Fracking: the facts

Facts about fracking – the controversial technique for extracting shale gas. Plus, why fracking is bad – including risks to public health and the climate.
  Published:  07 Jul 2017    |      5 minute read

Fracking contributes to climate breakdown. It is a way of extracting gas or oil which is trapped inside rocks and won't flow freely on its own.

To get the gas or oil out, the rock has to be fractured. This is known as "hydraulic fracturing" or fracking for short.

A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped down the well at very high pressure. This fractures the rock and, when the pressure is released, the gas or oil flows back up the well.

What is fracking?

Why fight fracking?

In November 2019, the UK government announced a moratorium (temporary ban) on fracking. Friends of the Earth will continue to campaign for a full ban in the UK, and to end support for fracking overseas.

There are many risks surrounding fracking, so let’s take them one at a time …

1. Fracking risks contaminating water

According to the British Geological Survey, “Groundwater may be potentially contaminated by extraction of shale gas both from the constituents of shale gas itself, from the formulation and deep injection of water containing a cocktail of additives used for hydraulic fracturing and from flowback water which may have a high content of saline formation water.”

In England, groundwater is used to supply a third of our drinking water.

In December 2016 the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified cases of impacts on drinking water at each stage of the fracking process in the United States.

2. Fracking poses risks to public health

In the UK 20 leading medical experts (including a former Government Deputy Chief Medical Officer and a former Chair of the Royal College of GPs) wrote to the British Medical Journal stating that “the arguments against fracking on public health grounds are overwhelming”.

Find our more from the Medact report on fracking and health.

The New York State Department of Health introduced a one year moratorium on fracking to assess the risks, and in December 2014 concluded that fracking should be banned due to the “significant public health risks”.

The report [PDF] stated that “until the science provides sufficient information to determine the level of risk to public health from HVHF [High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing] and whether the risks can be adequately managed, HVHF should not proceed in New York State”.

3. Fracking poses a risk to the local environment

A draft Government report states that “shale gas development may transform a previously pristine and quiet natural region, bringing increased industrialisation”.

It also concludes [PDF] that “rural community businesses that rely on clean air, land, water, and/or a tranquil environment may suffer losses” from increased industrialisation. It says these include “agriculture, tourism, organic farming, hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation”.

4. Fracking won't lead to a jobs boom

The evidence shows that the industry’s jobs claims do not stand up to scrutiny.

In Lancashire, the 6-year proposed fracking project – overwhelmingly rejected by councillors in 2015, and subsequently overturned by then Secretary of State Sajid Javid – would create just 11 jobs at each of the two sites, according to the fracking company’s application. This includes on-site, indirect supply chain and induced effects (see Cuadrilla’s planning applications to Lancashire County Council, Table 9.6 and para 79).

The idea that fracking will create 70,000 jobs has often been used and presented as a "benefit". David Cameron used the figure back in 2013. But here's the rub. In the US, between 2005 and 2012, each new fracking well created approximately 4 jobs [PDF]. Going on those numbers, how many wells would the UK need to frack to create 70,000 jobs? A staggering 17,500 fracking wells.

5. Fracking is incompatible with tackling climate change

Scientists agree that if we are to avoid dangerous levels of global warming, the majority of proven fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground.

This has been acknowledged by Shell, former US President Barack Obama and the Governor of the Bank of England. Recent analysis shows that this is not just about reserves – burning just the oil, coal and gas already in production will take us over 2°C of warming. There is no space for new fossil fuel exploration.

Fracking for unconventional oil and gas just adds to the stockpile of fossil fuels that we can’t burn, making it more challenging to keep the world below the internationally agreed target of no more than 1.5°C of global warming.

The Government's own independent experts warn [PDF] that fracking could risk breaching the UK’s climate change targets.

Find out more from Friends of the Earth’s briefing on fracking and climate change [PDF].

6. Clean energy has more potential to improve energy security than fracking

Reducing gas demand through energy efficiency, and using renewable energy instead could reduce the UK’s dependence on foreign gas by up to 30% by 2030, even as North Sea gas production declines.

On the other hand, even if shale gas exploitation was relatively successful, it would only make up for the decline in North Sea gas by 2030. That means that pursuing a strategy of renewable energy and energy efficiency would make Britain’s energy supply more secure.

Find out more from Friends of the Earth’s report on fracking and energy security [PDF].

7. Fracking is unlikely to reduce energy bills

David Cameron’s claims that fracking would cut energy bills were dismissed as “baseless economics” by world-renowned economist Lord Stern. And even the former chairman of leading fracking firm Cuadrilla, Lord Browne, said that UK shale gas would not have a material impact on gas prices.

A PR advisor to Cuadrilla admitted that fracking is likely to have “basically insignificant” impact on energy prices.

The Task Force on Shale Gas [PDF], funded by energy companies, recently concluded “it seems that the impact of a shale gas industry in the UK alone would not be sufficient to reduce prices in Europe”.

8. Fracking in the UK has triggered many small earthquakes

57 earthquakes were detected in Lancashire in 2018 during a two-month period when Cuadrilla was fracking in the county at Preston New Road.

On 5 separate occasions, Cuadrilla stopped fracking because it triggered earthquakes bigger than the rules allow.

Fracking must stop if earthquakes reach magnitude 0.5. The fracking industry is now trying to relax this rule, asking the government to permit it to trigger bigger earthquakes.

The politics of fracking in the UK

The UK Government has been trying to push fracking on England since the former Chancellor George Osborne announced in 2012 that he wanted a “dash for gas”, and for Britain to be at the centre of the European shale gas industry.

One thing that’s been absolutely central to the 2019 UK moratorium on fracking is people everywhere rising up, joining and creating anti-fracking groups and campaigning locally to stop it. Wherever fracking has been proposed, local people have opposed it and councils have largely followed suit.

As the risks of fracking become more well-known, countries and states are putting in place bans and moratoriums.

This includes Wales, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Bulgaria. Following a 2-year moratorium, fracking was banned in New York State after the Public Health Commissioner concluded there are “significant” risks to public health.

The number of bans and moratoriums continues to increase:

We won the fight against fracking, and community action was the key to victory. Why not do something amazing in your community?

Join (or start!) a Climate Action group in your local area.