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How does fracking work and why is it considered controversial?

Opposition from protesters and public concern over environmental impacts have long thwarted the ambitions of energy companies and the Government.

A worker at the Cuadrilla fracking site in Preston New Road, Little Plumpton, Lancashire (Danny Lawson/PA)
A worker at the Cuadrilla fracking site in Preston New Road, Little Plumpton, Lancashire (Danny Lawson/PA)

By Emily Beament and Tom Pilgrim, PA

Opposition from protesters and public concern over environmental impacts have long thwarted the ambitions of energy companies and the Government to develop fracking in the UK.

Following a new report highlighting the slow progress in establishing a UK shale gas industry, here is some background on the fracking process:

– What is fracking?

More properly known as hydraulic fracturing, fracking is a process in which liquid is pumped deep underground at high pressure to fracture shale rock and release gas or oil trapped within it.

– How much potential is there for developing shale gas and oil in the UK?

Assessment by the British Geological Survey (BGS) suggested there are an estimated 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas resources in the Bowland Shale across northern England.

Estimates from 2013 for the size of the Bowland Shale found it could potentially provide up to 50 years’ worth of current gas demand.

But a study published in August by the University of Nottingham and BGS suggested there may be less than 10 years’ worth of gas at current levels of demand.

There are “modest” shale gas and oil resources in Scotland, with an estimated 80 trillion cubic feet of gas and six billion barrels of shale oil in the Midland Valley stretching across Scotland and including Glasgow and Edinburgh.

There is an estimated 4.4 billion barrels of shale oil in the Weald Basin in southern England.

But it is not known how much of the resources can be extracted, with exploitable reserves thought to be much lower than the total estimated oil and gas.

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The drilling rig at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road shale gas exploration site in Lancashire (Dave Thompson/PA)

– Why is fracking controversial?

The process has been mired in controversy since it hit the headlines in 2011 for causing two minor earthquakes in Lancashire, prompting a temporary ban on fracking in the UK.

The ban was later lifted, with controls put in place to prevent tremors, but fracking continues to attract opponents who fear it can also cause water contamination, noise and traffic pollution.

Shale firm Cuadrilla, the only company to start fracking in the UK, has been forced to pause operations in Lancashire when seismic activity at record-breaking levels occurred.

Environmentalists also warn that pursuing new sources of gas – a fossil fuel – is not compatible with efforts to tackle climate change, and the focus should be on developing cleaner sources of energy such as renewables.

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Activists from Extinction Rebellion stage an anti-fracking protest outside the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in London (John Stillwell/PA)

– Why is it backed by the Government?

Ministers hope it could boost tax revenues, create jobs, reduce reliance on energy imports and bring down household fuel bills, although experts have questioned whether it would have any impact on energy prices.

The Government has taken steps to get the industry going, such as introducing tax breaks and community payments, and proposed changes to planning rules to get schemes off the ground more easily.

A National Audit Office (NAO) report released on Wednesday said the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) feels that climate change objectives could be met while developing shale gas, but that the necessary technology has not yet been developed.

The Oil and Gas Authority is due to publish a scientific assessment of recent industry data which will inform the Government’s approach to fracking.

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(PA Graphics)

– Where has fracking been pursued and opposed in England?

Cuadrilla has pursued shale gas extraction in Lancashire for a number of years.

In October 2018, an environmental campaigner failed in a High Court bid to block operations at the company’s Preston New Road site.

But a record-breaking tremor measuring 2.9 on the Richter scale was felt near the site in August this year and fracking has been indefinitely suspended since.

Planning permission for another fracking site at Roseacre Wood, also in Lancashire, was refused by the Government in February after an appeal by Cuadrilla.

In December last year, the National Trust withdrew its legal opposition to seismic surveying by energy company Ineos at Clumber Park, in Nottinghamshire, but vowed to fight to protect the site from fracking.

Ineos won the right in 2018 to pursue a High Court action to gain access to the Grade I-registered landscape for surveying, as part of efforts to assess the area for shale gas.

In January, it was revealed that Greater Manchester’s 10 local authorities will put a “presumption” in planning laws against fracking as part of a new green strategy to make the city carbon neutral by 2038.

In March, the Government’s new planning guidance relating to fracking was found to be unlawful by the High Court following a legal challenge by environmental campaigners.

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Fracking protesters outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London (Sam Tobin/PA)

– What’s the position elsewhere in the UK?

The Scottish Government confirmed its “final policy position” on fracking as being one of no support in October this year, following a moratorium on the issue.

In Wales, the Welsh Government has adopted a policy “to not undertake any new petroleum licensing or support applications for hydraulic fracturing petroleum licence consents”.

In Northern Ireland, there is a planning presumption against fracking.

PA

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