Manchester’s city centre rattled on Monday 10 March as protestors gathered to show their opposition to the proposed regional development of gas wells for hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing (colloquially termed ‘fracking’) is a process of extracting natural gas captured in bedrock by pumping highly pressurized water into it, creating fissures that release the gas.
In January 2014 David Cameron, the prime minister, encouraged the European Union to embrace the means of energy production, citing the positive economic impact of the new technology. Similarly, President Obama stated in his 2014 State of the Union Address that hydraulic fracturing is the bridge fuel between fossil fuels and green alternatives. China, Brazil and India are all looking to expand their fracking industries. So what’s the deal with those hippies in Manchester?
Fracking is not without its benefits: burning natural gas emits half as much CO2, less than one-third the nitrogen oxides, and one per cent as many sulfur oxides as coal combustion. It also burns cleaner than gasoline and oil. The technology has already encouraged growth in the US economy, and would allow the EU and the US to lead the energy market as well as create new jobs and reduce transportation costs.
However, there are certain costs: a 2013 study of natural gas production conducted by the US Department of Energy estimated that increased development and exportation of natural gas would only increase its domestic commercial price. Additionally, natural gas is only cleaner than oil and coal at the point of combustion; the carbon footprint of fracking is essentially equal to the carbon footprint of burning coal. Fracking further contributes to greenhouse gas emissions as it fails to capture all the methane gas that is piped out through the well, allowing as much as eight per cent to escape into the atmosphere. It also poses a significant threat to our water supplies: not only does the carcinogenic cocktail that creates the bedrock fissures require a massive amount of water, it could, when combined with the released natural gas, potentially contaminate fresh groundwater. 44 per cent of the US population relies on groundwater for drinking while 75 per cent of drinking water in Europe is drawn from groundwater.
There are viable arguments both in favor of and against hydraulic fracturing. Obviously, we need to find an alternative to quickly diminishing fossil fuels, and natural gas holds the potential to meet the domestic energy needs of the UK. Fracking holds economic potential as well, and further regulation will make the technology safer. Ultimately, however, it is merely a short term investment in fossil fuels that delays serious action on facing the climate crisis. Mr Cameron and Mr Obama say they understand the concerns of environmentalists, but the reality is that they only speak of alternative energy sources within the context of our current system.
Environmental impacts aside, fracking represents an important challenge we face in the 21st century: the normalisation of exorbitant energy consumption. We don’t need to rethink how we are going to power our homes and cars, we need to recognize that way of life is fundamentally unsustainable. We not only need alternatives to fossil fuels, we also need to change our consumption-based mentality. We don’t need a bridge technology, we need serious commitment to facing the climate crisis. We only have one opportunity to address the threats our planet faces, and we cannot miss this moment. As Dr Seuss reminds us, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better – it’s not.”