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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 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. The drilling and fracking equipment is then taken.

The Government’s definition of fracking

There are some concerns about the way in which the government defines fracking – currently defined in statute by the amount of fluid used during the process.

  1. Defining fracking by volume of fluid used is allowing activities similar in impact to fracking, such as acidisation, but outside the volume thresholds to be accepted in protected areas. A recent investigation has revealed that 177,000 acres of protected areas in the South East of England are now exposed to oil exploration using acidisation practices.
  1. Defining fracking by volume of fluid used leads to some operations evading the greater regulatory scrutiny afforded to unconventional operations by the Infrastructure Act. Research has found that many fracking wells in the USA may not have been covered by this definition (this could be made certain if more data were available), and therefore calls into question whether the criteria adequately covers all operations.

Alternatives definitions have been suggested. Notably, North Yorkshire Councils have just finished drawing up their Joint Minerals and Waste Plan (JMWP), which a planning inspector has stated they are minded to find sound. The JMWP defines fracking as ‘the fracturing of rock regardless of the volume of fracture fluid used’, reducing regulatory and technical confusion and ensuring all operations under the banner of fracking or a similar unconventional process are treated equally.

It is enough to raise eyebrows that both the Government and the industry have objected to this new definition and sort to reinstate their narrower definition as part of proposals to fast track fracking announced in May 2018. If the additional safeguards for fracking are ones that were required of operators beforehand, why are fracking companies so opposed to a broader definition of fracking that would subject them to the same regulations they already face?

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 ten years now has several hundred thousand shale gas wells. Experience from the USA suggests 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.

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

Local CPRE groups have been active in working with communities and local coalitions engaging in the fracking debate. Groups have 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. If you are interested in getting involved with a local group you can find their contact details here [insert link].

Another point of call is 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 presently require planning applications to be submitted with the exception of some initial investigation and monitoring boreholes and ground radar surveys. One of the most recent guides to the planning process was published by the RTPI and Planning Aid England in March 2017, and provides a comprehensive run-down of how shale gas is extracted, the application process and the role of regulatory bodies.

Find out more

CPRE Policy guidance note on shale gas

CPRE Lancashire's fracking engagement 'top tips'

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