The media is awash with stories about the dangers of fracking – the process of getting previously unreachable natural gas to the surface by fracturing the surrounding shale rock with high pressure water. It is said to have many risks; gas can enter the water supply, resulting in flammable tap water. The cracking of the shale may cause minor tremors – mini earthquakes which sometimes make it to the surface.
These fears are overblown. The technology has improved dramatically, even in the year or so in which fracking has become mainstream, and so the dangers of contamination and tremors have lessened – although it remains true that plants are an eye-sore. Fracking has benefits – the gas it produces is cheaper and cleaner than conventionally-sourced oil, and so could provide a boost to both the economy and air quality. It is also allowing countries such as the US and UK to move away from imported oil, making them less dependent on unsavoury governments such as those in Russia and Saudi Arabia. If these regimes held less power over the West, it may be no bad thing.
Nevertheless, fracking should be discouraged – if not for the reasons touted by the press. The same technology that is making the process safer is making it better. It is now profitable to extract oil, and it can be sold at a cheaper price than the rigged stuff. Any person with an economics A-level (me) will tell you that when anything gets cheaper, people buy more of it – especially something as useful as oil. So instead of providing us with a cleaner source of cheap energy in the form of gas, fracking will allow us to keep polluting for longer and with less economic impact.
The opening up of new oil and gas reserves will also take away any financial impetus for the big energy companies to invest in true renewables. Before fracking came along, oil was getting more and more expensive to extract – and reachable reserves were depleting. It was only a matter of time before supply was so low that the price of oil would have reached unaffordable levels (imagine the chaos if petrol in the US was five dollars to the gallon). Companies would have seen demand plummet and would soon have been building off-shore wind farms. This still needs to happen. Governments should recognise that short-term gain is not worth long-term pain, especially when such consequences involve drought, flooding and unprecedented refugee crises. It is time to wean developed economies off the very things which threaten their future stability.