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Fracking: Discussing the Arguments Against

1. Earthquakes

Anti-fracking campaigners comment that the hydraulic fracturing process causes earthquakes. That is true, but earthquakes come in different levels of magnitude. Are the earthquakes caused by fracking a serious problem?

From evidence available from a search of websites it appears that most serious earthquake known to have occured as a result of fracking measured 3.9 on the richter scale. The richter scale is exponential and each increase of 1 on the scale represents an increase in intensity of a factor of 30.

A 3.9 intensity earthquake that occured naturally was described as follows:

"A slight intensity earthquake measuring 3.9 magnitude on the Richter scale shook Chamba region of Himachal Pradesh on Wednesday morning around 8.31 am. No loss of life and property has been reported. On Tuesday many parts of state including state capital Shimla had felt the tremors following an earthquake of 7.8 magnitude recorded between Iran and Pakistan."
http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/A-slight-intensity-earthquake-measuring-3-9-3-9-magnitude-on-the-Richter-scale-shook-Chamba-region-of-Himachal-Pradesh-on-Wednesday-morning-around-8-31-am-No-loss-of-life-and-property-has-been-reported-On-Tuesday-many-parts-of-state-including-state-capital-Shimla-had-felt-the-tremors-following-an-earthquake-of-7-8-magnitude-recorded-between-Iran-and-Pakistan-/articleshow/19597597.cms

and from the Richter Scale:
3.0–3.9 II to IV Often felt by people, but very rarely causes damage. Shaking of indoor objects can be noticeable. There are over 100,000 per year globally.

More serious earthquakes are believed to be possible as a result of fracking in already-unstable fault lines such as California or some Central areas of the United States. "...the new evidence reveals the potential for much larger earthquakes, of magnitude 4 or 5, related to the weakening of pre-existing undergrounds faults through increased fluid pressure." However, the geology of the United Kingdom is much more stable and not close to any major fault lines.
http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/jul/11/fracking-water-injection-major-earthquakes

Fracking can induce earth tremors but they are of an insignificant magnitude. Other activies such as building a dam or underground mining typically trigger significantly more intense earthquakes. "Most fracking related events release a negligible amount of energy roughly equivalent to, or even less than someone jumping off a ladder onto the floor", "Hydraulic fracturing is not really in the premier league for causing felt seismicity. Fundamentally it is never going to be as important as mining or filling dams which involve far greater volumes of fluid."
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22077230

Conclusion

Fracking causes minor earth tremors but, for the UK, not of a magnitude that will cause damage, and not beyond the severity of earthquakes that occur natually or as a result of other human activity.

2. Chemical usage and potential water contamination

Many of the chemicals used in the fracking process are carcinogenic, but this ignores the aspects of dosage and relative harm compared to the environment as a whole. Many chemicals used in cosmetics, for example, are carcogenic if ingested in large doses but they are not deemed to pose a material risk if taken at low doses.

The Environment Agency legislates and approves Shale Gas mining operation in the UK and will only authorise if the chemicals used are deemed safe: "Only substances that have been assessed as being non-hazardous within the specified situation can be used."
http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/business/topics/126689.aspx

Given the strict regulation of mining in the UK the onus should be placed on the anti-fracking campaigners to present their realistic assessment of risks. Simply stating that, for example, carcinogenic substances are used needs to be put in a context as to the real level of risk compared to everyday exposure to carcinogenic substances, such as from diesel engine exhausts gases.

Drinking water is subject to strict standards and the possibility of chemicals used in fracking contaminating underground water supply and reaching the domestic water supply are very low. Water companies test their water supply thoroughly and would likely face huge legal costs and possible criminal proceedings if their water supply was found to be harmfully contaminated.

Conclusion

The risk from fracking is not zero, but it is at a level that is consistent with other industrial processes and with proper regulation need not be a danger to human health or the wider environment.

3. Radiation brought to the surface in fracking fluid

http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/newsdesk/energy/analysis/fracking-and-radioactive-waste

It has been stated that the water/chemical mix used to carry out the fracking process can return to the surface contaminated with radium 226, a radioactive particle that is present in rocks in certain locations. Fracking fluid brought back to the surface at sites in Lancashire has been found to contain between 14 and 90 Bacequerels per litre. Below 10 Bq per litre waste requires no permit for disposal; above that it must be disposed of in special facilities. It should be pointed out that a kilogram of coffee contains approximately 1000 Bq and a single banana around 15. Though radioactive material was brought to the surface by fracking it should be seen in context of how insignificant the level of radiation present actually is. Should the shale gas industry take off in a big way in this country then, as the Greenpeace article suggests, an industrial-scale process is likely to be initiated to deal with this, albeit minor, problem.

4. Water Usage

A fracking operation typically uses around 30 million litres of water during the fracking process but this only happens once and then the mine is operational for months or years. It has been envisaged that the UK could have up to 1000 fracking wells at peak production in the 2020s, and this would require perhaps 30 million litres of water a day depending, on the rate at which new mines are drilled.

The total daily consumption of water in the UK is around 10 billion, or 10,000 million litres, so set against this it is not a signifcant amount.