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Frack off! or Frack on?

Fracking is to gas what Trump is to politics and Marmite to toast. You either love it or hate it. This week the Government overturned a council decision to approve fracking plans in Little Plumpton in Lancashire. Neighbours who for years had lived happily side by side in this heretofore little known village revealed some no longer spoke to each other.

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So what exactly is it and why is it so controversial? Fracking, at its most basic, means fracturing rock in the pursuit of gas. Producers drill deep into the earth and then blast the rock with a mixture of water, sand and chemicals to release the gas inside. It can be done horizontally or vertically, though the former is more common.

The last time it was carried out in the UK was five years ago. Two small earthquakes were recorded near the Preese Hall drilling site close to Blackpool, where Cuadrilla Resources was using fracking to extrat gas from a shale bed. Cuadrilla commissioned an independent study which reported: “Most likely, the repeated seismicity was induced by direct injection of fluid into the fault zone.” The British Geological Survey said it was down to the water being pushed into the earth – the rocks became lubricated and pushed apart- “It’s a bit like oiling the fault.”

Naturally you’d then expect widespread reports of earthquakes in the US where fracking has been happening for decades. NewScientist.com says however, “evidence…has so far been elusive.” The BGS says, “This (the 2011 earthquakes) is one of the first times that earthquakes have been associated with fracking.” What the US has had that hasn’t been replicated in the UK is a YouTube video of a woman risking setting fire to her house by demonstrating how methane gas leaking from her taps can go alight when she holds a lit match to it.

“When burnt, shale gas produces slightly less CO2 than natural gas, which itself emits half as much as coal,” writes The Guardian. “But the picture is less clear when it includes methane emissions, which are 56 times more potent than CO2 over a 20-year period, and could trigger feedback loops of global warming.” In fact a review of methane measurements – which identified a spike since 2007 – has been linked to the US shale boom.

Reserves of shale gas have been identified across England, particularly in northern England. It is unique in the UK as the only country that allows fracking. Governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have all said they’ll oppose it until further research is done on its environmental impact. Labour said last month if it came to power it’ll ban it. France and Germany have banned it.

There are many supporters of fracking of course – primarily found in the US where it’s believed it provides gas security for the next 100 years. It now accounts for more than half of all US oil output. Given that in 2000 it made up less than 2%, that’s an incredible feat. Of course, it also created the global glut which has had significant consequences for all of us.

More than 100 licences have been awarded by the government. The Communities Secretary Sajid Javid believes shale gas has “the potential to power economic growth, support 64,000 jobs and provide a new domestic energy source, making us less reliant on imports.” A report by British Gas warned that as the amount of gas produced from the North Sea declines, more will need to be imported. With the current relationship with Russia that’s not something many want to rely on.

It’s not likely England or its neighbouring countries will experience a US-style fracking revolution. Alessandro Torello from the International Association of Oi and Gas Producers admitted, “While it is true that at the moment it is difficult to make an economic case for shale in Europe, this is a long-term industry.”

That’s not surprising given a report last week which said public support in Britain is at an all-time low. It’ll take time for the industry’s PR teams to try to transform attitudes. Success in this venture is not guaranteed. One YouTube video of a flaming tap I Little Plumpton could be all it takes.