3 July 2013

As conventional sources of oil and gas become depleted, nations have turned increasingly to ‘unconventional’ (which is to say: difficult and expensive to access) forms of energy. Shale gas—natural gas trapped in the rock of black shale—is one of most significant of these. The process known as hydrological fracturing, or ‘fracking’, combined with the ability to more easily conduct horizontal (as opposed to vertical) drilling out in the field, has transformed a handful of countries, including the U.K., into surprise energy superpowers. To give but one example: one newly discovered gas field in northwest England promises to supply enough gas to meet UK demand for 64 years—and this is but one field amongst many that fracking has opened up in recent years.

The benefits of domestic shale gas are obvious. Countries once dependent on foreign sources of oil and gas can now fulfill domestic demand and potentially add to their GDP by becoming energy exporters. Proponents of fracking also point out that gas is better for the environment than oil or coal, generating lower emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide.

But while it might be somewhat better for the planet when burned, the process involved in accessing shale gas may well have terrible ecological consequences. Fracking has come to public attention because it involves the use of water—huge amounts of it, between five and eleven million liters for each well drilled (an Olympic sized-swimming pool contains 2.5 million liters of water). It is not just the amount of water used that’s alarming, but also what’s added to it to help break up shale and release the precious petrocarbons locked within. Fracking fluid contains toxins and known carcinogens, including methanol, ethylene glycol (a substance in antifreeze), isopropyl alcohol (a solvent used in a wide-range of industrial liquids, including cleaning solutions) and a wide range of other chemicals, most of which are never made known to the public. The worry is that these chemicals will find their way from fracking water into the ground water used for drinking, bathing and growing crops. Once there, it’s hard to know how or if these chemicals can ever be removed from the environment, except by making their way into the bodies of plants and animals around fracking sites.  

The consequences of fracking have become better known to general public through documentary films, such the 2010 film Gasland which memorably shows tap water near shale gas extraction sites across the U.S. being lit of fire, and through art projects that have sought to bring to the eyes of viewers a procedure usually hidden away in the hinterlands. Recent visual interventions, including HeHe’s Fracking Futures at FACT, have played an essential role in transforming fracking from an obscure engineering process into a practice about which we all need to know more about.