Hydraulic fracturing otherwise known as ‘fracking’ has caused a lot of controversy in the UK over the last few months. The extraction of unconventional gas has been welcomed by the energy industry and many people in the government. Yet, activists and many UK citizens seem to be sceptical as to how beneficial fracking really is as it brings up both environmental concerns as well as questions about basic human rights.

Fracking is a way of extracting shale gas by drilling water, sand and a mixture of chemicals under high pressure into the ground. It has been used off shore in North Sea oil and gas fields since the 70s but has made headlines a few years ago when onshore gas wells became a point of discussion. Shale gas is an unconventional fossil fuel which raises the hopes of many who strive for a less import-driven economy in the UK when it comes to gas.

Earlier this year David Cameron maintained that energy independence from other countries ‘[s]hould be a tier-one political issue from now on, rather than tier five’. Whilst asserting that fracking would be good for the UK economy the Conservatives claim that the long-term goal of a greener future for the energy industry has not been forgotten. Instead, fracking could be regarded as a somewhat intermediate step between the use of conventional fossil fuels on the road towards renewable energies. Such notions of optimism do, however, leave room for a good amount of scepticism.

Firstly, while the potentially negative impact of fracking on the environment still need further research, there have been doubts and various observations of health risks in connection with the effect that fracking had on local communities. Greenpeace has released a report mentioning that there have been about seven incidents of children gagging in areas close to fracking sites in the US, for example. Pollution caused by fracking might even have an impact on livestock in surrounding areas. It is believed that the quality of drinking water in many US states has been affected by fracking.

Another big concern is water and air contamination. Environmentalists stress that there is a high risk of polluting groundwater through chemicals which are drilled into the gas wells and contaminating air through methane emissions. It is suggested that the release of volatile organic compounds and pollutants occurs especially as a result of bad practice and poor regulation. Yet, whether environmental pollution and health risks are caused by fracking directly or rather by accidents of handling the procedure badly, might not even be of much importance here as health risks persist either way. The sparkling image that Cameron and co. are trying to create of fracking UK land is seen as nothing more than a fairy tale by opponents.

Cuadrilla, the first company to use hydraulic fracturing in the UK, claims that water contamination can and will be avoided and is keen on promoting environmental protection on their website. While worries about contaminated water are something that many people have, they are also upset about the amount of water which will be wasted in order to make fracking happen in the first place. To frack one well means to use about an average of seven olympic-sized pools. It is questionable whether such a strain on our water resources can be ethically justifiable.

The big elephant in the room remains climate change. Does the use of shale gas reduce carbon emissions? The prime minister has stated confidently that shale gas is indeed greener than gas that’s traditionally been imported to the UK. According to research by the Department and Climate Change the difference in greenhouse gas emissions is minimal though. Whereas shale gas as such might produce slightly lower emissions, the overall effect on climate change could possibly be all the more devastating if its production experienced a boom. Instead of being a replacement for old ways of gas and oil extraction, hydraulic fracturing might rather contribute as an addition to our current energy consumption.

The optimism of ‘working towards a greener future’ next to the independent production of natural gas as expressed by Conservative energy minister, Matt Hancock, could lead to a misinterpretation of the dangers involved in boosting fracking. We are in the wake of anti-climate change policies with an ambition to make the use of gas for heating redundant by 2050. Applying new means of mass production in natural gas is therefore seen as counterproductive by activists. Instead of capping emissions it is likely to open up another dimension of putting our climate at risk. It is possible that the overall carbon emissions in the UK might rise as a result of fracking – to a point where many experts believe that climate change could soon be unavoidable.

As far as the environment goes, the reasons to stay critical towards fracking are numerous. Yet, it doesn’t end here. A new law is currently underway that intends to allow companies to frack under people’s land without their permission. An intrusion into democratic rights on that scale makes fracking not only an environmental issue, but a civic one as well. According to Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, this ‘shows that ministers are putting the greed of oil and gas companies above the public interest in tackling climate change’.

In terms of respecting people’s rights to health and democracy fracking plans can indeed be seen as disappointing. For those who are worried about our economy and the creation of jobs, perhaps it is time to start focusing on a new and much more promising market – renewable energy.

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