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Q&A: Fracking

Green groups are outraged after the controversial method of extracting shale gas has been allowed co

Q: What is "fracking"?

Fracking - or hydraulic fracturing, to use the proper term - is the extraction of shale gas through drilling a well hundreds of metres underground and filling it with water, sand and chemicals. The practice has been halted in the UK since it resulted in two minor earthquakes in Blackpool last year; however, the advice of an official British government report published today advised ministers to continue fracking - in a move that could result in thousands of new wells being drilled all over the country.

Q: How much gas does it produce?

According to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the stage of the fracking process in the UK means that it is too early to decipher how much gas can be extracted. A statement on their website says: "None of the wells drilled has been production tested, so a reliable reserve estimate (the amount of gas that can be technically and economically produced) cannot yet be made."

However, a DECC-comissioned British Geological Survey (BGS) in 2010 estimated that 150bn cubic metres of shale gas could be recovered through fracking; such a volume would account for two whole years of gas consumption in the UK.

Q: What do its advocates say?

Burning natural gas produces far less CO2 and other pollutants than using coal or oil - as those in favour of fracking like to remind us. In the US, where shale gas is estimated to account for 46 per cent of natural gas production by 2035, fracking plays a major part in fulfilling the country's carbon reduction targets. 

Dieter Helm, Professor of Energy Policy at Oxford University, said in a report published last year:

"With the coming of shale gas, the conventional wisdom has been turned on its head: there is now so much potential gas that for policy purposes it is better to assume that supplies have the potential to exceed demand for the period right through to 2050 and indeed for the rest of the century."

Q: What do its opponents say?

Opponents point to the large amounts of flammable methane gas - an asphyxiant which can displace oxygen in an enclosed space -  that have leaked from extraction sites and could potentially get into drinking water. The new report claims this can be avoided.

Environmental campaigners also say that gas extraction won't necessarily reduce global coal use; the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research recently concluded that unless there is a global carbon cap, additional gas would only add to overall fossil fuel use

Thirdly, green groups are concerned by the large amount of water required to extract shale gas through hydraulic fracturing. Many see this as a waste at a time when there is a global water crisis

Safety issues also arise. The report accepts that the Blackpool earthquakes - measuring 2.3 and 1.5 on the richter scale - were the result of fracking in the area. Peter Styles, a professor at Keele University who wrote the report, warned that further fracking around Blackpool would lead to increased seismic activity. 

Andy Atkins, the Executive Director of Friends of the Earth, said: "We don't need earth tremor-causing fracking to meet our power needs – we need a seismic shift in energy policy. There should be a full scientific assessment of all the impacts of fracking – a short consultation on one of the problems is completely inadequate."

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.