What is fracking? UK process and controversy explained

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Boris Johnson’s government believes shale gas could help solve the UK’s energy bills crisis

Fracking in Lancashire appeared to have ended – by February 2022 (Image: AFP/Getty Images)

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Britain produces 48% of its gas needs (Image: AFP/Getty Images)

As part of a bid to reduce the UK’s exposure to these international price shocks, Boris Johnson’s government has reconsidered the idea of ​​fracking for shale gas.

But what exactly is fracking – and why is it so controversial?

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Here’s what you need to know.

What is fracking?

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Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a process aimed at releasing shale gas or oil – two fossil fuels used to generate energy.

To do this, liquid is pumped deep underground at high pressure to break shale rock.

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The theory is that opening this rock will release the gas it contains.

Cuadrilla’s fracking exploration drilling in Lancashire has caused minor earthquakes (Image: Getty Images)

Why is fracking controversial?

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Fracking in the UK only appeared to be history in February 2022.

The process was temporarily halted in 2011 after the UK only had two wells near Blackpool in Lancashire caused minor earthquakes.

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These incidents resulted in an indefinite suspension of fracking in November 2019, and the company in charge of the two wells – Cuadrilla – was ordered by the State Oil and Gas Administration (OGA) to close and abandon them in February 2022.

Cuadrilla’s fracking wells near Blackpool were frequently attacked by protesters (Image: Getty Images)

That order itself was suspended in March 2022 following backlash from Conservative backbench MPs.

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Opponents of fracking have also expressed fears that the process could cause water pollution, as well as noise and traffic pollution.

And while the scheme’s advocates claim it could ease Britain’s energy crisis and make the country more self-sufficient, environmental campaign group Greenpeace has argued it would make no difference to households struggling to pay their energy bills.

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Cabinet Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg is a big supporter of fracking (Image: Getty Images)

“It will take many years to develop and if it is ever produced it will be sold to the highest bidder in the international market without impacting our energy bills,” Greenpeace UK energy chief Rosie Rogers said in March.

“If the UK and Europe are to end their dependence on Russian gas, the quickest way to do that is by insulating houses, installing heat pumps and promoting renewable energy.”

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The Prime Minister’s official spokesman had made similar comments to Greenpeace just a month earlier, calling shale gas “not a short-term solution” and “untested as a resource in the UK”.

Does fracking have advantages?

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Fracking has some supporters in the Conservative Party – including prominent ministers like Jacob Rees-Mogg and a small group of backbench MPs known as the Conservative Net Zero Scrutiny Group, which routinely argues against green politics.

They argue that Cuadrilla’s wells could be brought back online quickly and believe shale gas could provide significant supplies that would boost Britain’s energy self-sufficiency.

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Economy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng has admitted fracking is unlikely to be economically viable in the short term (Image: Getty Images)

The UK currently produces 48% of the gas it consumes and imports most of the rest from Norway.

The company also says that fracking “could create 75,000 jobs and fulfill the ‘leveling-up agenda’ in Red Wall areas.”

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These arguments appear to have influenced the government, which in April commissioned a review of the latest scientific evidence on fracking by the British Geological Survey.

But Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng said: “Unless the latest scientific evidence shows that shale gas extraction is safe and sustainable, with minimal disruption to the people who live and work nearby, the hiatus in England will remain in place.”

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He also acknowledged that fracking “would require years of exploration and development” before it could be made commercially available and “certainly would not have an impact on prices” in the short term.

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