Settling the fracking question

Published in Physics World, 1 Mar 2012

Energy firms have not convinced sceptics that shale-gas extraction, or “fracking”, is safe for the environment. Jon Cartwright examines whether physics could help

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, is by any measure controversial. The process – which involves pumping sand and liquid into deep shale deposits to liberate natural gas – has been touted by its proponents as an energy saviour. For them, fracking allows energy companies to tap into reserves that are otherwise difficult, if not impossible, to get gas from. Yet the process has been slammed by opponents as being hugely damaging to the environment.

While fracking has taken off rapidly in the US, it has been banned in France and Bulgaria. Unfortunately, this polarized debate about fracking is not helped by a shortage of facts. No-one is sure to what extent fracking can contaminate groundwater, either with methane or with toxic chemicals. There is also a concern that fracking can trigger moderate earthquakes. While there may be no hard-and-fast answers, it seems that geophysics may be able to prod the debate in a constructive direction. […]

For the rest of this article, please contact Jon Cartwright for a pdf.