Will fracking mean cheaper energy?

Fracking is all over the news – while the government wants consumers to embrace it amid claims it will lead to cheaper energy bills, protestors are busy gluing themselves together and getting themselves arrested outside fracking sites around the country.

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So why are people so vehemently against the extraction of shale gas – particularly given the estimates that wholesale gas prices could fall by a fifth if production takes off in the UK?

For the answers to this and, hopefully, to the $64million dollar question of whether or not it will actually lead to lower energy bills, we first need to look at exactly what fracking is…

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What is fracking?

Fracking is shorthand for hydraulic fracturing and refers to the process of extracting shale gas by drilling down into the earth before directing a high pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals at the rock below to release the gas inside.

This drilling is usually done horizontally to create more channels to release gas or extend existing pathways and once the high pressure mixture has released the gas it flows out to the head of the well. Fracking is used extensively across the US where it has already revolutionised the energy industry.

Why is fracking so controversial?

But the process is controversial on both sides of the Atlantic. The main reason fracking is causing such a stir is that we do not yet understand the environmental impact of extracting gas in this way – and some anecdotal evidence doesn’t paint the process in a favourable light.

One of the major concerns of those in opposition is that there appears to be very real risk that the potentially carcinogenic chemicals used could contaminate domestic water supplies; the risk coming not so much from the chemical mixture itself, but from poorly maintained reservoirs and wells with rusted pipes that could be dislodged as a result of vibrations caused drilling and fracking in the immediate area – even if they’re not used in the actual process.

And although the industry insists there is no inherent risk and any such contamination would only come about as a result of bad practice, it would appear that the risk is definitely present – that’s without going into higher levels of ethanol and methanol that have been found in water around fracking sites.

Another worry is that drilling into the earth and releasing high pressure jets in this way can cause earth tremors, as happened in the Blackpool area in 2011 when two small earthquakes with magnitudes of 1.5 and 2.2 hit following fracking activity (for the sake of comparison, the devastating earthquake that hit Christchurch in New Zealand in the same year measured 6.3).

There are also concerns that transporting the huge volumes of water needed to facilitate the process could come at a significant cost to the environment.

Fracking also encourages a continuing dependence on fossil fuels, say objectors, meaning energy firms and governments put off serious investment in renewable energy sources.

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So are there any benefits of fracking?

With so many potential pitfalls (not to mention sinkholes – another supposed fracking risk) there really needs to be some solid, and worthwhile benefits to convince people fracking is a good idea.

The major selling point from the government is that UK shale gas production will drive down energy prices, and the evidence coming out of the US suggests the process has boosted domestic oil production which has lowered gas prices. It may also offer an opportunity to generate electricity at half the CO2 emissions of coal.

So what of the UK? A recent report commissioned by energy regulator, Ofgem estimated that if shale gas production meets up to 21% of demand (the production target of the heavily picketed Cuadrilla plant in West Sussex) then wholesale gas prices in the UK could be cut by between 2% and 4% between 2020 and 2034 from their current levels.

That all sounds great, but a report by the Energy and Climate Change Committee published earlier this year suggested that, while UK shale gas production may help to secure energy supplies (it’s estimated the US and Canada now has gas security for the next 100 years) this may not lead to cheaper energy bills. All of which suggests that – at best – it’s a case of wait and see.

Take control of your own energy bills

Whether or not fracking will reduce the cost of energy however, is pretty irrelevant to consumers already struggling with their gas and electric bills and about to face another winter of discontent.
 
But the good news is that you can take some control of the price you pay for your energy right now. The simplest way to benefit from lower energy bills is to switch to another provider offering lower rate tariffs – you can do this by taking five minutes out to fill in some details on our energy channel and we’ll do the rest.

No new pipes or wires will be installed; your gas and electricity will enter your house in the same way it always has, the only thing that will change is your supplier, and this alone could save you up to £250 per year.

For a detailed breakdown on the switching process, read Mark Hooson’s article Your step-by-step guide to switching energy provider.

And you may also benefit from making your home more energy efficient; click here for a full range of energy saving tips.

What are your thoughts on fracking? Or is there a fracking plant near you? Let us know via our forum or on Twitter using the hashtag #MSMfracking

Please note: Any rates or deals mentioned in this article were available at the time of writing.

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