What is fracking?

1st November 2021

You’ll likely have heard about fracking, or at least come across the name. But what exactly is the fracking process – and why has CPRE campaigned against it?

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, refers to a method used to extract gas or oil from shale rock (a fine rock made from earth that’s been squashed over time). The gas or oil is released by injecting large volumes of water containing a number of additives, such as sand and lubricating fluids, into the rock under high pressure.

The gas and oil that’s trapped within impermeable shale rock, unlike the conventional natural gas deposits such as those under the North Sea, are harder to release. North Sea-type deposits are below impermeable rock and are accessed by drilling down. To access shale gas or oil, the rock has to be fractured at high pressure – and this can cause issues.

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 ten 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.

A fracking rig
A fracking rig | Mark Waugh / Alamy

What’s the problem?

Fracking techniques have already been in use for some years in the UK – but mainly offshore. However, the government has also backed a push to extract gas and oil from the shale rock onshore in a bid to increase UK production of gas and oil. This move, the government reports, is to reduce our reliance on imports and generate economic benefits.

But the largest expanses of shale rock are situated in the countryside – rural areas where fracking equipment would be an eyesore, aside from other significant issues. Not much exploratory drilling in the UK’s shale deposits has been undertaken, and it’s simply not yet known how much gas or oil will be commercially recoverable.

But we can learn from America here. The USA has been rapidly developing shale gas for over a decade, and now has several hundred thousand shale gas wells. Experience here suggests that fracking can be a substantial environmental hazard, as well as causing earthquake tremors in areas near to fracking sites.

What we’re doing

As a national charity, we have a local CPRE group in each county and this means we’ve been able to form a great network of campaigning and partnerships against fracking. Local CPRE groups have been active in working with communities and local coalitions engaging in the fracking debate.

We’ve been involved in co-hosting public inquiry training for fracking appeals, raising awareness through leaflets and local media and providing countless evidence at planning committees and select committee inquiries. Want to do your bit and get involved with a local group? Find your group’s contact details here.

And we also call for more investment in and use of renewable energies, instead of a reliance on fossil fuels that will further harm our climate. Read more about our work on renewables.

A young woman wearing a 'Frack No' t-shirt holds a banner in a protest march
National CPRE staff campaign against fracking during the global climate strike, September 2019