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Fracking Hell

Fracking HellNot our words this time, but the sub-title of an evening to hear more about the shale gas exploration plans of Cuadrilla.

 counterbalance was the first media to report this topic seriously back in January 2011 with our article 'Gas Exploration'. 

We  followed that up with 'Shale Gas Inquiry'  as FBC's Scrutiny Committee considered an interim report on the matter.

Cuadrilla's work caused two small earthquakes near Poulton which has alarmed residents there (and more widely in Fylde), and the drilling was stopped voluntarily by Cuadrilla whilst a detailed report was prepared for Government.

That report - by Dr Christopher A. Green (Hydraulic Fracturing), Professor Peter Styles of Keele University (Seismic), and Dr Brian J. Baptie of the British Geological Survey - is presently available from the Department of Energy & Climate Change website (and probably from us after that link no longer works).

It is a report that seems to have been widely acclaimed. In simple terms it says that drilling should continue with some additional precautions -

  1. The fracking procedure should have a smaller pre-injection and monitoring stage before the main injection.

  2. The growth and direction of the fractures should be monitored during future treatments. (quite how they do that at 9,000 feet down is beyond us)

  3. There needs to be better monitoring of future fracking operations to record any seismic activity in better detail.

  4. The process should stop if seismic activity of magnitude 0.5 or above is detected.

Having said the report is widely acclaimed, the interpretations being put on it are less universally agreed.

Cuadrilla say it's a green light for more exploration (subject of course to the recommendations of the report). They're clearly confident, and must be spending hundreds of thousands of pounds cabling up huge areas around Elswick, Singleton, Poulton and other areas to do more geological tests with subterranean charges and vibrating lorries.

The Department of Climate Change seem to be ready to agree that it's OK to make progress with the report's recommendations.

But those opposed to the process say the DECC are treating this report and the six week consultation period which has just opened as the "final say" on whether fracking is OK, and on what regulations might be needed for its proper operation.

There is also concern amongst opponents that the report does not propose enough measures to ensure the integrity of the well bore (the drilled shaft)  itself, and the risks to the upper areas of the ground where pollution can occur.

Added to this mix are those who wonder how the huge quantities of contaminated water from the fracking process are going to be cleaned up, (we understand there are no local facilities currently available and they will either have to be built somewhere locally, or have the fluid trucked to various sites around the UK to get it cleaned up).   

If it is necessary to transport it, there will be thousands of lorry-loads of it going for treatment and cleaning, and this will damage countryside roads and cause traffic problems.

Set against this, Cuadrilla has estimated that potentially 200 trillion cubic feet of gas is bound up in shale rock in Lancashire and that the firm's Bowland shale project could deliver huge sums in taxes on profits for the Government, as well as helping to ensure energy continuity and possibly driving down the cost of gas for households.

There are others who disagree with the principle of using fossil fuels anyway, and say the whole of our energy requirements should come from renewable sources such as waves, wind, and solar.

We suspect that's well-intentioned pie in the sky unless we're all prepared to change the way we live and dramatically reduce our energy consumption at the same time.

We find this all a bit like the foxhunting debate. It's not clear cut. There are so many off-topic agendas (pro and con) bound up with the subject that it's difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff, and the vehemence which some zealots in the anti-fracking camp display doesn't promote reasoned debate anyway.

A diversity of views was in evidence at the 'Fracking Hell' event at the United Reformed Church Hall in St Annes last month (22 March) (Yes, we're a bit behind, sorry).

We went along to hear the arguments.

The photo shows the room as we arrived, but by the start, there were about 45 or 50 people who had also come along.

We were treated to an impressive array of equipment  with plugs on (computers, sound mixing deck, video player, amplifier etc), at the front of the room,  and that set us wondering a bit about energy consumption habits changing.

The Chairman, Ian Roberts, who is known to us as a reasonable and reasoned chap, opened the meeting, saying Cuadrilla had been invited but had not been able to attend, so it might appear a bit one sided.

The main local group had formed itself into 'Residents Action on Fylde Fracking'  (RAFF). And there was another group represented (we think it was Ribble Estuary Against Fracking - REAF) which - as the Chairman humorously observed had at least avoided the acronym of  RIFF-RAFF.

Also present were a couple of people (including a sharp young lady whose name we didn't get) from Friends of the Earth. Their principal speaker - Tony Bosworth - had a spot during the evening and spoke well about the topic - as we will report.

First we were treated to a 20 minute video which was interesting - but a presentation from Cuadrilla about the benefits would have made it more balanced. It was a shame they couldn't attend.

The Chairman said the aim of the evening was firstly to collect more supporters - they already had an email list of 100 people, and there was an e-petition on Fylde's website which people could sign. (At the time of writing it has 233 signatures and 154 days left to collect more).

He also said the subject had been getting into the media and had been on TV recently.

Secondly, the aim was to produce support for a moratorium on fracking to allow time for an environmental impact study, then to build the regulation of the industry on that study.

He offered the floor for questions and fielded some about the shale deposits being rich in Radium and thus potentially carcinogenic; and which body would be responsible for water contamination and so on.

Of course, without Cuadrilla or someone from the regulatory agencies, these sort of questions couldn't be answered, but we reproduce them here to show the sort of concerns that were being raised by the public.

We detected a mood of growing concern from an intelligent audience, and we sense the balance swinging toward those who oppose the idea of shale gas drilling.

He then introduced Tony Bosworth of Friends of the Earth

Began by explaining the process. He said Cuadrilla claimed there were 56 years worth of UK consumption, but the British Geological Survey says it is about 2% (one fiftieth) of what Cuadrilla believe.

He covered risks to water contamination, escapes through damage to well casings caused by the fracking process and escapes via natural fissures. He also spoke of the risks of spills at the surface of the drill site.

He admitted there is a lot we don't know at present, including the possibility of an earth tremor damaging the casing of a frac pipe leading to a leak.

He lost us a bit when he rhetorically asked with respect to climate change whether, even if there was no problem with fracking, should they get permission? Answering his own question he said "No." FOE believe we need a low carbon economy where power can come from wind, solar power, and water. He said gas was maybe a step on the way but "we don't need any more sources of fossil fuels. FoE thinks shale gas is not the answer, and the fight is just starting in the UK"  

His call for action urged supporters to send a letter to LCC to oppose the application to extend the drilling programme, and to tell FBC of concerns, to support RAFF and to join in the FoE Bike Ride on 20th May.

At the conclusion of his talk someone asked what happens to the water used in fracking. The answer given was that about half stays down and half comes back up. He said at Preece Hall contaminated water from fracking exceeds the treatment capacity of United Utilities, and Cuadrilla were currently trying to work out what to do with it. Apparently they buy the water from United Utilities in the first place.

Another questioner said they'd been told that HSE has not visited the site and if that was the case how could they regulate matters there. The answer was that regulation was undertaken by a multiplicity of different organisations and that was seen as part of the problem - there was no single body with overall responsibility for regulation. Mr Bosworth added that the situation in the US was very different, and there is national (as opposed to regional) regulation here, but he wondered if the Environment Agency were up to the task, especially as had been suggested, there could be 800 wells in Lancashire.

Other speakers also expressed concerns about the capacity of regulatory bodies.

Another speaker said he was concerned about the compressibility of the shale before and after fracking, asking "What if it goes down by half or threquarters of a metre?" He had asked the British Geological Survey but they didn't know.

Another - rather astute - questioner we thought, asked what was the Insurance industry's view of fracking. He wondered whether we would see damage from fracking excluded from insurance policies.

Another speaker said he understood Lancashire County Council gave permissions for exploration, but which body would give permission for commercial drilling? Mr Bosworth said two permissions were needed, firstly the landowner and secondly Lancashire County Council. The sharp young lady with Mr Bosworth picked up the insinuation from the question and said there was concern that Government would send the decision to the Infrastructure Planning Commission as a nationally important project.

Another speaker wanted to know about covenants on the land, and yet another was concerned about the fracturing process and Fylde's nuclear installation.

Mr Bosworth concluded his talk with an exultation to join FOE on 20th May where they will gather outside County Hall in Preston.

So what does it all mean?

When this all started last year, we quickly came to the view that quite a few (but by no means all) of the strongly anti-fracking fraternity are what might be called the usual suspects. Theirs is a green and sometimes left-wing agenda that will use the drilling as a vehicle to further their other aims. That's not wrong of course, but it does to some extent discredit the evidence presented by such folk when you realise there is another agenda driving their actions.

Equally there are some at the opposite end for whom profit at any cost is the motive, and again, their claims must be treated with a pinch of salt as well.

So we were slow to come to a view on whether shale rock drilling is a good idea or not.  We can see huge benefits - in terms of energy security (we don't think it's a good idea to rely on Gazprom for example), and in terms of cost per heat unit. We can also see the prospect for local companies and the local economy to benefit if it goes into commercial production.

But offset against that is the potential for damage to the soil and groundwater, and, in our view, most likely to be a greater or at least more obvious problem, is the wastewater treatment to make the fracking fluid re-useable as water again and the transportation of that fluid to and from treatment centres.

It is a very technical matter, and we're not sufficiently expert to come to a view ourselves so we, (and we suspect most other members of the public in the room that evening), have to rely on the views of others. And from that situation flows the question: 'Who do you trust'?

The authors of the recent report seem to command respect from all sides, and that's a promising start. But the battle for hearts and minds is still in flux and probably only just getting into gear.

There's no doubt that the anti-fracking camp is gaining ground in this regard, not only amongst 'the usual suspects' but also in the mainstream of the local community, and we sense attitudes against the process are hardening and growing.

On the other hand Cuadrilla seem to be one of the better or at least more responsible commercial organisations involved, and the money they're investing in cabling huge areas of the Fylde for seismic testing suggests that they're not shutting up shop any time soon, and they have an expectation of concluding their exploration and selling on to an exploitative company - who may or may not be as good.

In the end, we suspect it will get the go-ahead. The Government has to plan for power to be available for the UK and it seems pretty clear to us that this process will get the green light (although that's maybe a bad choice of expression) even if it is, as some suspect, a stop-gap measure between the present situation and our ultimate energy position.

So perhaps the right approach is to make further progress, but carefully, cautiously, and with an open mind.

Government is reported to have launched a consultation on this matter, but when we looked at their website to give readers a link to it, there is nothing listed under 'Open Consultations'.   We did find a statement saying "The invitation for comment runs for six weeks from today. All comments received will be considered and taken into account before any decision is taken on further fracking for shale gas." so whether there is a difference between comments and a consultation, or whether DECC have simply not managed to get the consultation on their website yet we don't know.

Equally, it is not clear whether DECC are treating their invitation for comments as being limited to the seismic report or whether it is the whole of the shale gas drilling project they are inviting comment upon. Perhaps that will be made more clear shortly.

There's more about the pros and cons in the various websites that are springing up, and readers might want to explore for themselves...

Department of Energy and Climate Change DECC: Comments invited
Cuadrilla Resources
Ribble Estuary Against Fracking
Residents Action on Fylde Fracking
Friends of the Earth  
(We couldn't find a link to a Shale gas section or page)
38 Degrees (As a 'campaign suggestion': moratorium call)

Dated:  19 April 2012


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