Despite the recent controversies surrounding Cuadrilla Resource’s drilling attempts in the UK and subsequent small seismic earthquakes, the effects of fracking in the UK are still relatively unknown.

Fracking firm Cuadrilla suspended drilling operations in Lancashire on 26 October, just 11 days after the company won a legal battle to restart operations against anti-fracking campaigner Robert Dennett. The British Geological Survey detected the earthquakes, which were classed as a “red” event on the Oil and Gas Authority’s traffic light monitoring system.

The process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves injecting water, sand, and chemicals into bedrock formation at high pressure to fracture the rock and release the shale natural gas or oil below. The process is used when natural gas or oil is dispersed throughout a larger area, rather than concentrated in one location.

Under current UK legislation, fracking firms must temporarily halt operations if an earthquake of a magnitude greater than 0.5 on the Richter scale is recorded. A 0.5-magnitude reading is considered to be the equivalent of vibrations caused by a passing vehicle.

According to Cuadrilla, every day of downtime costs the company £94,000 and these regulations could completely destroy the UK shale gas market economically.

On the other hand, environmental groups and protestors have long fought against the practice, and the recent earthquakes at Cuadrilla’s site in Lancashire, with a few measuring between 0.8 and 1.1 on the Richter scale, have fuelled concerns over the real effects of fracking.

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But should the UK be worried? Experts in the field give their insight into the effects of fracking activity in England.

Earthquakes are common in fracking, but not necessarily a danger

“ReFINE is neutral on fracking. We simply do the key research to answer the questions raised by the public. The implications of many small earthquakes due to fracking in [Lancashire], UK, is three-fold.

“Firstly, media reporting or the feeling of earthquakes creates concern with members of the public. Secondly, we need to know which faults are moving and that they have not impacted the integrity of the borehole and thirdly, the Carboniferous [drilling area] is criss-crossed with faults and therefore small earthquakes are likely to be a common phenomenon with fracking in northern England in the future.”

– Professor Richard Davies, Newcastle University and lead of the ReFINE Consortium.

Small earthquakes ‘can be canaries in the coalmine’

“The world’s leading climate scientists, through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in October issued a final call to save the world from climate catastrophe. Within days, fracking started in England.

“We all know we have to move away from dependency on fossil fuels. Yet this government is making that critical job even harder by encouraging the establishment of a whole new fossil fuel industry in England around shale gas. Scientists are very clear that globally we have to leave 70%-75% of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. So why on earth would we go looking for yet more?

“Some think fracking is needed to reduce foreign imports of gas. But research from Cardiff Business School shows that for it to reduce just half of our gas imports, over 6,000 wells would need to be drilled across England in the next 15 years. This will lead to industrialisation of swathes of the countryside.

“And since it restarted, fracking in Lancashire has triggered over 30 small earthquakes in less than three weeks. Some of these have reached a magnitude of 0.5M – the ‘red’ warning level which means work at the fracking site has to stop. Research from Stanford University shows these small quakes can be canaries in the coalmine – warnings of larger problems to come. That’s why the industry must be closely monitored. Frackers Cuadrilla want the regulation to be relaxed – but the government mustn’t change regulations because the industry is breaching them.

“People living nearby will understandably be worried. The government backed the wrong horse with fracking – for the people of Lancashire, our environment and climate.

“We have a choice to make: we can be serious about tackling climate change or we can push fracking. We can’t do both.”

– Tony Bosworth, fossil-free campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

Climate change remains the biggest issue

“Environmental issues that are specifically related to hydraulic fracturing include: water availability (usage); spillage of chemicals at the surface; impacts of sand mining used in the hydraulic fracturing process; surface water quality degradation from waste fluid disposal; groundwater quality degradation and induced seismic activity from injecting waste fluids into deep disposal wells.

“However, not all of these potential impacts occur at every site and many of them can be avoided or mitigated with the use of proper practices.

“Also, the number of studies on the environmental impact of fracking is still relatively small and no definite conclusions can be drawn. Nevertheless, France, Germany and Ireland have all imposed moratoriums and with fracking being banned in Scotland, this leaves England as one of the last parts of Europe where fracking firms are still actively drilling and hoping to frack.

“The larger issue is obviously climate change. Fracking is basically increasing fossil fuel supplies and, therefore, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

– Drs Peter Jansen, principal lecturer at London School of Business and Finance.

Technology can mitigate the environmental effects of fracking

“For the UK to make a comprehensive decision about fracking, more needs to be done to educate the general public. Although fracking could revolutionise the UK’s output of fuel, there are pitfalls, with environmental concerns about the practice at the top of the list for many people. In a survey of more than 1,000 members of the public, commissioned by Elementar UK, 74% of those that disagreed with fracking stated environmental concerns as their main reason.

“While there is no definitive way to ensure fracking remains completely safe, there are measures oil and gas companies can take to reduce the dangers presented by the process. For instance, monitoring water supplies around fracking sites, impoundments, and deep-well injections, as well as using technology that measures fugitive emissions and how much methane is being released.

“Technology, such as isotope ratio mass spectrometers (IRMS), has the potential to tackle some of the biggest challenges with fracking, by providing organisations with the means to maintain safety in and around the site, as well as in local drinking water supplies and the wider environment.

“IRMS can be used to identify what type of methane is leaking from a site, helping scientists to identify whether fugitive emissions are being caused by massive shale gas reserves, or by microorganisms inhabiting substances near the surface. This can help prevent toxic methane in shale gas reserves that could cause long-term environmental problems from escaping into the atmosphere.”

– Mike Seed, product manager at Elementar UK.