A retrospective review of Fracking Futures

Turning FACT Inside Out celebrated FACT’s 10th anniversary. Instead of curating a retrospective, artists were invited to consider what FACT ‘needed in order to remain relevant in going forward’. The answers provided through the artwork are varied, with a (very) vague connecting red-line of debate and public engagement underlying all; whether on a wider social and political level or on a more personal. Likewise many of the pieces, in one way or another, bring something unseen or little-debated to the forefront. As this wide variety and rather arbitrary connection between the pieces makes a comprehensive review of the exhibition difficult I focus here on what is, to me, the stand-out piece: HeHe’s Fracking Futures.

HeHe’s (Helen Evans and Heiko Hansen) aim with Fracking Futures is to open up discussion about extraction of shale gas by providing an ‘experiential platform’ for debate. Their installation replicates a Hydraulic Fracturing plant in miniature form, complete with a fictional press release about local protests alongside a PR statement explaining how the miniature fracking plant will assist FACT toward financial independence from the wider world. Incidentally it also touched on a debate that has, suddenly, become part of mainstream consciousness: When the installation was first planned a year ago public or media response to fracking in the UK was still rare. Since the opening of the exhibition in mid July the mood suddenly changed: Protests in Balcombe make news and controversial statements like Lord Howells characterising the North of England as a ‘desolate landscape’, referring first to the North East then backtracking and pointing to the North West as the place where fracking plants won’t despoil, continue to fuel public consciousness.  As such the following media debate over the summer caused reality to catch up with the ironic and satirical scenario imagined at FACT. The technology, as much of our industrial processes and infrastructure projects are, is largely happening ‘in secret’, rarely considered in everyday life and in most people’s everyday experience happening ‘elsewhere’. Funnily enough not long after the exhibitions’ official end fracking as a political and socially divisive subject disappeared from public debate again.

Fracking Future is visceral – ‘a spectacle’ in the words of one of my friends; ‘scary’ by the comments of two others – but also playful. In FACT’s darkened, at times foggy, Gallery One the miniature model runs through a simplified presentation on what the surface aspect of Fracking looks like. The carefully synchronised soundtrack is close enough to how a fracking plant in full operation sounds (video below) and, if you listen closely, incorporates some environmental samples including bird song. At the same time – well researched and impressive as this is – HeHe aren’t entirely ‘objective’ or ‘non-judgemental’ here: the installation is not simply a neutral representation of the process – the slightly claustrophobic, semi-dark environment, combined with red-tinted light creates an atmosphere unlike what you would encounter when chancing upon an actual fracking plant. HeHe are facing a problem here that is also at the core of many debates about ‘experiential education’.

Experiential Education attempts to add personal experience to learning (a rough and tumble summary this; as with anything there are competing methods and theories on how exactly to do this); to add value to learning that is not present in the more traditional class-room settings and providing a less abstract perception of what is studied – including sensual, emotional and, of course, personal experience into the mix. As often more complex subjects that can be experientially explored may not necessarily provide enough material to really come to a deeper understanding of issues solely through unguided some experiential educators work around this by either ‘front-loading’ or providing some general context to the experience after. The danger is, as ever, to push a view-point and steering rather than guiding the type of self-directed study at the core of an experiential project – a problem analogous to Fracking Futures‘ aim of enabling and grounding debate. I asked a few friends on Facebook that I knew had seen the exhibition if they followed up on the debate about Fracking after: Two replied that they didn’t do so in more detail (one felt she should; the other went to the exhibition precisely because she did already read up on it); and the third answered cautiously: ‘I think I have, on reflection, – in that the violence of the procedure was brought home very effectively so it made it more real. I was against it to begin with but the exhibition consolidated what I felt’.

As an environmentalist invested and interested in how our technology and society relates to the world around us I would have wished for HeHe to provide some material alongside Fracking Futures; a small booklet collecting a few select articles, essays or factual presentations about hydraulic fracturing, especially given that they obviously delved deeply into the subject researching it in depth. The installation did inspire me to dig a little deeper and learn more about the technology and it’s implications on my own and some of that research is included below in the hope of filling this gap. On the other hand HeHe’s Fracking Futures does something important by bringing hydraulic fracturing alive in a way ‘traditional media’ won’t ever do, creating a visceral, strong and emotional, not just intellectual reaction. Like all art, it is representational of reality rather than trying to imitate; filtering the experience through the artist’s personal ‘language’. It is a strong exhibition, and certainly somewhere in the top list of all of FACT’s commissions over the seven years I have now lived in Liverpool.


Note: Everything below is based on a rough and tumble research spread out over about half a week, a few hours here and there, while filling out job applications. It’s not meant to be comprehensive – just a general list of rough notes. I have some basic – that is undergraduate level – understanding through studying for a BSc. Outdoor & Environmental Education but also by taking an elective module in Sustainable Energy Systems (e.g. Engineering) on the side while studying for an entirely different degree – those helped with some of the ‘critical’ / curious questions below. Note that I don’t include sources as much as I should – this is down to this rather haphazard process of researching quite scattered and with life distractions. I am not neutral politically in this debate – I don’t think anyone really can afford to – but I try to be fair.

The Technology

From a purely engineering based perspective: All hydraulic fracturing attempts to do is to provide an answer to the problem of oil / gas peak; it is a long ongoing debate – that I remember having back when I was in school in the mid 1990s, too. At that time predictions indicated that 1995 would see us pass a peak in oil / gas production which then didn’t occur as more discoveries of oil & gas alongside technological developments of additional extraction techniques pushed it back for several years. The physical properties of this planet haven’t, of course, changed – predictions are now, according to International Energy Authority’s World Energy Outlook 2012, that the peak of conventional oil extraction will be reached in 2020. Hydraulic Fracturing is, however, a big question mark in that estimate and may well prevent oil production peaking for a long time beyond 2020. As an extraction method it is not necessarily more or less invasive than other large scale industrialised ways of extracting material from the ground – it doesn’t come with an as detailed research base as others, however. Here, in this video, is an explanation by the respective industry on how the technology works:

Some critical questions and comments:

  • It is true that fracture stimulation of oil wells is a 60 years old technology. Hydraulic Fracturing, however, is not. It only has become both technologically and financially feasible to extract gas from shale from the 2000s on when several different techniques were combined successfully and at low enough cost for the first time. In engineering terms this is still a fairly new and not necessarily matured technology. See also this interview with Dan Steward, the former Vice President of Mitchell Energy, or this 2013 article which includes a brief overview over the development of the technology. Note, also, that the argument (which is made often out there on online forums) that the Shale Gas Industry grew independently and out of its own strength is inaccurate. As Dan Steward makes clear in the link above it did required state funding to reach this point of technological development, much as any other source of energy.
  • ‘Horizontal Drilling’ is a bit of misnomer – what actually happens is that the technology allows for ‘directional’ drilling. The direction of a shale deposit may not be quite horizontal – or may not follow a neat straight line. They do imply that in the video, displaying the shale layer as curved, but don’t state it as clearly.
  • ‘Water and sand plus a few chemicals’ is a rather idealised description. What is pumped down is a mixture of water, sand, and a number of added chemicals, that depends on the particular shale formation encountered. Different shale’s will require different mixes. The precise chemicals each company involved in hydraulic fracturing uses is not public knowledge – it is information protected by trade legislation, similar to how Coca Cola keeps the precise formula of their additives to water secret. Note that precise formula means essentially that: While the rough composition of chemicals and their type is public knowledge – the specifics for each well are not. [More information on this in the video at the very end of this article.]
  • The video is a bit hazy on what actually happens in the actual hydraulic fracturing. The methane gas locked in shale is situated in weaknesses and small already existing fractures – even though shale is classed as an impermeable rock, water and gas can still percolate through these albeit at a much, much lower rate than through permeable rocks. Gas will move to the points of least resistance – the weaknesses and fractures existing in the shale – over long time periods. Hydraulic Fracturing does not aim to create new fractures thus, but to access and widen existing weak spots and hollows. New fractures wouldn’t contain any gas to wash out; the existing ones do. The sand added to the water helps prevent these widened channels in the rock from closing again.
  • The process is nowhere as neat as presented in the video – it can’t be. The directions of these fractures are certainly not perfectly aligned tree structures like these. Local geological differences between shale deposits – and these can be quite significant – will make reality a lot more ‘messy’ and unpredictable than this.
  • Note that 15-50% of the water recovered also means that 50-85% of it isn’t. Where does it go? Water will seek the path of least resistance – which isn’t necessarily back up the borehole – I would guess. Water is one of the strongest erosion forces on our planet and certainly capable of forcing new passageways, even through shale, especially given the high pressures and flow through speed the process requires [that, too, is a guess based on what I learned about geological processes.].
  • The notion that ‘the water’ is recycled or ‘safely disposed of according to government regulations’ is, again, only touching the surface of this. Given the heavy metals, radioactive materials and similar that are washed back up from the bedrock carried by the water what returns is a mixture that is highly toxic. It is not ‘water’ any more at this point and can not be returned into the environment but has to be stockpiled away safely – for the time being there’s no technology that allows for this mixture of hydraulic fracturing fluid plus variety of materials washed up to be cleaned. There are experiments underway to develop a more environmentally friendly hydraulic fracturing fluid, but it’s not currently used technology and it may be a long way off.
  • The 20-40 years estimate is an optimistic one. As with all natural gas extraction Hydraulic Fracturing produces a big yield initially that drops of quickly. Eventually the production of oil/gas is no longer economically feasible even if there’s additional oil/gas still in the ground at that specific site. Remember that the technology has only been in use widespread for about 13 years – there’s no site that has, as of now, produced a 20-40 year return.
  • My unanswered questions, as of now: What happens long-term? And with that I mean on the geological not human time scale. Hydraulic fracturing, as outlined above, relies on already existing weaknesses in the rock and widens them. What does this do to rock stability? Rock deep underground is exposed to immense stress and, think geological time scales, is altered and bent. What are the long-term consequences? Informed guess: It depends on the specifics of the particular site. It may not have any consequences most of the time, but it might (or the other way around). When the borehole left in the ground is closed down with cement – how long does this last? All material is exposed to weathering and will eventual wear down. Remember with that gas will go where there is least resistance – it will continue to do this even after all the gas that was economically feasible has been removed. Least resistance likely means the well drilled. I’d guess, again, that these cement plugs are a potential weakness – alongside the actual casings themselves.

For balance sake here’s an animation (without sound) from a source that opposes hydraulic fracturing. Where the video above focuses on best case scenarios, this one is a collection of a number of worst-case ones rolled together. It’s also quite focused on the US situation – individual fresh water wells digging down into the aquifer are not nearly as common here.

Policies and Debate

I’ll stress again that, as an engineering solution to a particular problem – how we reach and extract unconventional sources of oil / gas – fracking is a ‘neutral’ technological solution. I am not going into detail here – I can’t feasible in this article: The crux of this debate on a policy level is in what technologies we aim for in general. What’s not controversial is that we have to move away from technology that contributes to the amount of harmful emissions our electricity and energy transformation causes and the quicker we can reasonably do so the better.

It’s a question of how to do this – renewables, some argue, are at this very point not likely to ‘yield’ enough to sustain current energy needs. Nuclear power has less direct (but as all industrial system many indirect) climate change related emissions, but is, as fossil fuels relying on limited resources, albeit with a peak much further off – and, of course, comes with its own massive risks and long-term pollution issues. Coal is largely out of favour as one of the worst polluters. Hydraulic fracturing is – anywhere you look – from industry to policy makers that support its deployment sold as a short-term solution to fix this gap in provision while we transition to a more sustainable world and that it is meant to co-exist with a more wide-spread roll out of renewable sources. The big argument pro its use is that it is – as gas in the use of generating electricity in general – producing less CO2 than coal does. The big contra argument focuses on the fact that it is ‘more of the same’: Another fossil fuel that is not a long-term source of energy and doesn’t end our reliance on it. [The real question for long-term policy also has to be on how we can re-organise our global economic system and social structures reliance on energy; that one is way beyond the scope of this, of course.]

As the US is the place where, currently, hydraulic fracturing is developed to a much higher degree than anywhere else, it does make sense to look at the debates that have already happened there. Not all of the aspects of the US situation are relevant here – but the basic physics and policy considerations are not that different. Here is a quite balanced TV debate, tinged only slightly by media sensationalism:

Policy situation in the UK:

  • There is currently no regulation specific to hydraulic fracturing in the UK. That said the environmental regulations in place in the UK are tighter than those in the US and the UK government considers these to be robust enough.
  • Some relevant documents from the Department of Energy & Climate Change:
    1. Providing regulation and licensing of energy industries and infrastructure which also includes a link on, to the Royal Society’s review. Note that the DOE’s article also equals the type of hydraulic fracturing debated here with conventional application – the misconception of a 60 year long history of using the technology re-appears here.
    2. About shale gas and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) includes details on how regulation and oversight of hydraulic fracturing is meant to work. Personally I find the abundance of ‘likely’ and ‘may’ (or even ‘may wish’) throughout the text a bit alarming – but judge yourself. Fracking is clearly presented as a transitional technology, meant to sit next to and at the very least equal to renewable sources here.
    3. Using evidence and analysis to inform energy and climate change policies covers, as the document title suggests, the government’s considerations of how to utilise evidence in policy making in response to Environment & Climate Change.
    4. The Unconventional Hydrocarbon Resources of Britain’s Onshore Basins – Shale Gas provides some background on the geological basis of shale gas and potential hydraulic fracturing sites and exploration in the UK.
  • The Tyndall Centre’s Shale gas: a provisional assessment of climate change and environmental impacts(research funded by the co-op) comes to less favourable predictions than the Royal Society’s review mentioned in 1. above. See also this update to the same study.
  • Some of the regulation the government has released seems to – and I can’t find another way to say that fairly – be a clear push towards Hydraulic Fracturing at the expense of developing renewable alternatives. This includes pressure on local planning authorities through policy guidelines to not consider any alternatives other than gas or coil when presented with a planning application for a Fracking plant, setting a tax status for hydraulic fracturing that is a lot more favourable than comparable regimes for off-shore oil and gas, and implementing a veto right for local communities against windfarms. Note here, also, that both industrialised, intensive Hydraulic Fracturing and large scale renewable energy plants both take a toll on the landscape. What’s preferable is – arguably – down to aesthetics, but not an automatic point score for either.
  • The argument that coal is more harmful in respect to climate change than conventional oil is true. The suggestion that shale gas is less harmful than coal still isn’t completely cleared up in the scientific debate (e.g. pointcounter-pointcounter-counter-point), i.e. there doesn’t seem to be enough conclusive data, yet, to achieve a consensus.
  • My unanswered questions, as of now: Long-term risks? As mentioned above I question if leaks from wells can be prevented long term, especially in the light that there’s no focused UK regulation, nor a specific organisation that oversees quality standards. Estimates suggests the UK would need at the minimum of 100.000 fracking plants just to replace North Sea oil & gas – how will abandoned (not to speak current) sites be monitored, long-term? Keep in mind that methane is a much more volatile climate gas than CO2 – albeit more short-lived.

As ever there’s more to be said – I really didn’t set out to establish a comprehensive list of research, just a quick, very personal overview of what I found in a set time. Obviously I oppose hydraulic fracturing, especially in the light of how policy is driven forward. That’s not a negative assessment of engineering – but asking the question whether this particular technological path is really looking at the right question to engineer a technology in response to. I’ll leave the video of a two-hour lecture by Dr. Anthony Ingraffea here – who has been instrumental for some of the research into base technology used in hydraulic fracturing, is still researching on what the impact is (see above). As myself he does have an opinion, but likewise attempts to focus on factual, rational information to base it on. It’s long, but well worth watching through to the end. Note that the issue of landownership he brings up is significantly different in the UK: Where private ownership of land in the US also extends to the resources in the ground under your land this is not the case in UK regulation.