What is shale gas?

Not sure what shale gas is, what it is used for or whether it is a good, sustainable option for Australia's future?

Here is an overview of this product and the effect it could have on your future gas prices

Is shale gas the same as natural gas?

Yes - shale gale is also known as natural gas. This product is the cleanest fossil fuel in the world and supplies are cheap and abundant, according to Mining Australia.

It claims that if consumption rates do not change, current levels of this natural product in the US alone could supply domestic electricity generation for around 52 years.

Shale gas is named as such because it is trapped within shale formations, or fine sedimentary rocks. The gas is often trapped in very small spaces in the rock.

New developments in drilling and hydraulic fracturing have allowed miners to access large volumes of gas in a more economical way than ever before.

How is shale gas extracted?

A controversial process known as fracking or hydraulic fracture stimulation is used to extract this gas as it is located underground, typically two to five kilometres deep, according to the Government of Western Australia's Department of Mines and Petroleum.

Since it is trapped in tiny spaces within rocks, it does not flow freely, meaning a different process must be used to recover it from the ground. Fracking has been used in Western Australia for the past 50 years.

This is where fluid is pumped down a well at considerable pressure - around 300 times the pressure of a car tyre - to create small cracks (fractures) in the gas-bearing rocks.

This allows the trapped gas to flow up the well.

Protection is offered at the top of the well in the form of three sets of casings, as it is this part that is most at risk of contamination from leaking salt water or hydrocarbons.

What is contained in fracking fluid?

The fluid sent into the well consists of 90 per cent water, 9 per cent proppant and 1 per cent chemicals.

Proppant is more often than not made up of sand, other silica or ceramic pieces. It remains behind as the fracking fluid recedes. This allows it to open up the fractures that let the gas flow up to the well.

The amount of chemicals can differ from well to well but can often be harmful to people, with 87 per cent being skin irritants, 72 per cent harmful if swallowed, 68 per cent respiratory irritants and a further 9 per cent being suspected carcinogens, according to Mining Australia.

What are the risks of fracking?

This process has been controversial because of the risks involved. This includes fluid contaminating aquifers and groundwater.

There have been incidents of this in the past, as a result of casing failures, surface spills and blowouts.

Some are concerned fracking could contaminate drinking water. However, the main risk is of it affecting the groundwater around the fracking sites, according to the BBC, as the carcinogenic chemicals can escape.

The industry claims any pollution incidents in the past are the results of bad practices rather than a risky technique.

Others are concerned fracking could cause small earth tremors. However, Professor Ernie Rutter from the University of Manchester told the BBC these are unlikely to be felt by most people and the risk of damage is low.

What is the effect on the environment?

Fracking requires a large area of land, but others believe the large amounts of water are of a higher priority to environmentalists, as these must be transported to the fracking site.

However, natural gas is believed to be produce fewer greenhouse gases than other fossil fuels, providing the methane leakage is contained and reduced to 3.2 per cent of the source well's production levels, according to Mining Australia.

Once used in your home or business, natural gas is more clean burning than coal or oil, emitting less carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

What are the advantages of fracking?

Fracking is believed to be an advantageous process as it allows gas drillers to access difficult to reach resources.

This can boost gas production, lowering gas prices and if implemented could offer gas security to consumers.

Is fracking taking place in Australia?

Fracking has been seen across Australia for a number of years, and this will increase, according to a study by Lux Research.

This indicates Australia is poised to become the next big nation in the natural gas market. It claims there are around 1.7 trillion barrels of oil under the earth.

"Existing infrastructure, low population density in resource-rich regions and a welcoming government position Australia at the forefront of shale development," Lux researcher Daniel Choi told the Australian on January 20.

In March, Appea, the voice of Australia's oil and gas industry, said there is enormous potential to explore the shale gas resources in Queensland.

Shale gas may well become more popular, and could even drive down the prices offered by current gas suppliers to Aussie consumers.

Posted by Paul Doyle.