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Frack and ruin: the rise of hydraulic fracturing

Inflammable tap water, cancer threats and earthquakes: probably coming soon, near you. Sebastian Doggart reports from New York on the dangers of hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking'.

Go to your nearest tap. Light a match, and place it next to the running water. If it catches fire, as it has in many American homes, your water supply has probably been polluted by a natural-gas extraction process called fracking. If no flames appear, don’t get complacent. Fracking is becoming the gold rush of the 21st century – as well as an urgent wake-up call on the irreparable damage we are wreaking on our environment. Fracking began in Britain in March, and is probably coming to a gas reservoir near you.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves blasting huge amounts of water, mixed with sand and often toxic chemicals, to break up shale formations thousands of feet under the earth, to release natural gas.

The first record of fracking for natural gas was in 1821, in Fredonia, New York. For the next 120 years, gas extraction mostly came from conventional reservoirs which did not require fracking. In 1949, the technique was revived by US companies including Halliburton. Its use skyrocketed since 2005 in the US when the Energy Policy Act exempted fracking wells from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Act. Championed by Dick Cheney, then Vice-President, this became known as the “Halliburton loophole”.

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