A guide to fracking: what it is and why it’s controversial
14 September 2021 | Aimee Tweedale
In recent years, you’ve probably heard the word “fracking” in the news. It’s a controversial topic, with new fracking sites drawing protestors and debate wherever they appear.
But what exactly is fracking, when did it begin, and where does it take place in the UK? We’ll drill down into everything you need to know in this useful guide.
What is fracking?
“Fracking” is a nickname for what’s officially known as hydraulic fracturing.
It’s a way of extracting gas and oil that lies beneath the surface of the earth. First, it involves drilling into shale rock, at the bottom of the sea. Then, water and chemicals are injected into the cracks in the rock at high pressure.
This splits open the shale rock formations, sending the oil and gas that lies beneath up to the surface of the water. These are then collected, and used to generate energy.
The initial idea for fracking dates all the way back to 1862, but it wasn’t properly used by the oil and gas industries until the 1940s1. Lately, it’s become more popular than ever around the world, especially in the USA, where there’s been a huge surge.
Of the 1,000 wells in the US where fracking took place between 1940 and 2014, over a third were fractured after 20002.
What are shale gas and shale oil?
Shale is a type of rock that forms at the bottom of bodies of water. It’s made up of silt and clay, and takes thousands of years to form.
Some of that shale contains pockets of natural gas. This has become trapped down there as animals and other living things have decomposed and fossilised. “Shale gas” is the term for natural gas that’s trapped in, or underneath, shale.
“Shale oil” can either refer to crude oil that’s found inside shale formations, or the oil that’s made from shale3.
Natural gas and crude oil are both types of fossil fuel. Find out more about fossil fuels by reading our complete guide.
How does fracking work?
Shale is often buried underground, so the first step in fracking is to drill a hole down to it. This can be as deep as 5,000 feet, and can take as long as a month4. Once the drill reaches the shale layer, it continues to drill horizontally, to allow access to as much of the rock as possible.
This drilling creates what’s called a “well”. The well is lined with steel pipes or casing, and small holes are drilled into the sides.
Then, the actual fracking begins. This is when loads of water – as much as several million gallons – mixed with sand and chemicals is injected at high speed into the well5. The pressure causes the shale rock to fracture more. This releases the gas or oil trapped inside, which then flows through into the pipes, and up through the well to the surface to be collected.
Where does fracking take place around the world?
There are fracking sites all over the world. The US, in particular, has had a “boom” in fracking, with US oil production increasing 75% from 2007 to 2016 thanks to the practice6. This interactive map from the Post Carbon Institute shows the locations of 63,000 fracking wells across the States.
Russia, Canada, Venezuela, and Australia currently have the most shale oil and gas sites. Other countries, like France and Belgium, have outlawed fracking7.
Where is fracking happening in the UK?
The UK government suspended all fracking in November 20198. This came after the UK’s only active fracking site, near Blackpool, was halted when a 2.9 magnitude earthquake was recorded nearby.
In 2020, Cuadrilla – the firm who ran the site – gave up their permit. This means that they’re no longer allowed to continue fracking in Lancashire.
Why is fracking controversial?
Supporters of fracking say that it boosts the economy and creates jobs9.
But there’s not a huge amount of research on it, and many are concerned about the potential health and environmental effects of fracking.
This means there are lots of protest groups who call for an end to fracking, including Frack Off in the UK.
What are the effects of fracking on the environment?
While research into fracking’s impact is still emerging, there are a few clear disadvantages.
- It uses a huge amount of water. The water that’s used for fracking is often fresh, which means it could have been used as drinking water. This puts a strain on the local water supply10.
- It pollutes water. There’s scientific evidence that the use of chemicals and other pollutants in hydraulic fracturing can have an impact on local drinking water. Spills, leaks and mismanagement of the wastewater created during fracking can all have an impact.
- It also pollutes the air. There are lots of pollutants created in the process of fracking, as well as the transportation and use of the oil and gas that’s released. It also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions – more on that below.
- Earthquakes. Just as we saw in Blackpool, fracking is thought to cause earth tremors. In the US, there’s been an “unprecedented increase” in earthquakes since 200911.
Does fracking contribute to climate change?
Yes. Natural gas and crude oil, which are released by fracking, are both a type of fossil fuel. This means that they’re not only non-renewable (so they’re going to run out at some point!), but burning them also contributes to climate change.
In the process of fracking, natural gas often escapes. This type of gas is mostly made up of methane, which is a super-strong greenhouse gas. It holds onto heat 28 times more effectively than carbon dioxide12, which is the greenhouse gas you usually hear the most noise about.
Scientific research in 2019 pointed to fracking as a likely cause for a “huge” spike in methane emissions13. Since 2000, methane emissions have risen by 50 million tonnes per year, which is about the weight of 350 million cars14.
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Sources and references:
15 Based on analysis carried out by the Carbon Trust for OVO Group (2020), 28% of an average individual’s carbon footprint in the UK comes from energy. In this analysis, the carbon footprint includes the following lifestyle categories: energy, transport, shopping, food and drink and holidays. See table below for each category. This carbon footprint data has been calculated using BEIS 2020 emission factors. This excludes emissions from things that the average person cannot directly control such as supporting the NHS, defence, government bodies, etc. Please note these figures are not reflective of potential changes to your habits during the coronavirus pandemic.
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17 Each year, OVO plants 1 tree for every member in partnership with the Woodland Trust. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so tree-planting helps to slow down climate change.