• Reading Levels 3 - 5
Science | Geography


Fracking is one of the most controversial technologies of our time, with activists arguing it poses a grave environmental threat. But what exactly is fracking? And why is it disputed? First things first. What is fracking? It is short for "hydraulic fracturingHydraulic refers to the mixture of water, sand, and chemicals, which is pumped into the ground. Fracturing refers to the fracturing of the rocks.": a process of extracting natural gas from shale rocks, thousands of metres below the Earth's surface. This gas is then transported to power plants and burned to produce electricity. How does it work? First, an energy company drills around two miles down into the Earth, until it hits shale rockShale rock was formed over millions of years when layers of mud were slowly compressed. . The drill then curves 90 degrees and drills horizontally for another half a mile or so. Once the hole is ready, a steel pipe is inserted and encased in cement to protect the earth and groundwaterA layer of water which is held underground in soil or rock crevices. It is often used as local drinking water. from contamination. A "perforating gun" is lowered into the hole and set off, creating small holes in the horizontal pipe. This is when the fracking begins. Around 16 Olympic swimming pools' worth of liquid is pumped into the well at extremely high pressures, cracking open the shale rock and releasing the gas which is trapped there. The liquid is around 90% water and sand, plus some chemicals to help carry the sand and kill bacteria. Once the water is removed, the sand keeps the fissuresCracks in rock where you can see there is a definite separation. in the rock open and gas flows up to the well. Is fracking happening in the UK? In October 2018, the energy company Cuadrilla won a legal battle in the High CourtIn England and Wales, a court that deals with particularly important cases, or those that involve large sums of money., getting permission to begin fracking at a site in Lancashire. This first began in 2011, but stopped after a series of small earthquakes. (A report found that it was "highly probable" these were caused by the drilling.) Protesters tried to stop it going ahead by chaining themselves to the site - but they were cut away by police. Less than a month later, Caudrilla announced that shale gas was flowing from the site for the first time. Why is it controversial? Some people are worried about the impact that fracking will have on the environment. There is the risk of earthquakes caused by drilling (although UK regulation now requires companies to stop if there are tremors above a 0.5 magnitude). There are also concerns about the large amounts of water used in fracking, and the risks of chemicals and toxic waste contaminating local water supplies. What about climate crisis? It's tricky. All fossil fuelsFuels made from decomposing plants and animals, including coal, natural gas and oil. These fuels release carbon dioxide, causing global warming. produce carbon dioxide when they are burned, but gas produces around half the amount as coal, so it is a cleaner form of energy. However, fracking also releases methane, which is far more potent than carbon dioxide. In 2018, a landmark UNUnited Nations. An intergovernmental organisation based in New York that aims to maintain international peace and security. study said the world must dramatically reduce its greenhouse gasGases in the Earth's atmosphere that trap heat, contributing to global warming. Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and water vapour are all greenhouse gases. emissions over the next 10 years if it wants to limit global warmingThe Earth is getting hotter due to climate change. to under 1.5C. Many argue that fracking is distracting the UK from converting to renewableEnergy sources, such as wind and solar power. energy. "We need a 21st Century energy revolution based on efficiency and renewables, not more fossil fuels," a campaigner for Friends of the Earth told BBC News. So, why are we investing in fracking? As things currently stand, renewable energy alone cannot power the UK. Supporters of fracking argue that gas is better for the planet than coal. "Greens who [...] chain themselves to fences are responsible for keeping carbon emissions higher than they need be," wrote Ross Clark in the Spectator in October 2018. Currently, the UK importsGoods or services bought in one country that were produced in another. over half of its gas. Fracking would allow it to be more self-reliant, while potentially creating thousands of jobs. Experts estimate that there is enough shale gas for around 25 to 50 years' of energy. That would give the UK time to transition to a carbon-free future without relying on other countries. For environmental campaigners, however, that is not soon enough.KeywordsHydraulic fracturing - Hydraulic refers to the mixture of water, sand, and chemicals, which is pumped into the ground. Fracturing refers to the fracturing of the rocks.

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