What is fracking and why is it controversial?

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Image source, Getty Images

The government has ordered a new report into fracking, although its new energy strategy makes no mention of the controversial process.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a technique for recovering gas and oil from shale rock.

It was halted in the UK in 2019 amid opposition from green groups and local concerns over earth tremors, but there have been calls to rethink the ban, given the soaring cost of energy.

What is fracking?

Fracking involves drilling into the earth and directing a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals at a rock layer in order to release the gas inside.

Media caption,
The BBC's David Shukman explains how fracking works

The wells can be drilled vertically or horizontally in order to release the gas. The term fracking refers to how the rock is fractured apart by the high-pressure mixture.

What has the government said?

When fracking was halted in the UK in 2019, ministers said they wouldn't change their minds without "compelling new evidence".

However, the government has said "all options" are on the table as it tries to end UK imports of Russian energy because of the conflict in Ukraine.

Fracking firms claim the move is a "tentative first step" to overturning the ban and "exploiting [the] potential" of shale gas.

But other MPs and campaigners have warned against a change in direction. Labour re-stated its opposition to fracking in March when it published its energy policy.

There have been no further announcements about fracking in the government's energy strategy.

What fracking has taken place in the UK?

Fracking for shale gas in the UK has only taken place on a small scale, and faced several public and legal challenges.

It was indefinitely suspended after an inconclusive report by the Oil and Gas Authority into earth tremors.

Exploration during that period identified large swathes of shale gas across the UK, particularly in northern England.

More than 100 exploration and drilling licences were awarded to firms including Third Energy, IGas, Aurora Energy Resources and Ineos.

Cuadrilla was the only company given consent to begin fracking.

It drilled two wells at a site in Lancashire but faced repeated protests on climate and safety grounds, from local people and campaigners.

The Oil and Gas Authority has told Cuadrilla to permanently concrete and abandon the wells by the end of June 2022.

Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have continued to oppose fracking pending further research into its environmental impact.

Could fracking lower energy bills?

Currently the UK can only meet 48% of its gas demand from domestic supplies (this would be 54% if it did not export any gas).

This has followed a sustained reduction in UK gas production as existing gas fields are depleted.

A small number of Tory MPs, known as the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, have urged the government to end its fracking ban. They claim drilling at Cuadrilla's two existing wells could be quickly restarted and would provide significant supplies.

Cuadrilla itself has claimed that "just 10%" of the gas from shale deposits in Lancashire and surrounding areas "could supply 50 years' worth of current UK gas demand".

Energy experts dispute this. Mike Bradshaw, professor of global energy at Warwick University, says estimates of how much shale gas the UK has, are not the same as the amount of gas that could be produced commercially.

Opponents of fracking point out that even if the ban were reversed, it would take many years for the wells to start producing gas commercially.

Why is it controversial?

The injection of fluid at high pressure into the rock can cause earth tremors - small movements in the earth's surface. More than 120 tremors were recorded during drilling at Cuadrilla's New Preston Road site.

Seismic events of this scale are considered minor and are rarely felt by people - but are a concern to local residents.

Fracking also uses huge amounts of water, which must be transported to the site at significant environmental cost.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
An anti-fracking protester writes messages on a wall in Lancashire

Campaigners say fracking is distracting energy firms and governments from investing in renewable sources of energy, and encourages continued reliance on fossil fuels.

"Shale gas is not the solution to the UK's energy challenges," said Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Tony Bosworth.

Which other countries use fracking?

It is thought that fracking has given energy security to the US and Canada for the next 100 years, and has presented an opportunity to generate electricity at half the CO2 emissions of coal.

However, the UK's shale gas reserves are in geologically complex rock layers.

Iain Conn, the former chief executive of energy firm Centrica, told the BBC: "It's much more difficult to develop shale in the UK than the US... and the quality of our shale is not as good."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Shale gas in the US is estimated to make up 25% of its total gas reserves

Fracking remains banned in numerous EU countries, including Germany, France and Spain, as well as Australia. Others, such as Brazil and Argentina are split, with some local authorities banning it and others continuing operations.