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What is fracking? Meaning, how does it work in UK, and advantages and disadvantages explained

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

<p>Fracking in Lancashire appeared to have been ended - until February 2022 (image: AFP/Getty Images)</p>

Fracking in Lancashire appeared to have been ended - until February 2022 (image: AFP/Getty Images)

In April, the energy regulator Ofgem price cap rose 54% for millions of households due to global supply issues that have put dozens of suppliers out of business.

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The situation has only been made more severe since Russia - the world’s second largest gas producer - invaded Ukraine.

It has led European countries to accelerate their transitions away from Russian energy, which has in turn led UK prices to rise.

The UK 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 looked again at the idea of fracking for shale gas.

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

Here’s what you need to know.

What is fracking?

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a process that aims to release shale gas or oil - two fossil fuels used to create energy.

It does this by pumping liquid deep underground at high pressure to fracture shale rock.

By opening up this rock, the theory is that the gas contained within it is released.

Cuadrilla’s fracking exploration wells in Lancashire have caused minor earthquakes (image: Getty Images)

Why is fracking controversial?

Fracking in the UK appeared to have been consigned to history as recently as February 2022.

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

While controls reportedly had been put in place to prevent earthquakes, 120 tremors - including a large one measuring 2.9 on the Richter scale in August 2019 - were recorded during drilling.

These incidents led to an indefinite suspension of fracking in November 2019 and the firm in charge of the two wells - Cuadrilla - was told by the government’s Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) to plug and abandon them in February 2022.

Cuadrilla’s fracking wells near Blackpool have frequently been targeted by protesters (image: Getty Images)

This order was itself suspended in March 2022 after a backlash from Conservative backbench MPs.

Alongside the earthquake risk, fracking appears to be incompatible with the UK’s legal net-zero target - which had only been underlined a few months previously at COP26 in Glasgow.

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

And while the process’s proponents claim it could ease the UK’s energy crisis and make the country more self-sufficient, environmental campaign group Greenpeace has argued that it wouldn’t make a difference to households struggling to afford their energy bills.

Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg is a major supporter of fracking (image: Getty Images)

“It will take many years to develop and if it ever gets produced, it will be sold to the highest bidder on the international market, with no impact on our energy bills,” said Greenpeace UK’s head of energy Rosie Rogers in March.

“If the UK and Europe want to end their dependence on Russian gas, the quickest way to do that is by insulating homes, installing heat pumps and boosting renewables.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson had made similar comments to Greenpeace just a month previously, describing shale gas as “not a short-term fix” and “unproven as a resource in the UK”.

Are there any advantages to fracking?

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 policies.

They argue Cuadrilla’s wells could be back up and running quickly, and believe shale gas could provide significant supplies that would bolster the UK’s self-sufficiency in energy.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has admitted fracking is unlikely to be commercially viable in the short term (image: Getty Images)

Currently, the UK produces 48% of the gas it uses - importing most of the rest of its needs from Norway.

Cuadrilla itself has argued that accessing “just 10%” of the gas under Lancashire and other parts of Northern England could “provide the UK with 50 years of gas” - although these estimates have been questioned by energy experts.

The business also says fracking could “create 75,000 jobs and deliver on the ‘levelling up agenda’ in Red Wall areas”.

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

But Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “Unless the latest scientific evidence demonstrates that shale gas extraction is safe, sustainable and of minimal disturbance to those living and working nearby, the pause in England will remain in place.”

He also admitted that fracking “would take years of exploration and development” before it could be made commercially available, and “would certainly have no effect on prices” in the short term.