What the Frack?

You might have heard about protests against fracking already. Romania is the most recent case of big protests this week, where an American gas company has started to explore their big reserves which may consolidate the country’s role as the largest gas producer in Central-Eastern Europe. But at what cost? What are the negative effects of Fracking?


Since the industrial revolution, our energy consumption has increased unceasingly. For many years this energy has been mainly produced by combustion of fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas. After exhausting most of the natural conventional reserves around, every day many European countries look for more and more costly importation trades. Prices are reaching never-seen values, beacause of this new extraction techniques -with extra costs- have now started to become profitable. One of these methods is hydraulic fracture: ‘fracking’.

Photo by: ebachetti

What is fracking about?

Shale gas is natural gas in sand or shale horizontal-layer formations. It is usually trapped, so conventional vertical drilling does not work. To make it easier to understand, imagine this: you have a cake and you love icing. So you first go for the top of the cake and since it is easy to reach, you eat all the icing pretty quickly, but you want more.

All that is left is a thin layer right in the middle, and if you drill a hole down into the cake you will only intersect a tiny little bit of icing, but if you have the capability of going down till that layer of the cake and then go sideways: you are in business. The current fracking method combines horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracture. The hydraulic fracture makes it possible to get the horizontal layers of gas out, by injecting huge quantities of water mixed together with sand and some chemicals under incredibly high pressures to crack over the rocks which keep the gas trapped, allowing to pump it up to the surface.


Why is fracking that controversial?

  • As we said, huge quantities of water are transported (an average of 7-8 million litres, similar to a daily consumption of more than 60.000 people)  and pumped into the ground, with a significant environmental cost.
  • Together with the water, thousands of litres of chemicals (some of them very toxic and potentially carcinogenic such as benzene) are also pumped underground to facilitate the process. Even though the majority of the fluid is pumped out again, some of the chemicals stay behind (or might even flow somewhere else). This used water is so contaminated that it cannot even be cleaned in a treatment plant nonetheless, often -after the gas source is exhausted- the used liquid is pumped back inside and ‘sealed’.
  • Not only these chemicals, but also gases like methane, may dissolve in water and trickle down through the soil and reach water sources. In some cases concentration of chemicals is so high that water may become flammable!
  • The methane that might be released in the process is also a greenhouse-gas, and one with a much, much bigger negative effect on global warming than CO2.
  • There are worries that the fracking process can cause small earthquakes due to the aggressive techniques of cracking the underground layers. And there have been cases of small tremors following fracking in different countries like the USA and the Netherlands.
  • Last but not least, fracking is another a commitment to hold on to the use of fossil fuels a non-renewable energy source, instead of investing on cleaner energy production.

And in Europe?

Last October, the European Parliament voted in favor of an amendment which imposes impact studies before any shale gas or other unconventional drilling method  is used in a EU-memberstate. Until now this was for every Member State decide themselves. Now the amendment’s fate is in the hands of the European Council, who will make a final decision whether or not make it an EU law. Further proposals for legislation on shale gas are expected to be announced in January by the European Commission as part of its 2030 energy and climate-change strategy.

However this new method of gaining energy is really attractive for the EU as it is now strongly dependent on fossil fuel supplies from Russia, Norway, North Africa and the Middle East. Some governments like the ones from the UK, Poland and Ukraine have publicly expressed their support and interest in a development of fracking. This despite the fact that there are more and more protests and anti-fracking movements all over Europe.


Should EU reconsider fracking? Would you like to know more about this technique? Do you know or would you like to know more about your country’s situation? Then join the next EnWG Social Skype Meeting Sunday 15th at 19h (Brussels time). Fracking will be the topic this time! There will be a short documentary/video and right after there will be an informal discussion where everybody is welcome!


Written by: Pablo Laborero (Speaker of the Environmental Working Group)