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Shale Gas Inquiry

Shale Gas InquiryIn Gas Exploration back in January 2011, we broke news of the coming of Shale Gas exploration in Fylde as we reported on a meeting organised by the local Green Party.

Since then there has been a lot of interest, and much said about it.

We've seen competent management running the exploration processes, we've seen claims of significant wealth creation and new employment prospects. We've seen claims that the quantity of gas available could provide a degree of national independence for the UK's energy policy. We've seen protests against the scheme ranging from 'the great unwashed' through to widely respected organisations like the Co-Operative movement and Friends of the Earth. And we've seen earth tremors or small earthquakes around Poulton attributed to the fracturing process as it was undertaken.

We've not yet altered our view - that as yet, we don't know enough about the evidence that underpins the pros and cons to make a proper decision. So we're a fracking agnostic.

We also think it will take people that are much better informed technically than we are in mining, engineering and geology, to assess and evaluate the pros and cons anyway.

Popular media attention has, of course, focussed on the earthquake attributed to the fracking process. But equally, according to the British Geological Society, such minor movements are not uncommon with many sorts of mining operations (eg coal mining). So maybe tremors due to mining are not something specific to the present type of exploration using fracking. However, it will be a concern for local people.

The fracking technology has been in use for many years in the UK petrochemical industry - we heard one chap say he'd been involved in using it on 'oil rigs' for many years, so the fracturing technology was already proven in certain types of geology.

The part that's new and untested, is its use in shale rocks.

So it was in the hope of learning more about the process from impartial expertise that we went to a Scrutiny Committee at Fylde last week where the matter was on the agenda as an interim report from a Task and Finish group.

The report said it was an "overview on progress and the initial findings of the Task and Finish Group assigned to look at the shale gas operations within the borough, following its process of information and evidence gathering."

The recommendations were to note the interim findings and await the full and final report in due course, so that councillors could have the opportunity of understanding the impact (if any) of the exploratory shale gas operations in the area, and thus be able to advise their constituents accordingly.

To be honest, we were a bit underwhelmed.

And not very impressed with the impartiality.

Our overriding perception was one of a Chairman who had already made up his mind that this was a bad thing, and was going to bully into silence, anyone with an alternative opinion. We also came away with the view that the Task and Finish Inquiry was a process that was looking for arguments to justify his position.

Ostensibly, the Terms of Reference for the investigation were to achieve:

  • An understanding of the self regulatory aspects and controls in place in relation to the operations
  • An appreciation of the economic, social and environmental impacts of the operations
  • An appreciation and understanding of existing planning permissions in place and any proposed applications pending
  • An appreciation of the insurance/ public liability arrangements.

The Task and Finish Group has considered: the Select Committee Report; attended a presentation by Cuadrilla; met with representatives of the borough councilís planning and community services section; together with representatives of Environment Agency; Lancashire County Council (Planning); and an un-named but "respected" technical advisor.

In terms of interim findings, readers won't be surprised to find we thought they were pretty negative in style and tone. They were, however, circumscribed with comments suggesting the need to be very careful about accuracy in their reporting.

The primary focus of concern seemed to be the claim that the there is limited or no regulation of the actual exploratory operation - other than self regulation by the Company itself and some independent verification.

The report noted "There appears to be not one official body taking responsibility for ensuring all the other bodies were executing their tasks as required. All the bodies concerned assume the others are regulating and there appears to be considerable confusion between the authorities as to who is responsible for what. Essentially, the Company appears to be self-regulating with limited independent verification."

They also said "There are no permits given for any of the sites. It is understood that the Environment Agency do not consider permits to be necessary as the operations were deemed low risk. Likewise, as for regular examination of the well construction to confirm that it has been built to the plans approved by the HSE the body confirmed back that it is too expensive to inspect and is perceived to be a low risk anyway."

But for all its huffing and puffing, Fylde's view on this matter is about as important in this matter as a fly to a cow.

Cuadrilla's licence is granted by national government (Department of Energy & Climate Change) and the planning applications are heard and determined by Lancashire County Council (who deal with all mining and similar planning applications). Fylde only gets to comment on the planning application.

So, the meeting got under way with a 'Public Platform' statement by Mr Mitchell of the Green Party who said he wanted the Council to come to a decision on the matter that night. (Which they couldn't because there was nothing to decide because it was an interim report that had not been concluded).

He was worried that here were hundreds of new applications in the pipeline (and didn't appear to see the unintended humour in his statement). He said he thought the present operations could be challenged because they had not been the subject on an Environmental Impact Assessment, and something to do with chemical safety that we couldn't quite hear.

The Chairman said "This is a big issue and it's something we can't do at half-cock. It's highly technical and it will take time." He said there was concern that although Cuadrilla appeared to be a reputable organisation, there were numerous other organisations around the world that were looking at Fylde.

With committed environmentalist and Environment Portfolio Holder Cllr Tommy Threlfall sitting in the public gallery, he went on to say that when a planning consultation came in from LCC in the future, it shouldn't just be FBC Planning that responded. He said they needed to make the relevant Portfolio Holder aware of the consultation, and a response should be made on behalf of the whole Council.

What you see here is an attempt to widen out what should be a technical planning comment on an application into something that potentially brings in extraneous matters to the planning discipline.

They can do that of course, but it will probably carry little weight.

Cllr Linda Nulty asked a question and said she was concerned about the self regulation aspect of it. The Chairman closed her down quickly saying that his concerns included the fact that the HSE and Fylde's MP were not prepared to meet the Task and Finish Group to give evidence.

The paragraph in the report that deals with this aspect says "..... the MP for Fylde has subsequently declined the invitation stating that as he is a PPS [Parliamentary Private Secretary] in the Department of Energy, it would not be appropriate for him to take part. In addition, the Head of HSE (Offshore) Division has also declined the invitation stating that he could not commit resources to the matter as all the well inspectors are based in Aberdeen and there are no locally based ones."

Readers will no doubt make up their own minds on this matter, but we can see the difficulty that Mr Menzies could have, given that his Minister in the Energy Department has issued the licence to Cuadrilla.

Again seasoned readers can pick up the tone from the report's phrasing. The use of the phrase "...declined the invitation stating..." implies much more disbelief in the candour of the comment than, for example, would phrasing that said "...declined the invitation because he is..."

It's little things like that which condition the reader's perception of what's going on.

Then Cllr Maxine Chew (whose patch in Singleton and Greenhalgh has one of the drilling sites) attempted to speak.

She has been a cautious supporter of the exploration, but began by saying she was more worried about the exploitation phase that would follow if the exploration proved successful.

Again the Chairman Kiran Mulholland was quick to close her down. He said that was not relevant to what was on the agenda, and they could only discuss the arrangements for exploration.

We thought the term of reference that said "An appreciation and understanding of existing planning permissions in place and any proposed applications pending"  pretty much gave her cause to raise such matters in the meeting, but the Chairman was having none of it.

Speculating that if they ever got to an exploitation phase, he said "I would hope there would be Task and Finish Groups flying around all over the place if that happened"

So much for impartiality then.

She then tried to explain that there had been a previous exploration 25 years ago in Fylde, and that had been working satisfactorily since.

To be fair, it's not unknown for Cllr Chew to divert from the main thrust of a topic on occasions, but in all honesty, we didn't think this was the case here.

In classic bully-boy style, the Chairman orally bludgeoned her with "We're only here to discuss the report on the agenda and nothing else"

She retorted with "So you don't think that fracking that took place in Fylde 25 years ago and has been working with no problem ever since has any relevance to what we're discussing tonight?"

Bringing out an even bigger club, and using an even more hectoring tone, Cllr Mulholland demanded tetchily: "Have you got anything to contribute to this agenda item?"

She replied saying "Well I thought I was doing that, but you evidently don't, so I'll shut up" And with that, she sat stone-faced and silent through all the remaining items on the agenda.

For a moment or two there was an awkward atmosphere when she first fell silent. You could feel the sympathy for her oozing out of other members of the Committee.

Given that the drilling is taking place in her ward, and she had taken the trouble to come out from Singleton on a filthy night in December to attend and take part in the Scrutiny Committee Meeting, we also thought it was a very bad show.

But the Chairman blustered his way through, and carried on regardless.

We though it was as bad a piece of chairing as we'd seen in a committee.

The whole point of Scrutiny is to encourage both the committee members and the public to have their say, so that all points of view are heard.

The role of any chairman is not to impose his own views, but to draw out the views of others.

Bit not Cllr Mulholland on this occasion.

We were saddened.

We know he has a good brain and is very able. But that was absolutely not the way to conduct a meeting, and we think he should begin the next meeting with a proper apology to Cllr Chew.

And so there it rested.

The meeting agreed to note the interim findings and await the full and final report in due course.

All a damp squib really.

Fylde can huff and puff all it likes, but it ain't going to make any difference.

Especially if the gas resources are as significant as Cuadrilla claim (they may not be of course. Cuadrilla's role is just to explore, then to sell on to an extraction company, so the better they can make it look the more cash they're likely to get).

But if it is a significant find,  it could become something that the national Infrastructure Planning Commission looks at, and that could take all the decisions away from both Fylde and Lancashire County Council.

For those interested, there also is a Friends of the Earth meeting regarding shale gas at The Annexe, St. Annes United Reformed Church, St Georges Road, St. Annes on Wednesday 7th December at 7.30 p.m.

The FOE blurb says "Will There Be Shale Gas Extraction In Lytham St. Annes?" Friends of the Earth invite you to an event comprising a short film and talk about shale gas, followed by discussion and questions. Entry is free, but any small donation to cover our costs is appreciated.

Sadly we already have commitments elsewhere on Wednesday, but several of our readers are going, so we expect we might have something to report in the future.

And in conclusion......

This may or may not be related, so readers are advised to treat it with caution, but we're picking up stories about plans for a 'power station' in the vicinity of Clifton Marsh. This is an unconfirmed story at present, and it may have nothing to do with the shale gas drilling, but if the two are related, there could be some big moves afoot here.

Dated:  5 December 2011

UPDATE 7 December 2011
Thanks to our reader who sent us a link to what we think is the best explanation of the drilling and fracturing process we've ever seen. It's a video from another drilling company and this is about oil prospecting in shale rock rather than gas prospecting, but it's an easy to understand video. Follow this link to see the drilling video


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