an increased risk of earthquakes, and with good reason – fracking sites often see tremors caused by drilling. In 2011, a fracking site in Blackpool recorded tremors after a fracking project began in the area, before being called off. A study found it was “highly probable” the tremors were caused by the fracking, though sale gas operations have continued since.

Despite the process of fracking involving breaking apart rocks underground, this is not actually the reasons these earthquakes are caused. In fact, the millions of gallons of water injected into the rocks allow them to move more freely and eventually slip past each other. This seismological movement is what eventually leads to tremors felt on the surface of the ground.

Despite the risks involved with fracking, earthquakes caused by the process are understood to be rare. The environmental hazards mentioned above, such as contamination of water, are more likely to occur and are potentially much more dangerous.

What is the future of fracking?

Extraction of natural gas is expected to triple by 2020. This growth is driven by the countries who advocate fracking, but many still do not. Fracking has been approved to take place in the UK beginning this year, but this will be the first fracking project in the country since 2011, and activists against the process are still as forceful as ever.

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Daniel Cody

Daniel Cody is SEO Editor at the New Statesman, and the creator of No Majesty. He is the host of the podcast Britain on the Rocks.