Recent reports that the UK is going to join the ‘gas rush’ after large deposits of shale gas have been discovered in the Blackpool area coincides with New York state’s moratorium on the exploration of gas due to concerns that the recently developed ‘fracking’ process can pollute water courses (as reported in the Independent, Sunday 2 January 2011)

The process involves the drilling of wells, thousands of feet deep, followed by long stretches of horizontal drilling. Hydraulic fracturing – commonly called ‘fracking’ – is then achieved by the introduction of a liquid mixture of  ‘petroleum distillates’ (sand and water) to release natural gas trapped in the shale, by creating numerous fissures and destroying the shale’s micro-porous structure.

Although it is believed that the process is already producing around 10 percent of the natural gas supplied in the USA there is still huge controversy as to its environmental safety. Particularly the risk to groundwater drinking supplies has been noted – first, concerning the natural gas produced (people have reported exploding water taps!) and second, about the contents of the commercial ‘fracking fluids’. The oil companies involved with this technology regard the composition of these fluids for the ‘fracking’ process to be commercially secret. Sadly, given that the only petrochemical band by law in the US is diesel, any other petroleum distillate is fair game – so there appears to be little scope for transparency. Objectors have in the meantime suggested that some of the ‘fracking fluids’ used contain nearly a hundred times the concentration of benzene of commercial diesel. And, of course, as many people now know, benzene is a serious carcinogen. Lastly, there is also some suggestion that where contamination has occurred there is little available technology to clean up the damaged aquifers.

Clearly the US is split over whether the benefits outweigh the risks. Personally I have a more parochial concern. I live in the North West of England and know that not only our local drinking water needs but also those of the whole of the North West of England depend on the aquifers near Blackpool and along the Fylde coast, in times of drought, to maintain supplies. Contamination of these aquifers would be a disaster for the whole region, including Liverpool and Manchester.

We all have to hope that the UK in its rush for energy – especially now as it has been suggested that shale could produce 10 percent of the UK’s energy needs – doesn’t leave us with an environmental nightmare that makes the problems recently experienced by BP only a precursor to a much bigger problem, and one which is far more difficult to solve.

Update (15/11/2016): Featured image (public domain) added from this source.

Roger Ford

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