The UK could be on the cusp of an energy revolution. Is fracking the solution to the UK’s energy crisis or are the environmental and human costs too high? Yasminah Beebeejaun examines this contentious debate and the lessons from the US experience.

When Cuadrilla, the company at the forefront of developing fracking in the UK, was granted planning permission for exploratory drilling in Balcombe, West Sussex, the level of public opposition could not have been foreseen. By the time the company commenced work on 2 August this year, protests at the site were being reported on international media from Fox News to Al-Jazeera. In just two weeks, nearly 5,000 news articles on the Balcombe protests were generated. The local community formed an opposition encampment at the gates to the drilling site; they were joined by hundreds of environmental activists from across the country. The protesters gathered to slow down traffic to the site but as each lorry arrived, a strong police presence ensured that deliveries were made. In total, 125 people were arrested and it is estimated that the police operation will cost more than £3.5 million. 
Cuadrilla has now left Balcombe, stating that exploration is over, but plans to return in 2014 if the site proves commercially viable. But Cuadrilla and other companies that have been granted licences to frack in the UK will have to engage with rising opposition that directly challenges local and national decision-making. Unconventional hydrocarbon extraction, also known as ‘fracking’, is fast emerging as the most contentious issue facing UK environmental policy. Fracking is presented by the Conservative-led coalition government as the remedy to high energy bills and as a way to improve living standards for UK households in times of austerity. Shale gas is being promoted as a resource whose exploitation will ensure UK energy security and radically decrease energy costs for the UK, with few environmental consequences. Opponents cite the environmental cost of fracking: water contamination, landscape destruction, risks to human health, noise and the deterioration of the local area given the large amounts of traffic that will be generated. There is also, of course, the wider global challenge of climate change. Both supporters and opponents of fracking draw on the US experience as evidence for their opposing claims. The US experience provides the ‘evidence base’ used by policy-makers, politicians and industry to argue for extending fracking across the globe. But what lessons should we be drawing from fracking in the United States? 

The US Experience 

Shale gas has led to a radical reduction in energy costs for American households and industry. US gas prices have reduced from $12 to $3 per million British thermal units according to a recent Parliamentary report. The report also notes that a contributory factor to the US having the cheapest gas market in the world is due to being unable to export the gas (House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee, 2013). The US is increasingly dependent on the energy that the fracking industry produces: in the eight years between 2004 and 2011 there was a 75 per cent increase in its natural gas reserves due to fracking. When George Mitchell started experiments to release shale gas in the early 1980s, the revolution that he would start could not have been anticipated. In the face of declining oil and gas production, Mitchell invested in experiments to reach gas supplies trapped in the shale at deeper levels than more conventional reserves. Mitchell’s technology modified fracking techniques that had been developed in the 1940s to produce high yields of gas through the application of high pressure water, sand and chemicals. Although it took 17 years for his engineers to develop fracking technology in the Barnett Shale, Texas, the experiments paid off and now shale gas provides more than a third of the USA’s natural gas supplies. 
Despite the exponential rise in shale gas production and the lowering of household energy bills, fracking is not universally supported. There has not been an unequivocal ‘dash for
gas’ across the country. For example, the Marcellus Shale runs through the states of New York and Pennsylvania, amongst others; yet New York has a moratorium on fracking, whereas Pennsylvania is engaged in intensive drilling. Michigan is voting on impose a moratorium in late 2014. A number of states are concerned about the environmental risks of fracking, particularly to drinking water. Emerging evidence from the USA suggests the possibility of contamination that poses a risk to human health and has the potential to pollute water supplies. Two Cornell scientists have conducted studies into the health effects on humans and animals near fracking wells, and suggest that ‘without complete studies a ban on shale gas drilling is essential for the protection of public health’ (Bamberger and Oswald, 2013). 
Opponents of fracking are often derided as scaremongers, standing in the way of progress. But the UK and Poland are the only European countries to have expressed wholehearted political enthusiasm for fracking; other countries, such as France and Germany, have imposed a moratorium. Poland is reconsidering the viability of fracking after three companies (including ExxonMobil) withdrew following poor results for exploratory drilling. 

How Fracking Works

Fracking extracts gas from shale rock by pumping a mixture of water, sand and a combination of up to 500 chemicals that fractures open the rock. A vertical well is drilled down to a depth of one to two miles and a well casing installed. From the vertical well a series of horizontal wells are drilled along the shale deposits. High pressure water mixed with sand and chemicals is then pumped into the well. This creates tiny fractures in the rock and the sand in the mixture keeps these open. The gas is then forcibly released and flows back up the vertical well. This whole process takes several days to complete. As a consequence, the frack must operate continuously.
Although the technology was initially developed in the 1940s, current fracking processes are much more intense: a typical well requires two to four million American gallons of water for each frack. Whilst the percentage of chemicals used for each frack is somewhere between 0.5 and 2 per cent, the volume of chemicals can total between 15,000 to 60,000 gallons (Environmental Protection Agency, 2011). The fracking industry attempts to allay public fears by saying that many of the chemicals are used in the domestic household; however, opponents highlight the inability to validate this claim, since the specific details of the chemicals used are unknown due to claims for commercial confidentiality. More worryingly, media reports suggest that in a recent Pennsylvania case, a fracking company was been unable to provide a full list of chemicals used after a judge ordered full disclosure of the chemicals involved (Sheppard, 2013).
The British Geological Survey are currently reviewing the shale gas reserves in the UK. Figures for the size of reserves have varied from 18 months to 56 years at current gas consumption. However, only a small amount of the shale gas reserves will be extractable. These reserves are being promoted as the answer to high fuel costs but, as Lord Stern recently said, there is no evidence that the price of gas will reduce. The transparency of the UK energy market itself is questionable, given recent allegations of profiteering and price fixing by the six largest energy companies. In November 2012, it was announced that Ofgem, the energy regulator, and the Financial Services Authority were to investigate these allegations.

Community Benefits

The impact of shale gas on UK energy prices is unknown. There has, however, been some discussion about other potential economic benefits of fracking for communities. Prime Minister David Cameron mistakenly reported that payments to local communities could be as high as £1 million; current proposals are that a payment of £100,000 plus 1 per cent of the total revenues will be paid to local communities. These revenues will be administered through the government, because mineral rights in the UK are the property of the Crown. In the US, however, the landowners own the mineral rights and can share in the profits, subject to negotiation, with the fracking company.
The ‘community benefits’ argument is uneven, as the case of the Marcellus Shale illustrates. In New York state, where the moratorium stands, leases were signed in 2000 before the height of the boom, some for as little as $3 per acre and 12.5 per cent of royalties. Leases signed in the Pennsylvania state portion of the Marcellus Shale were a thousand times that of New York state landowners. However, even payments of 12.5 per cent of total revenues are vast compared to the 1 per cent being offered by the UK government. The government is entitled to take about two-thirds of the profits through taxes, but it is publicly consulting on reducing this figure to 30 per cent. Meanwhile, local communities in the UK will not be the major beneficiaries of fracking but will face the consequences of shale gas exploitation in their daily lives.
In addition to the environmental arguments about the technical processes, fracking has more quotidian implications. Water needs to be delivered to the site and waste water taken away, requiring thousands of tanker trips through populated areas and along rural roads. Some of the most significant concerns about water contamination are around the mishandling of waste water and chemical storage on sites. Studies in the US are largely focused on rural areas, where there is a small local population; fracking sites in the UK are different because our population is much denser, and the proposed sites are near to towns and villages.

Future of Fracking

It is important to note that commercial fracking is not yet taking place in the UK. As with all emergent technologies, the consequences are only partially known. No technology can promise complete safety. But the earth tremors that occurred in Blackpool following Cuadrilla’s exploratory work in 2011 highlight the uncertainties in working with a developing technology. As Frank Fischer observes in his discussion of sociologist Ulrich Beck’s concept of the ‘risk society’ and environmental decision-making, the development of technologies poses new risks to societies. Hazards and failures cannot meaningfully be anticipated in advance in the safety of a laboratory; instead, live experiments must take place in the ‘real world’ where scientists and citizens experience their outcomes – both intended and unanticipated. In the UK, the industry and the public face uncertainties as fracking moves to commercial production.
Balcombe’s residents – alongside campaigners at Banks and Lytham St Annes on the Fylde coastline, in Lancashire, north-west England – are expressing understandable concerns. One of the main issues they raise is that, by approving planning permission for fracking on these sites, their local government has demonstrated insufficient knowledge about this technology and its implications for the area. The growth of local expertise in relation to fracking is now directly challenging the limited capacity of the local government to make complex decisions in the field of energy policy.
The national government, meanwhile, is foreclosing debate through its enthusiastic support for fracking. Ultimately a debate that focuses on current energy prices offers a narrowly short-term perspective. As fracking proceeds in the UK, drilling rigs will become an increasingly familiar sight in rural landscapes. This is already the case in some regions of the US: in parts of Texas there are as many as 12 wells per square kilometre (Stevens, 2010). In the US, wells have been found to last for 8–12 years before depletion, with some remaining viable for just five years.
The unknown environmental costs and remediation of a technological revolution will be borne by future communities and governments. Opponents of fracking raise important questions about who bears the risks of environmental threats and how these decisions are made democratically. The focus on speculative financial benefits ignores these wider implications. The debate is far broader than a narrow focus on energy bills and encompasses longerterm implications for environmental sustainability, protection of the landscape and potential threats to water quality, our environment and human health.
Yasminah Beebeejaun is Lecturer in Urban Politics and Planning at the Bartlett School of Planning, UCL. Her research focuses on community engagement and empowerment.