Fracking well head (photo: Joshua Doubek)Vast quantities of shale gas can be extracted from under the ground through a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. This is a technique designed to recover gas and oil from shale rock. It involves drilling down into the Earth, then blasting a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals into a seam of shale rock. The rock is fractured apart by the blast, releasing the gas trapped inside. The gas then flows out of the shale and rises to the well head. Widely practised in the USA for several decades, drilling for shale gas is only at the exploratory phase in the UK and other parts of Europe. Recently, reserves of shale gas have been identified across large parts of the UK, particularly in northern England. Some are below national parks and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. More than 100 licences have been awarded by the UK government to drilling companies, but fracking is extremely controversial.
Anti-fracking poster, Spain (photo: Zarateman)
Diagram of a shale gas wellIn 2011, the energy company Cuadrilla stopped test fracking operations near Blackpool, in Lancashire, after two minor earthquakes struck the area. It is highly likely that these were triggered by the drilling. Besides the risk of causing earthquakes, fracking has prompted serious environmental concerns. The process uses huge amounts of water, which must be transported to the drilling sites. Chemicals used in the fracking process may contaminate the groundwater around the sites. The drilling causes air and noise pollution. Opponents of fracking are urging energy companies and governments to invest instead in renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar power, and not fossil fuels.
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