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What the frack: Could fracking kill the electric car?

Fracking is supposed to enrich lives with cheap, plentiful fuel. Ben Griffin argues the controversial process (which allegedly poisons humans and damages the environment) could also signal the end of the electric car.

Fracking, the process of extracting natural gases from below the earth, promises to address the issue of prematurely running out of fossil fuels. While this may be a good thing for conventionally-powered cars, it could have quite the opposite effect on electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Think that’s far-fetched? Fracking’s recently attracted the ire of Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, who claims  not only could it prove detrimental to electric cars (EVs), it could even bring about their premature demise.

Here, we gaze into out crystal ball and explore the implications of a fracking future on the automotive industry.

What is fracking?

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves extracting gas and oil from subterranean rock layers. It requires drilling downwards through the earth, drilling sideways into layers of shale, then pumping millions of litres of highly pressurised water, chemicals and sand into the rock until those rocks shatter, releasing gas and oil through pores created by the damage. 

The benefits of fracking are obvious; lots of relatively cheap fuel, not to mention less dependency on foreign oil. However there are plenty of potential health implications, which include the contamination of natural water supplies with chemicals, earthquakes and global warming. 

So why the frack are electric cars under threat?

Electric cars have yet to crack the mainstream as they have plenty of drawbacks. They typically have limited driving range, long recharge times and are expensive to buy. As a result manufacturers have been slow to build such vehicles and consumers even slower to buy them. But things are changing – slowly.

Both car makers and car buyers have begun to migrate towards electric vehicles, conscious of the fact they’re better for the environment and could, in the long run, be cheaper to run, especially as the price of oil continues to skyrocket.

However Fracking could provide cars with internal combustion engines a new lease of life to the detriment of electric cars. According to Elon Musk, fracking, although at a very early stage, could increase the accessible oil and gas in the world by a factor of 10.

More oil means potentially lower oil prices, which in turn means a lower price at the pump. Cheaper fuel means fossil fuel vehicles become cheaper to run and EVs will become far less attractive to produce and to buy.

They’ll keep making electric cars though, surely?

Car manufacturers are reluctant to step away from the combustion engine – make no mistake. The entire industry runs on and is built to take advantage of fossil fuels. The primary reason they’re even dabbling with electric cars is because oil is a finite resource. If fossil fuels become plentiful and cheap again, any incentive to develop alternative fuels will diminish. 

Developing and making EVs costs research and development and manufacturing cash. If the end result is not only expensive to make, but also less appealing than traditional vehicles, then there’s little incentive for them to push electric cars. That’s worrying.

According to Musk, electric car fans can no longer rely on scarcity of oil to drive the price of oil and gas exponentially higher and have that be the primary catalyst to promote electric car adoption. EV makers need to make the products themselves more compelling regardless of the price of fossil fuels. 

But those eager to promote EVs face an uphill struggle. In order to appeal to the mainstream, EVs need to be cheaper to buy, offer improved range, faster recharge times and better recharge infrastructure. And if consumer demand for EVs takes a hit, who will drive these improvements forward?

Is there any hope for electric cars?

On the surface, things look pretty bleak. If the boss of arguably the most successful electric car company is suggesting fracking could reverse his company’s fortunes and the very product he stands for, then EVs clearly have a mountain to climb.

However while fracking could be electric cars’ worst enemy, it could also turn out to be their biggest ally. If environmentalists are to be believed, then the great, inky black hope of the oil industry will turn out to be an absolute disaster for the environment. If it’s as bad as they say, then there’s a chance we could all fall out of love with cars powered by conventional fuels.

According to some, fracking is nasty stuff. The 360 billion gallons of chemicals required for a single fracking site – of which there are half a million – include lead, uranium, mercury, radium and formaldehyde. These can contaminate nearby groundwater, wells, and evaporate into the air, creating contaminated air and acid rain. Some even argue the drilling activity causes earthquakes, which have led to property damage and injuries

If this is the price to pay for cheaper fuel, then there’s every chance we’ll see a backlash, with the general public demanding an alternative solution – the electric car. 

Nobody can, of course, predict how things will pan out, but clearly clearly electric cars face an uphill struggle with or without fracking. Whether they survive this latest threat, only time will tell.

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