What Is Fracking, Why Is It Controversial?

Setting out plans to help with soaring energy bills, new Prime Minister Liz Truss confirmed she will reverse the ban on fracking in the UK.

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 had been calls to rethink its use, 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.

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.

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.

Shale gas is also a fossil fuel, and campaigners say the resumption of fracking risks distracting energy firms and governments from investing in renewable and green sources of energy.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said doubling down on fossil fuels is a “ludicrous” answer to the energy crisis, given the threat that climate change poses to the planet and future generations.

As part of her package of measures Liz Truss has also ordered a review of the UK’s plans to reduce its emissions to zero by 2050. She said this must be delivered in a way that is “pro-business and pro-growth”.

An anti-fracking protester writes messages on a wall in Lancashire

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

What Happens Next?

Setting out plans to help households and businesses with soaring energy bills, Liz Truss confirmed she would allow fracking to resume.

She said developers will be able to seek planning permission “where there is local support”, which it’s hoped “could get gas flowing in as soon as six months”.

Previous fracking by Cuadrilla in Cumbria was controversial with local communities. In 2018, before the ban came into affect test drilling faced many delays from protests, including one which lasted almost 100 hours.

In the face of opposition, and concerns from the Oil and Gas Authority, fracking was halted in the UK in 2019.

But in April 2022, following the Russia invasion of Ukraine and rising energy bills, the government said “all options” were on the table to help boost the UK’s domestic energy supply.

Then Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng asked the British Geological Survey (BGS) to consider any changes to the science around the controversial practice.

When the government announced that fracking could resume, it initially announced it would publish the BGS report, which it said “suggests more drilling is required to establish data on shale resources and seismic impacts”. However, the report has not yet been published.

The Scottish and Welsh governments continue oppose fracking, and say they will not use their powers to grant drilling licences.

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.

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