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What is fracking?

Extracting shale gas. Extracting shale gas. Graphic: © Shutterstock

Fracking (or hydraulic fracturing) refers to the method used to extract gas or oil from shale rock by injecting large volumes of water containing a number of additives. This includes sand and lubricating fluids into the rock under high pressure.

Shale gas or oil is trapped within impermeable shale rock, as opposed to conventional natural gas deposits such as those under the North Sea, which are trapped below impermeable rock. Therefore simply drilling down to it is not enough. The rock has to be fractured at high pressure or to get the gas or oil out.

Fracking techniques have for some years been used in the UK in conventional deposits, but mainly offshore. However, the Government is now backing a big push to extract gas and oil from the shale rock onshore to increase UK production of gas and oil. The Government says that this would reduce reliance on imports and generate economic benefits. The largest expanses of shale rock are situated in the countryside, and this is where the majority of economically viable sites are likely to be. Little exploratory drilling has occurred to date in the UK’s shale deposits and it is not yet known how much gas or oil will be commercially recoverable. The USA has been developing shale gas rapidly over the past 10 years now has several hundred thousand shale gas wells. Experience from the USA shows fracking can be a substantial environmental hazard. The robustness of the safeguards put in place through regulation of shale gas and oil development is critical if environmental harm is to be prevented.

Fracking involves drilling down to over 2km vertically, then laterally outwards for as much as 3km. The gap between the lining of the borehole that has been drilled and the surrounding rock is then sealed up with concrete. The well casing is perforated to allow fracking fluid to get into the rock, and gas to get out. Then, on a typical well, up to 10 million litres of water containing sand, lubricating fluids and other additives are pumped into the borehole under extremely high pressures. This opens up cracks in the shale for up to 50 metres. The cracks are kept open by the sand particles when the pressure is released, so the shale gas can escape. A well head is then installed to capture the released gas. The drilling and fracking equipment is then taken away.

What can you do if you are concerned about fracking in your area?

The first point of call should be your local Minerals Planning Authority (MPA). This would be either your local County Council, Unitary Council or National Park Authority. All stages of the fracking process require planning applications to be submitted with the exception of some initial investigation and monitoring boreholes and ground radar surveys. Applications can be found on the planning pages of your local MPA’s website, as in this example from Lancashire.

There a range of helpful guides to fracking and the planning process available on the internet. One of the most recent, published by the RTPI and Planning Aid England in March 2017 provides a comprehensive run-down of how shale gas is extracted, the application process and the role of regulatory bodies.

The Scottish Government, which itself currently has a moratorium on fracking, has been consulting on future policy north of the border with the publication of a series of research documents. Many of the issues covered are relatable to England and provide a useful context.

Find out more

Earth tremors, fracking licenses and the Infrastructure Bill

CPRE response to the Government's consultation on the Strategic Environmental Assessment for Further Onshore Oil and Gas Licensing: Environmental Report

CPRE Policy guidance note on shale gas

Fracking explained

CPRE Lancashire's fracking engagement 'top tips'

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