What is fracking - and is it bad for the environment?

The government has announced a lift on the ban on fracking in England

The front of a house with a sign in the window saying 'frack free zone'
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The government has decided to lift a ban on fracking in England, and the highly controversial move has got many wanting to know what is fracking?

Despite the recent energy bill freeze (opens in new tab) that effectively cancelled out the planned October energy price cap (opens in new tab) rise, the cost of living still bites for many households in the UK. 

People are searching for ways to save energy in their homes (opens in new tab), and under mounting pressure for the Government to take action, a decision has been made to take a second look at the controversial practice of fracking. The Prime Minister has now announced that the ban on fracking in England will be lifted, but the move has sparked controversy, and many are now asking what is fracking and will it bring down energy bills?

What is fracking?

Fracking - or hydraulic fracturing - is a method of extracting oil, natural gas, geothermal energy, or water from underground. It involves injecting a high pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals down into the rock layer.

The term fracking refers to the way the rock is fractured apart by the high pressure mixture, and the result is that the gas inside is released, which can then be used to supply for energy demand.

In 2019, a moratorium (temporary ban) was placed on fracking in the UK, over concerns from the Oil and Gas Authority in a report that said that it is "not currently possible to accurately predict the probability or magnitude of earthquakes linked to fracking operations". 

But the ban on fracking has been lifted, in an announcement new PM Liz Truss made as part of a broader package of measures to tackle energy prices - though she added developers will be only given permission "where there is local support".

Labour leader Keir Starmer has been critical of this move, saying that it will not boost UK energy supplies in the short term and branding the decision as "ludicrous".

Fracking vs drilling

Drilling uses a traditional vertical drilling technique to reach reservoirs of oil and gas, while fracking can be drilled horizontally or vertically. 

The method of fracturing the shale rock allows the release of oil and gas from the porous rock, so the composition of the layers of rock and the geographic location are factors in deciding whether traditional drilling or fracking should be used.

Is fracking bad for the environment?

Fracking involves using large amount of water as well as toxic chemicals, so it is generally considered to be bad for the environment.

There are risks that the chemicals used could leak into water supplies or surrounding areas, which would have a negative impact on the wildlife and natural habitats near the fracking sites.

The campaign group Greenpeace (opens in new tab) says, "The impact [of fracking] on the British countryside would be enormous. Thousands of wells would be needed to produce just half of the UK’s gas demand. This industrial operation would also require huge numbers of trucks delivering chemicals and taking away contaminated waste water."

Additionally, fracking is considered to be controversial because the high pressure injections can cause earth tremors. In 2019, a 2.9-magnitude quake was recorded near Cuadrilla’s site near Blackpool, which raised further alarm about the practice.

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Is fracking good for the environment?

While fracking isn't good for the environment, it is less harmful than some other methods of meeting energy demand.

Natural gas emits around half the greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy compared to coal, according to the US Energy Information Administration (opens in new tab). Additionally, Vox (opens in new tab) says that fracking doesn't take up as much land as coal mining, and it doesn’t produce pollutants like ash and mercury, which can pose long-term health and environmental hazards.

One of the biggest benefits of fracking is the creation of jobs, as the US has seen an employment boom in states such as Pennsylvania, which had previously suffered from the closure of coal mines. 

Does fracking happen in the UK?

Before the ban in 2019, the company Caudrilla drilled two wells in Lancashire, though they faced repeated protests and legal challenges from local people and campaigners, on both climate and safety grounds.

Eventually, The Oil and Gas Authority told Cuadrilla to permanently concrete and abandon the wells by the end of June 2022, but the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) has said the firm now has until the end of June 2023 to evaluate options.

Previously, the Government awarded more than 100 exploration and drilling licences across the UK, many of which were across Yorkshire and Lancashire, and some in the south east.

The Scottish and Welsh governments have both confirmed that the ban on fracking will not be lifted in these nations.

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Will fracking bring down energy bills?

It's not clear whether fracking could bring down the cost of energy bills, though Caudrilla claims 10% of the gas from the shale deposits in Lancashire "could meet UK gas needs for 50 years".

However, Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng has been accused of a U-turn on fracking, and not long ago told the Daily Mail (opens in new tab), "The UK has no gas supply issues. And even if we lifted the fracking moratorium [ban] tomorrow, it would take up to a decade to extract sufficient volumes – and it would come at a high cost for communities and our precious countryside."

And six months ago the Chancellor, who was then Secretary of State at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, tweeted (opens in new tab): "No amount of shale gas from wells across rural England would be enough to lower European price any time soon.

"With the best will in the world, private companies are not going to sell the shale gas they produce to UK consumers below the market price."

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