Fracking has become a hot topic in recent years – with politicians and campaigners engaged in fierce debates about whether it should be used and, if so, how and where. But, what is it and how might it impact upon jobs in the oil and gas industries?
Fracking – or hydraulic fracturing – is the process in which energy is extracted in the form of gas from shale rock. This is done by drilling down into the earth and then injecting a high-pressured water mixture into the rock to release the gas inside. It’s actually been around a long while but, partly thanks to high oil prices, has grown in use in the last few years.
It has, it’s fair to say, proven divisive. Some view it as a method of discovering a cheaper source of energy – which would disrupt the traditional oil and gas industry – but others see it as dangerous and guard against deploying it.
Currently in the UK, concern from activists and scientists has meant that fracking has lagged behind levels seen in other countries, especially the United States which, according to the New Scientist, produced about 60% of its natural gas from shale in 2016.
But, is the UK even the right place for fracking? One geologist from Heriot-Watt University in Scotland reckons we could be 55 million years late when it comes to looking for big reserves of gas in shale rock.
John Underhill told New Scientist that the conditions might be right in some local areas, but points out that Britain was lifted and titled around 55 million years ago, meaning that the rock formation isn’t right for industrial scale fracking of the sort that could have any real impact on jobs in the traditional oil and gas industries.
In essence, these questions need to be addressed by exploration. As the Government notes, scientists from the British Geological Survey have estimated that the total volume of gas in the Bowland-Hodder shale in northern England is 1300 trillion cubic feet – but testing and exploration is needed to estimate how much gas could be produced here.
Geological and scientific questions are top of the list to be addressed but after that the public needs to be won over and the politics of this are tricky too, with many communities already voicing their concern about accepting fracking in their area. This is also wrapped up in economics – the money has to add up when it comes to investing in the technology and the price paid by consumers in their energy bills.
This backdrop tends to suggest that fracking is not suddenly going to be a big player in the UK overnight – where oil and gas is worth about £73 billion and the key questions are how this is maintained after Brexit. Still, with exploration under way, fracking is not going to go away. The challenge for the coming years is to overcome the scientific, economic and political hurdles in front of it.