Over the last few days there have been headlines, articles and opinions galore about the discovery of a significant oil resource in the Weald Basin in Sussex. Hydraulic fracturing, (fracking), has experienced similar attention in recent years, and is considered to be a likely method of extracting the oil around Gatwick. But beyond a quick glance at the headlines, what’s the deal with this new oil resource, and the fracking industry?
“100 billion Barrel Oil Reserve”
It has been known for years that the Weald Basin contains oil, and it was big news on Thursday that 100bn barrels (1 barrel being around 164 litres) are held there. But there is a lot more to this claim than the headlines suggest. The company responsible, UKOG, estimates a resource of 50-100bn barrels, and expects that 3-15% can be extracted. So in terms of oil which could be recovered, the lowest volume would be 1.5bn, and the highest around 15bn barrels.
The amount of oil reported by UKOG is contested - the British Geological Survey had previously estimated 4.4bn barrels, and experts at Imperial College had suggested around 40bn barrels. For comparison, the North Sea has produced around 45bn barrels over 50 years, so the Weald Basin is a significant find either way. UKOG believe that this resource can provide 10-30% of the UK’s oil demand by 2030.
UKOG say this oil could be extracted without resorting to fracking, as the rock is already fractured. Others believe fracking is the only viable method of extraction. It’s too early to say which method would work, and the extent to which any drilling would take place, but either way it is important to understand the process of fracking and its effects.
Fracking Confusing? An Overview of Hydraulic Fracturing
The word fracking is thrown around a lot, and gets brief mentions and features on news programs, but many of us still aren’t sure on the science involved. Fracking extracts oil and gas contained within tiny fissures in the rock. It entails vertical drilling, then, deep underground, a switch to horizontal drilling. High pressure water is released into the fissures, widening them. Small grains (proppants) are carried in the water, and prop the cracks open. Chemicals are present in the water mixture to carry out functions such as reducing the effects of friction and corrosion on the equipment. With the rock broken up, the oil or gas is released, and is then transported back up to the surface.
The process has been extensively used in the USA, where upwards of 2 million wells have been hydraulically fractured. The USA has become the largest producer of natural gas in the world, and it’s predicted that, largely due to fracking, their gas production will rise 56% between 2012 and 2040. It’s been predicted that it will also be the largest producer of oil by the end of the decade.
Fracking evokes strong opinions – on one hand, it can hugely reduce reliance on imported energy (especially important considering the political situations in exporting countries), and provide jobs and an economy boost. These arguments are fairly simple to understand and covered extensively in news stories – it is the arguments against which aren’t always well understood, with many people wondering whether those campaigning against fracking are being sensationalist or short sighted.
Concerns about earthquakes and carcinogenic chemicals being leached into water supplies are widespread, yet sparingly understood. There are many figures and reports on both sides of the argument - unfortunately it’s not clear cut - with it being a fairly new technology, the long term effects aren’t yet known. Earthquakes of magnitudes 2.3 and 1.5 on the Richter scale were attributed to exploratory drilling in Lancashire. These are incredibly small, but there is a risk there and only a small number of trials have been carried out in the UK, so the level of this risk is unknown. Fracking sites can also be affected by large earthquakes thousands of kilometres away, triggering many small earthquakes around drilling sites.
Fracking, by nature, uses huge amounts of water. This can be split into two problems – the amount of energy used to transport large amounts of water is similarly large, and as a result of this CO2 could be emitted at a fairly serious scale should fracking become commonplace. The other issue is that water politics are complicated enough as it is, without choosing between providing energy or drinking water - even within highly developed countries it’s a big issue – the South East UK is considered to be under water stress already, and there are a lot of problems in California.
Climate change is also an important consideration when making decisions on fracking. With most governments agreeing that the global temperature can’t rise by more than 2°C, studies have shown 80% of known fossil fuel reserves can not be burnt. Obviously, fracking is far from the only cause of climate change, but exploration into new resources, such as the Weald Basin doesn’t fit in with governments’ pledges to limit climate change.
Fracking doubtlessly offers a new alternative and increases fossil fuel supplies, but the fact remains that the oil and gas open to fracking are still finite resources, and can’t be an indefinite solution. As a short to medium term solution it has potential, and has certainly started something of an energy revolution in the USA, where it has greatly decreased the demand for imported fuel. The environmental concerns are many and varied, and perhaps should be looked into more than they tend to be.