While the markets are enjoying the low oil prices, who is counting the environmental cost?
Fracking means 'hydraulic fracturing', the practice of injecting fluid into rock formations to extract methane by opening micro-fissures in rock by hydraulic pressure.
Hydraulic fracturing is a technique used since the 1940s to enhance the extraction of gas from deposits which would otherwise be unviable. In 'traditional' gas extraction, fossil methane gas is concentrated under pressure in oil-saturated rock strata. The gas is pressurised by the crust, and therefore exits under its own force when the retaining impermeable rock ceiling is punctured by a borehole. The effect is similar to the release of gas from the liquid when a champagne bottle is popped.
Many gas deposits, however, are not so conveniently structured. In these, the gas is dispersed throughout a rock formation, and will not exit by a simple process of releasing the pressure. In these cases, the gas needs to be encouraged to exit by special stimulation. The gas of this type is locked in rock formations such as shale and compacted sands, as well as coalbeds.
This procedure is probably the most environmentally damaging way to extract fossil fuel. So who is judging the balance between economic benefit and environmental damage?
Economic advantages: energy resources and employment.
Of the fossil fuels, methane is the cleanest. When it burns it emits less pollution than oil and coal. This is because it burns more completely, giving more heat per amount of fuel, and also because gas has fewer impurities than oil and coal. Impurities like sulphur are responsible for acid rain.
By utilising the gas reserves that are still in the ground using HF (hydraulic fracturing), the energy crisis (when people need more energy than is available, causing a large increase in the price of energy) can be delayed till cleaner alternatives are found. Fossil fuels will never be clean, but solar, wind and other renewable energies can be clean or almost clean.
Environmental: fracking is very damaging to the environment through the liberation of metals from rock strata during extraction, and its product is a fossil fuel.
Very large quantities of a toxic mix is required for HF (hydraulic fracturing). The flowback of this fluid may escape containment during extraction or storage, and enter the water system. The chemicals and heavy metals it contains are harmful to humans and ecosystems. Most of the fluid cannot be reclaimed after injection, and will remain a hazard underground, slowly escaping into aquifers, for generations into the future.
Fossil fuels are the problem that causes global warming by the release of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Since they are the problem, they cannot be the solution. The word 'cleaner' does not mean 'clean'. The fact that gas burns cleaner than oil and coal does not mean it is good for the environment.
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