What the Frack?

Image from the www.fraw.org.uk site

Australians have always delighted in a wealth of resources; we even sing about them in our national anthem: “Our land abounds in nature’s gifts”. However, because Australians tend to think of our resources as boundless, we forget or overlook that not everything come in infinite supply. Fossil fuels are finite resources, and – as the original sources are used up – methods for obtaining coal, petroleum, crude oil, tar and natural gas have become more aggressive. Hydraulic fracking is the process where gas-bearing shales or coals seams are cracked and fractured (hence the name) by the high-pressure pumping of a mix of water, a cocktail of chemicals and sand into the shale. The mixture is then pumped back out and the cracks are used to collect and extract the natural gas.

 The chemical cocktail is complex and not every fracking company uses the same cocktail (most fracking companies refuse to publically share the complete list of chemicals used); however, there are similarities in the types of chemicals need in the fracking process. There are acids and solvents to dissolve minerals and help widen the fractures. There are lubricants to maintain the flow of the water/chemical/sand mixture, while at the same time there are gels & thickeners to keep the sand suspended in the water without settling out. Corrosion inhibitors are used to prevent the pipes from being eaten away by the corrosive factors.

Many of these chemicals are harmless, but not all of them; some of them are toxic and others are carcinogenic, and even the harmless chemicals aren’t something you would want contaminating your drinking water. The chemicals used often find their way into the water table as the fracking pressure isn’t precise; for example, east of Mackay, the presence of benzene, toluene, ethylene, and xylene have been confirmed in wells near coal seam gas drilling sites. The fissures underground can contact to natural cracks or leak though the substrate underground. No one exactly knows what the impact fracking has to underground structures and composition. The evidence is hidden away deep underground.

Fracking is not an environmentally friendly process. Fracking needs enormous reserves of fresh water for the process to function properly. In Australia, bore water is often used; it has to be purified before it can be used for fracking. In areas where fracking uses bore water, the drain on the water table is great enough to lower it to a point that natural wells and water sources dry up. As a water-poor continent, fracking has to complete with other industries, the farming community, and the supply of fresh drinking water … and the wild flora and fauna. So fracking not only endangers the water supply by contaminating it, there is also the increased risk of depleting the water supply.

So, aside from the water issues and unknown environmental repercussions underground, the industrial process of fracking is both noisy and intrusive;  coal seam gas drilling sites are often set up in rural districts, sometimes right on a farmer’s land, with government support. This can be extremely disruptive to a farmer’s livelihood and the quality of life for his family and stock. This just isn’t an Australian rural issue, as most industrialised Western countries are now exploring the option of fracking to meet their increasing power needs.

What fascinates me is that Australia, aka The Sunny Country, doesn’t take advantage of the current developments in solar power. In the past ten years, the technology of the conversion of solar energy to hot water and electricity is at a point that solar ‘farms’ are economically viable.  Instead, we resort to a controversial and uncertain process to extract natural gas.

If you want to know more about hydraulic fracturing, there are plenty of sites on the web.

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Each month our very own Voyager Science Queen* will bring you interesting, quirky and downright bizarre tasty morsels from the world of science. And its all completely, totally, 100% true! *The Voyager Science Queen is also known as Lynne Lumsden Green- find out who she is in About Us!

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