Fracking: What is it, why is it so contentious - and how important will it be for the UK?

Hydraulic fracturing could soon be coming to your neighbourhood, but many are fearful of its dangers on the environment - Tom Bawden explains

Plans to start fracking at a site in Lancashire have been rejected by local councillors in a move welcomed with a sigh of relief by opponents. But why is there such concern over what could be a burgeoning industry in the UK?

1. What is fracking?

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the technique used to release oil and gas from shale by blasting a mixture of sand, chemicals and water into the rock.

2. Why is it so contentious?

It has been linked to water and air pollution in the surrounding areas and has been found to cause earth tremors. Advocates say these issues can be controlled by strict regulations and rigorous safety practices while opponents say fracking is still dangerous. Wales and Scotland have decided that it’s still too early to say for sure and have placed a moratorium on fracking until more research can be conducted into its safety.

3. Why is fracking in the news today?

Lancashire county council has just voted to block an application to frack near Preston for what would have been the first fracking site in Western Europe. This has dealt a significant blow to the prospects for the fracking industry because the councillors voted down the proposal – on grounds of visual and noise impact - even though the county’s planning committee had recommended they wave it through. The fear is that if an application can’t get through in these circumstances, what hope is there for a project with significant question marks hanging over it.

4. How important is fracking to the UK?

It is all about potential. At the moment we know there are vast quantities of shale gas – and some shale oil – in the country, but we don’t know how much of it can be commercially extracted until more tests are carried out.

The government is pushing the shale industry hard in the hope that it could create tens of thousands of jobs and billions of pounds in revenue – and make us less reliant on imports from countries like Russia as traditional North Sea supplies continue to dwindle. Even if the UK does turn out to have vast supplies of commercially viable reserves the country will be highly dependent on foreign supplies. Without it, it will be even more so.

5. What next for fracking?

It’s certainly not the end for fracking in the UK. Cuadrilla is considering whether to appeal and would be in with a decent chance of getting the decision overturned, on the basis that the planning committee recommended the councillors give it the green light.

And there will be plenty more applications over the next year. The government is due to announce the winners of the bidders for oil and gas licences across the country later this year – at which point many are likely to draw up applications for permission to frack on those sites.

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