Hydraulic fracturing, to give it its proper name, is a form of gas extraction whereby a liquid is pumped down deep into the earth in order to split the shale and release trapped natural gas, which can then be used as fuel. Advances in this technology have helped open up vast new energy resources in the US, but it is not without its problems.
As depicted in the Oscar-nominated film Gasland, there are allegations that chemicals used during fracking are polluting the water table and releasing harmful substances into the drinking water of people who live near gas wells. Companies deny that this happens, saying fracking happens too far below the water table to be possible. But Gasland’s shots of residents turning on their taps and lighting whatever is being released from them made for powerful images.
Now the technology is starting to get noticed in the UK, and specifically the North West, where it is being used by drilling firm Cuadrilla. Here, the company is facing accusations not just of polluting the water table but even of causing earthquakes.
The government so far has been remarkably relaxed about the prospect of fracking on a significant scale in the UK. Last week, the energy select committee recommended that ministers should back shale gas drilling, saying the environmental problems associated with it in the US could be overcome by tight regulation and good industry practice.
Tim Yeo, the committee chairman, told me he won’t push his fellow members to reopen their investigation on the basis of the new evidence about the link between drilling and earthquakes. “We looked at the evidence very closely, and I would be surprised if we revisit it,” he said. But he admitted that the earthquake threat was not one they considered in the original report, and that there remained the possibility that the rest of the committee could recommend they take a closer look when the house reconvenes next week.
Whatever they decide, the days of the word “fracking” causing bemused sniggers among assembled hacks may soon be over.