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Tiki's Quick Guide to Fracking

  You'll probably have heard about fracking. But what is it? Is it good or bad? Does it cause more pollution? Does it add to climate change? Or is it just another source of energy? There's even a song about it! In this mini-guide, I'll answer these questions. But first, check out my slideshow to get some idea of what fracking is and what many people around the world think about it.  

What is fracking? It's a way of squeezing yet more fossil fuels out of our planet. The word 'fracking' comes from 'hydraulicInformationWhat does 'hydraulic' mean?Hydraulic means using a fluid, usually water, to transmit a force. A car's braking system is operated by hydraulics and there are thousands of other uses. In a car when the driver pushes on the brake pedal, she is pushing a small piston in a cylinder filled with fluid. The force she exerts on the fluid runs through metal pipes to small cylinders and pistons on each road wheel. The movement of the pistons forces the brakes to apply and slows or stops the car fracturing'. The fuel in question is usually called 'natural gas' or just 'gas'InformationGaseous confusionNot to be confused with gasoline, often just called 'gas' too but gasoline is a liquid fuel - also called petrol - which is what most cars run on. Confusing, isn't it!.

Normally, natural gasInformationWhat is 'natural gas'?It is a gas called methane made up of chemical elements carbon and hydrogen. That's why it's called a hydrocarbon. This gas burns very well in air and so people use it as a major source of energy comes out deep boreholesInformationalso called a 'well' (as in 'oilwell') drilled to get at underground reservoirs of the gas (and usually oil too). The gas comes to the surface very easily because it's at high pressure deep down. If you shake up a bottle of fizzy drink and then take the top off, the frothy gas comes gushing out. Natural gas from a normal drilled well behaves just like this. But petroleum geologistsInformationWhat are petroleum geologists?'Petroleum' means 'oil' and a geologist is a scientist who understands about rocks in the Earth's crust and, in particlar, how to find oil and gas deposits deep underground have discovered that there's a huge amount of natural gas trapped in rocks called shaleInformationShale is a sedimentary rock. It started off as mud when it formed millions of years ago, usually on an ancient seafloor. Over time and with the weight of all the later sediments (like sandstone or limestone) above it, it has turned into a rock; a process called lithification. If you bore a hole through it, the gas doesn't come out. You know it's there so how do you get it out? This is where fracking comes in.

Petroleum engineers have become very smart in the way they can InformationAbout drillsDrills are tools which bore deep holes in the rocks in order to get at valuable stuff like water, oil or gas. The drill has a special cutting 'bit' on its end and is connected by an ever-longer set of metal rods back up to the surface. Here, machines spin the rods round to make the bit far below spin and so grind its way through the rocks. As the drill bores deeper, engineers at the surface drilling rig fit more rodsdrill holes deep into the rock formations which lie beneath our feet. They can now get the drill to bend round so that it can chew its way at any angle, even flat (horizontal). This means they can accurately drill for a long way through a flat-lying 'bed' of shale with the trapped gas in it deep down below. What's more,they can repeat this in different directions from the main borehole at the surface. Then the fracking starts. Engineers first must carefully 'case'InformationWhat is casing?Casing in made of a series of steel pipes which line the well to prevent the escape of fracking fluids and gas. The steel casing is usually made stronger and more leak-proof by injecting concrete the well to prevent leaks and pollution of water-bearing rocks at shallower levels. Then they pump a fluid — water with sand and special chemicals in it — at very high pressures through the holes they have drilled in the shale deep below. This actually breaks up the shale by making lots of tiny fractures. Because the fracking fluid contains sand grains, the fractures can't close again because the sand grains prop them open. When the fracking is completed, the shale gas begins to flow out of the fracked rock bringing the fluidInformationThe fracking fluid has to be separated out and stored in tanks or ponds so that it can be treated by having pollutants removed with it. Some shales are rich in oil so oil is released as well as gas. And that's it. The shale gas, as it is called, is then pumped along pipelines to wherever it's needed just as with 'normal' natural gas.

Is fracking good or bad? As you'd guess, there are two sides to this. Some people think it's wonderful and others think it's going to be a disaster. Let's look at the good points first.

Fracking: the good stuff

shale gas is the same as 'normal' natural gas: methane, and is the cleanest — least polluting — of all the fossil fuels

  Coal not only makes more than double the carbon dioxide — CO2 — pollution for the same amount of heat, but adds a toxic cocktail of other pollution too (sulphur dioxide, radioactive ash, mercury). So although coal is a filthy fuel, it powers 40 per centInformationInternational Energy Agency figures of the world's electricity generation and looks set to increase. China alone burnt 3.8 billion — 3,800,000,000! — tons of coal in 2011, not much less than the whole of the rest of the world which guzzled 4.3 billion tons. That's well over 8 billion tons of coal burnt every year and going up: that's around 23 billion tons of the main greenouse gas CO2 vented into Earth's atmosphere — a scarily huge amount of pollution. If all that energy came from shale gas, then pollution would be slashed by more than half. That's got to be good, hasn't it?  

shale gas resources are vast and push up the world's total reserves by almost half (around 650 trillion cubic metres or 23,000 trillion cubic feet)

countries like the USA can reduce their dependence on 'foreign' energy imports

used wisely, it could provide a lower-carbon energy 'bridge' as people wean themselves off fossil fuels and on to renewables like wind and solar

And the bad...

fracking creates serious leaksInformationLeaky stuffOne estimate shows that between 4 and 8 percent of shale gas leaks away of methane, a greenhouse gas which is around 25 times more powerful than CO2. Eventually methane breaks down to CO2 and water vapour, both major greenhouse gases themselves

it can cause small earthquakes

it needs vast amounts of waterInformationTypically between 5 and 15 million litres of water per well, not good in an arid area like Texas in the USA or the Karoo in South Africa plus sand and many different chemicalsInformationMost of the commonly-used ones are harmless but the list runs into many hundreds, many of which are toxic. The fracking companies tend to be secretive about their particular injection fluid 'recipes' so it's hard to know what's going on. The sand and chemicals aid in keeping the fractures open so the gas can come out

some of this fluid may contaminate groundwater (drinking water underground) and the waste fracking fluids — called 'flowback' — can cause more pollution because they bring up from deep below stuff like salt, hydrogen sulphide gas and even radioactive radium

fracking also makes it possible to get methane out of deep coal seams and can be used to extract more oil from old oilwells and oilfields. Using more fossil fuel is not good when you think about pollution and greenhouse gases

because the USA has increased its use of shale gas to generate electric power by such a large amount, it is now using much less coal. Sounds good, doesn't it? But that coal is still being mined and sold to Europe which doesn't have so much gas. So as carbon emissions have gone down in the US, they've gone up in countries like Britain and Germany which have started guzzling cheap American coal. It's an unfortunate fact that electricity-generating companies will always burn whatever fossil fuel is cheapest. For now, shale gas is cheap in the US whilst coal is cheapest in much of Europe. So the mining of coal — the filthiest but cheapest fuel for most countries — continues to go up. This 'law of the jungle' where the cheapest fuel is always burned to make the cheapest electricity (never mind the pollution) is, to be fair, not entirely the fault of the generating companies. It's that no-one wants to pay more than they have to for energy and so they look for the cheapest supply.

  "If natural gas displaces coal, then fracking is good not only for the economy but also for the global environment. But if fracked gas merely displaces efforts to develop cleaner, non-carbon, energy sources without decreasing reliance on coal, the doom and gloom of more rapid global climate change will be realized."

Extract from The Facts on Fracking by SUSAN L. BRANTLEY and ANNA MEYENDORFF, New York Times, March 13, 2013



So kids: what do you reckon? You'll be the ones who benefit from fracking... or not. Why not add your view to my poll (right side of this page)!



Tiki's Fracking Video Theatre: how fracking works and reaction to it from environmentalists around the world

Hydraulic fracturing

Frack on or frack off: Can shale gas save the planet?

Fracking Resource.org

Frack Off Extreme Energy Action Network (UK)



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