Fracking is a new, more extreme form of fossil fuel exploitation, targeting much less permeable rock formations than previous conventional oil and gas extraction. It is characterised by the drilling of dense patterns of, usually horizontal, wells (up to 8 per square mile or more) as well as other more intense extraction processes such are hydraulic fracturing and de-watering. Different rock formations can be targeted, such as shale (Shale Gas & Oil) and coal (Coal Bed Methane), but the negative impacts on the environment and society are very similar.
For the local people affected, “fracking” has come to mean a load of companies turning up where they live and coating the area in hundreds or thousands of well pads, compressor stations and pipelines, with a huge variety of extremely negative consequences. The word is derived from “fraccing”, much more narrowly defined industry slang for hydraulic fracturing, one particular stage of unconventional petroleum (oil or gas) extraction involving injecting fluids under high pressure to crack rock. This very different focus reflects the different concerns of those involved.
The communities living with the consequences of fracking are mainly concerned with the impacts it has on them and their environment. Unconventional oil and gas extraction is a complex process, involving pad construction, well drilling, casing, simulation (e.g. hydraulic fracturing), extraction, transport, plus well plugging and abandonment. All these stages have impacts and due to the fact that fracking requires so many more wells, covering large areas, these impacts mount up to a much greater extent than for conventional extraction.
Focused as they are on getting gas and oil out of the ground at any cost, the industry and government are concerned with the technologies which can use to do that. They work on a drilling site by drilling site basis, and the cumulative impact of the whole process is not something that concerns them. It is also useful in their public relations to focus on small details rather than the big picture, and a narrow definition of “fraccing”, as simply hydraulic fracturing, helps promote the impression that fracking is simply conventional extraction plus hydraulic fracturing, rather than an entirely different process.