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fracking

noun [uncountable]

a method of extracting oil or gas from a layer of rock by drilling and creating cracks

frack

verb [transitive]

'David Cameron has put his full support behind fracking, which he says is the answer to lowering energy prices in the UK, but environmentalists are urging caution.'

Bath Chronicle 21st December 2012

'Fracking – currently unmonitored in California – uses huge volumes of water mixed with dangerous chemicals to blast open rock formations and extract oil and gas. Hundreds of wells have been fracked in California in recent years.'

Kansas City infoZine 20th December 2012

With escalating fuel prices and gradual depletion of the energy reserves we've previously taken for granted, it's no wonder that a main concern in the 21st century is to find new ways of supplying the energy that society will perpetually be hungry for. A mining process popularly known as fracking is one way of extracting vast amounts of fuel which would have formerly been inaccessible. Predictably however, though it may seem like a golden egg to feed our energy needs, it does have its negative side.

opponents … pinpoint various causes for concern, such as the toxic chemicals used and the amount of water needed to release the trapped gas, which can open up the subsequent risk of seismic activity

Fracking, also known more formally by the term hydraulic fracturing, is a procedure which enables the extraction of oil and natural gas from rock formations deep below the earth's surface. The process involves drilling thousands of metres into the ground, and blasting water and chemicals, sometimes described as fracturing fluids, into the rock in order to extract gas which is embedded in deposits of shale, a rock which is not very permeable and therefore potentially contains gas reservoirs. The resulting fuel is consequently often described as shale gas.

Fracking is an energy extraction technique which is beginning to be used more widely in the United States, and US gas prices have fallen sharply as a result. In a period when Britain's North Sea gas is running out fast, ageing nuclear power stations are being decommissioned, and coal is being phased out because of pollution, it's hardly surprising that in the UK, both politicians and manufacturers are enticed by the idea of shale gas, which seems a possible answer in the face of rising fuel costs and the looming issue of what has been described as an energy crunch (compare the expression credit crunch – a sudden rise in the cost of loans and reduction in their availability).

In December 2012, the term fracking hit the headlines in the UK when the British government gave the green light to its wider use. This step has however proved quite controversial, unleashing a wave of criticism in relation to the negative consequences for the environment. Opponents of the technique pinpoint various causes for concern, such as the toxic chemicals used and the amount of water needed to release the trapped gas, which can open up the subsequent risk of seismic activity. Some evidence of this has already been witnessed in the UK, when in 2011 a series of minor earth tremors occurred after fracking procedures were tested in Lancashire. Environmentalists also identify wider issues, pointing out that use of such techniques does nothing to arrest climate change and in fact perpetuates the desire for conventional fuels rather than an investment in renewable energy.

Background – fracking

The term fracking is based on the word fracture, which first occurred as a verb in the early seventeenth century and relates to Latin fractus, participle of verb frangere meaning 'to break'. The activity noun fracking describes the process but there's also some evidence for a transitive verb frack, usually appearing in the passive form or as a participle adjective fracked.

Strong opinions about the process have evoked examples of word play in the media, with expletives such as frack off and fracked off (compare hacked off) popping up in the headlines. The tongue-in-cheek expressions frackademic and frackademia have also been used to identify individuals and institutions collaborating with industrial sponsors in the research and development of fracking techniques.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 16th January 2013.

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