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Shale Gas Update

Shale Gas UpdateIn  'Fracking Hell' last month, we brought you the report of a public meeting that had been hosted by 'Residents Action on Fylde Fracking' (RAFF) to let everyone hear the views of Friends of the Earth and others about the risks and dangers of fracking.

We also said we thought public opinion seemed to be hardening against the extraction of shale gas - we had seen protest groups arising and strengthening their links and sharing information in Blackpool Poulton, Fylde, Preston and Southport.

So it was with interest that we went along to FBC's Community Focus Scrutiny Group meeting on 17th May to hear the debate on the final report of the Task and Finish Group.

We expected a big turnout, so we arrived early to make sure of getting in. We found a coterie of ladies who were unfamiliar to us in the public gallery. We thought they had the sort of earnest countenances that are often found supporting a cause. Mr Mitchell of the Green Party (who was probably the first person locally to spot what Cuadrilla were doing, and has led the local opposition to it), arrived shortly afterwards and sat with them, seemingly comparing notes and strategy.

Then Councillors started to arrive, and the Chief Executive - no less - took up station next to the Chairman where the Committee Clerk usually sits.

The public gallery then had a thoroughly professional and well-honed presentation by Fylde's Miss Lacy who (for the benefit of the public) did the 'air hostess' housekeeping routine about fire escapes and loos and mobile phones before going on to explain the process and procedure of the meeting in comforting detail.

She is really excellent at this sort of thing. A first-class officer and a credit to Fylde. Rarely do you go to a Council meeting elsewhere as a member of the public and find such consideration or professionalism. It is one of the few remaining former features that marks Fylde out as being - some might say old-fashioned - but we would say courteous and considerate, of its guests.

The meeting itself started bang on time, and the Chairman Cllr Kiran Mulholland advised that they were not in a position to make decisions, and never had been. He said the most input they could have as a committee was as a consultee to LCC (who granted the exploration planning permissions), and their role tonight was to consider the report of the Task and Finish Group and, if appropriate, make recommendations to Fylde's cabinet.

This is part of the problem for Fylde. They have no real locus to make decisions in this matter, yet it is something that will affect many of their residents. As Cllr Mulholland said to Cllr Hopwood later in the evening "No one asked us to do this, it's just us sticking our nose in"

Before the meeting proper started, the Chairman opened a public platform session for those attending who had asked to speak. He reminded them they should try and restrict their comments to three minutes.

We were a bit saddened by this. Part of the purpose and role of the Scrutiny Committee is to act as the council's interface with the public. They are supposed to be the conduit by which councillors (as a body corporate) interact with members of the public on specific issues. Fylde doesn't seem to grasp this. Nor does it grasp the fact that some 'members of the public' who attend meetings have ability, skill and knowledge that can rival and sometimes even surpass those of councillors and officers. And we always find it a shame that - especially after Miss Lacy's warm welcome, the experience of actually speaking at Scrutiny is sometimes such a sharp and cold contrast. It can appear to be something that the Committee has to put up with - or endure - instead of being seen as an opportunity to hear a wider pool of views.

Undaunted, Mr Mitchell was the first of three speakers. He handed round some emails (which councillors couldn't hope to distribute round the table, read and digest in the few minutes he had been allotted) and was reminded by the chairman that he's better get started otherwise his time would run out before he's said anything. We thought that sort of approach from the chair suggested the Committee wasn't really expecting to hear anything they didn't already know. But then it *is* the Chairman's job to control the use of time in the Committee.

Mr Mitchell said this was the first area in the UK to experience fracking and there was a national consultation taking place about the seismic report. He was concerned that the recommendation to the Committee was not to call for a moratorium and said that although FBC didn't make decisions, they were the voice of local people and should reflect their concerns. He said "If you say no moratorium people [in government] will listen". He was especially worried about the chemicals, both from the fracking process and in the shale rock itself. He urged the Committee to call for a moratorium.

Next to Speak was Dr Sue Parkin, who asked about the proposed Tzar - who would appoint them? What qualifications would they need? To whom would they report? and so on. In response, Cllr Mulholland said the Public Platform was not a question and answer session but he would try to address the questions in the main part of the agenda.

The final Speaker was Helen Rimmer of Friends of the Earth. This is a young lady who impresses us. It's the same lady that answered a few of the questions at the RAFF's "Fracking Hell" meeting in the United Reformed Church Hall recently.

When she spoke to Scrutiny, she said it was by far the biggest issue that FoE receives comments about. She thought it was good that the public could have a brief say at this meeting but it was a shame that Fylde had not held one or more public meetings to interface with their electorate.

She was also concerned that the Task and Finish Group had limited the breadth of organisations from whom they had taken evidence, suggesting that a wider net might have resulted in a better report.

She said in her opinion, the report had failed to address a number of items, especially climate change which was not addressed at all.

She was also concerned that although the report spoke of the potential economic benefits in an industrial sense, it had failed to consider whether, and if so, to what extent, there might be negative impacts on the tourism economy.

We thought she did an excellent presentation in the short time available to her, but we got the impression that few on the Committee were ready to listen outside a fairly a cursory fashion.

In thanking her, the Chairman said they had not looked at wider issues because they had limited themselves to the present exploration phase, and he expected there would be more consideration of the matter if the exploitation phase were to become a reality.

Although we hadn't spotted it before Ms Rimmer spoke, we have come to see a this as a fundamental dichotomy in Fylde's consideration of this matter.

The cover of the report says it is a "Report and recommendations arising out of an in-depth scrutiny review of the impacts of Shale Gas exploration activities in Fylde"

And that, indeed, does imply that consideration has been limited to the exploration aspects.

Yet the terms of reference for the Task and Finish Group were:

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

And that looks broader than just the exploration phase to us.

Also, from our (admittedly brief) reading of the report, we thought it set out to address aspects of the exploitation and production phases as well.

For example, at page 33 the report says: "If the shale activities are to go into full production, it is imperative that a strong, robust and comprehensive regulatory framework and best practice arrangements are put in place/ established to deal with on-shore activities....." before going on to call for exactly that.

And we wonder what is the point of calling for the appointment of a 'Tzar' when most of the exploration work - as we heard from the mouth of the T&F Group's chosen 'expert', - is almost completed anyway?

Likewise, the call for better regulation cannot sensibly be for the exploration phase (which is nearing completion) and it must be with the production phase in mind.

That being the case, we can exactly see Ms Rimmer's point about failure to address wider aspects, and it looks to us as though Fylde has got it's knickers in a twist by claiming (or attempting) to limit itself to exploration when indeed its recommendations seem to us to have been seduced into at least some of the areas of exploitation and commercial production.

We think this weakens Fylde's report because people will be able to say it failed to consider this or that (not least in our own view, the storage, transport and treatment arrangements for post-fracking fluids) and was thus not as comprehensive as it should have been to address production issues.

Notwithstanding such concerns, the Chairman made progress, and opened the main part of the meeting.

He began by saying that they were minus Cllr Peter Wood who had resigned from the Council (See Jumped Ship). Cllr Mulholland expressed his personal sadness at the loss of Cllr Wood who, he said, he had particularly enjoyed working with. He spoke to other members of the last intake of councillors to say he hoped anyone thinking along the same lines would hang on for a bit longer - it may get better.

This remark brought laughter from other councillors as did his subsequent throwaway line of "And then again......" as his voice trailed off into silence.

We'd already heard there were a couple of other Conservative Councillors of the new intake who were finding the role of Councillor too demanding and considering standing down, and Cllr Mulholland's comments seem to confirm that situation. We're also hearing that a third might not be in post for that much longer, so things could get very interesting in terms of political balance inside the next 12 months or so. We'll look at this more in a future article.

Cllr Mulholland then said he wasn't going to go through the report in detail at committee, but said he was sure the members had read it, so he would open the meeting to questions or comments.

We were hopeful.

Readers will remember last time that we reported the Scrutiny Committee Meeting (in 'Shale Gas Inquiry' last December), we were very critical of Cllr Mulholland's chairmanship, and the way he bullied some of the (especially female) councillors into not speaking. We said it was as bad an example of chairmanship as we had seen.

It looked as though this might be a different ballgame, especially when, at one point, he said "I'd better be careful what I say here, I don't want to be accused of bullying"

Sadly, although we detected a notable lessening of his forthrightness, we did subsequently hear comment from another member of the public in the gallery who thought the chairmanship over-zealous. She said "To us uninitiated members of the public the Chair came over as a bully, and far from being independent, it seemed he was not going to allow any changes to his report, no wonder the Committee sounded timid and scared of him."

This is a difficult area. We know Cllr Mulholland of old and we have a great respect for what we regard as his exceptional brain and his ability. Sadly, he takes himself as being normal and expects everyone else to keep up with him, irrespective of their own innate ability. He is also very forthright. At times this is absolutely necessary and a crucially important capability on the Council. The courageous stand he took following the Melton Grove investigation could only have been done and said by him (or perhaps at most, two of the other fifty one members of the Council). Without him FBC would be much the poorer. But in today's increasingly touch-feely world, such a forthright manner may be perceived as bullying even when it may not be intended to be anything more than the robust advancement of an argument.

Either way, first to speak was Wesham's Cllr Linda Nulty who asked if the report said anything about carbon emissions or transportation. She said she was also very disappointed with the input from United Utilities and our MP. The Chairman responded to say they hadn't looked at carbon emissions or transportation because they were matters concerned with production, not exploration.

We weren't so sure about this. We have significant concerns about the transportation required in association with the exploration phase, let alone the extraction phase.

The 'flowback' water from fracking at Preese Hall at Weeton was, until last September, stored in double skinned tanks on site. It was then transported to a waste water treatment works at Davyhulme near Manchester for treatment, before return to the UK water system.

However, because it flows over certain types of rock underground,  it also picks up low levels of naturally occurring radioactivity which, historically, were not thought to be a problem. But since 1st October 2011, when new European regulations for low limits of radioactive waste came into force, a specific permit is needed to dispose of Cuadrilla's wastewater fluids to the waste water treatment works - (because the levels measured, combined with the expected quantities of flowback fluid, exceed the new limits).

Cuadrilla says it plans to apply for a permit "in due course", (after which, their application would be assessed by the Environment Agency). So, at present, the fluid is being stored in on site (Cuadrilla say it is in steel tanks) and, assuming a permit is granted, it will then have to be tankered or transported to Davyhulme near Manchester to be treated.

If a permit is not granted, no-one quite seems to know what will happen to it.

The quantity involved from one fracking is quite staggering.

Cuadrilla say 8,400 cubic metres (1,847,741 uk gallons) was used in fracking at Preese Hall at Weeton.

They also say 20% to 40% of the clean water used initially in the fracking process comes back as 'flowback'. The Environment Agency suggests it is 25% - but we get the impression no-one is absolutely sure. Let's assume it's only the 25%. That would give (1,847,741 gallons times 25% =) 461,935 gallons to dispose of.

Rigid axle water tankerWe're advised that a typical road-using rigid axle water tanker lorry has a length of  about 19 feet, a width of 7.6 feet and a depth of 7.5 feet, and that the tank volume is usually around 1,320 gallons. (larger articulated ones carrying up to 5,000 gallons are available, but whether they can get along the country lanes we weren't sure, so we opted to calculate using tankers that could)

That being the case, there will be in the region of 350 tankerloads to accommodate from fracking just one well.

Cuadrilla's "Economic Impact of Shale Gas Exploration & Production in Lancashire and the UK" report envisages that at the high end there could be 80 well pads (= c800 individual wells) drilled over a period of 16 years, Their middle case scenario sees 40 well pads (= c400 individual wells) drilled over 9 years, starting from 2013, and their low end option suggests 20 well pads (= c200 individual wells) drilled over a period of 6 years.

If each well produces 350 tankerloads, the high end option will require 280,000 tanker trips to Davyhulme over 16 years - that's 17,500 trips a year, or 336 tanker trips a week..

Even the low end case would produce 224 tanker trips a week.

Quite a lot of lorries.

And that only assumes one fracking per well.

In reality we're told there will be multiple frackings of each well. Some people suggest they might be done monthly over an extended period. So even if bigger tankers (with a capacity of around 5,000 gallons each) could be used, the numbers above aren't likely to alter much overall.

And, of course, that calculation is for the waste water.

If the clean water has to be transported in by tanker lorry, you can multiply the road traffic by a factor of four, and add that to the wastewater transportation.

So we think transport and storage of water is an issue that hasn't had enough attention..

Back to the meeting....

Cllr Richard Redcliffe spoke. He said they had spent a lot of time debating it in the Task and Finish Group, and there were a whole load of measures set out in the report that would give Fylde a great deal more confidence if they were implemented.

We spotted another difficulty for the Scrutiny Committee here, in that the Task and Finish group was about half of the Committee, so the other members of the Committee - charged with deciding what to recommend to Cabinet - would only have seen it for the first time when it was published as an agenda item a few days ago. The agenda report itself was 140 pages long, some of it quite technical, and it's no wonder that those Councillors who were not on the Task and Finish Group, would want to debate and discuss the matter in some detail.

That said, the Chairman, (who has been intimately involved in its production), more or less knew it all by heart, and clearly wanted to make progress.

We suspect it was his unwillingness to go through the report and explain the issues to those members of his Committee who were not members of the Task and Finish Group that gave rise to the charge of not wanting to make any changes to the report and of 'bullying' that came to us from the lady in the public gallery.

Next to speak was Cllr Maxine Chew, whose patch in Singleton has one of the Cuadrilla sites. She said she thought the report had done a good job, and she agreed with the recommendations but said she wanted them to be in stronger language. She also thought that the report should say the flowback water should not be stored in lagoons on site and wanted that recommendation adding.

Finally, she came up with what we thought was the best suggestion of the evening when she said Cuadrilla had said that the well at Elswick was a fracked well (see our first report 'Gas Exploration' Jan 2011 for more details) and had been supplying gas for 20 years (actually we think it's longer). She wanted the Council to commission proper research of the ditches and dykes and soils around the Elswick to see if there was any problem as a result of that process.

Sensible, we thought.

However, the Chairman disagreed. He said methods and materials would have changed over 20 years and it would not now be representative.

Assuming Cuadrilla are right and it was a fracked well (we have some doubts about the similarities based on what we have heard before), we thought his argument to resist her call for testing the land and watercourses around the Elswick site was a weak one. We also thought that methods are likely to have got better over time, not worse.

We suspect the Chairman might have had in mind the Department for Energy and Climate Change's closing date for comments on shale gas extraction (which is next Friday 25th), and he probably couldn't afford to have any changes made if the report was to arrive with DECC by the closing date.

Next to speak was Cllr Ken Hopwood. He speaks quietly and is not always easy to hear, but we think we got the gist of it. He began by saying he wanted to compliment Lyndsey Lacey on the report she had produced. He supported the all the recommendations in report except the decision not to call for a moratorium which, he said, he had proposed and still believed should be applied until all the other recommendations made by Fylde were complied with.

He was especially critical of the Health and Safety Executive's role. He said Fylde had asked for a meeting with HSE and were told that the HSA would not come to see Fylde. Fylde had then offered to hold a meeting when someone from HSE was in the area, only to be told that the HSE had no plans to be in Fylde.

He said in his opinion, the Task and Finish Group had been treated with contempt by several of the agencies involved.

On the basis of what he said, we couldn't but agree.

He went on to say he was totally opposed to the use of the term 'Tzar' and argued that other such services have a 'Commissioner' (Information Commissioner, Children's Commissioner etc) and he wanted that to be changed in the report. (We were just happy they hadn't come up with 'Commissar' in order to bring former Councillor John Coombes back)

Cllr Hopwood concluded by formally proposing that until the recommendations were in place, a call for a moratorium should be part of their recommendations.

The Chairman asked if he had a seconder, and Cllr Nulty said she would second it in order that the matter should be debated.

The Chairman poured cold water in the idea saying "If we call for a moratorium it WILL go straight into the bin, along with the good recommendations we have made"

Clearly he believes that politics is, in fact, the art of the possible.

Whether that's the right approach in this instance, and whether Fylde will be covered in glory - or something much more smelly - as a result of its decision here, is a matter that only time will tell.

However, having had it proposed and seconded, the Chairman was obliged to have the matter discussed. He turned first to Mr Hill - who seemed to be an ex-officio member of the Committee, acting as their technical expert.

He, not understanding council procedures, spoke for a few minutes on a variety of points that had been made by the other speakers (rather than to the amendment), to clarify some points that had been made by earlier speakers.

Then Cllr Nigel Goodrich said Ken [Hopwood] has argued that point consistently, but he was a lone voice. If they wanted their voice to be heard on the recommendations in the report, they shouldn't call for the moratorium.

Cllr Richard Redcliffe said they should restate the central premise about the health safety and environmental concerns, but to balance that against the economic opportunity.

Cllr Howard Henshaw said twenty years ago he was in Quatar when it was a poor country. Now, he said, it is the richest country on earth, so he has personal experience of the economic benefits  a fuel discovery can bring, and was mindful of how potential benefits from shale gas could improve Fylde.

Cllr Hopwwood summed up his amendment and asked the committee to support it because, he said, the committee had a duty of care to Fylde residents.

Unfortunately, as the Chairman put the matter to the vote, there was interruption from interference on the loudspeakers and some members were clearly unable to hear what they were being asked to vote on. But despite that, the numbers were never in doubt..

Cllrs Hopwood, Mrs Nulty and Henshaw voted for the moratorium to be included in the recommendations, and we think everyone else voted against, but it's possible there were abstentions that we didn't catch.

To us, this debate seemed strange given that the report says (P34) "The Task and Finish Group discussed the possibility of seeking a moratorium on shale gas production but felt this unnecessary provided that the recommendations detailed are implemented." (our emphasis)

So as far as we can see, the report itself already makes the absence of a moratorium dependent on implementation of the other recommendations in the report, so why that was not carried through to the recommendations, and why Cllr Hopwood's proposition failed to receive better support, we can't understand.

Back to the other parts of the report and Freckleton's Saint Louis the Magnificent wanted to know what happened if people had a subsidence claim regarding insurance. The Chairman shrugged his shoulders and said they had been told by Cuadrilla that people could claim on "the industry.";

Given that the fourth of their four terms of reference said the group should investigate "The insurance / public liability arrangements" we didn't think that was a good enough answer. Especially given that we couldn't find any significant reference to insurance in respect of damage to property in the report's recommendations. (That's especially relevant when you consider insurance was intended to comprise something of the order of 25% of the work task of the group).

Cllr Hodgson asked Mr Hill if the flowback water (which has raised levels of naturally occurring Radon from the underlying rock)) was classed as radioactive. Mr Hill said not in the sense of the question, but it was very low level radioactive. He thought it might be nine times the standard background level, but even so it was not something to panic about.

Mr Hill added that the other chemicals could be cleaned out of the water, but the radon could only be diluted, and he thought it would need a 10:1 dilution rate.

We thought that could be interesting if it has to be done before the flowback water is tankered away. It would increase the tanker traffic by another factor of 10 times, and double that again to bring dilution water in before it was taken away.

Someone really should get a grip on this aspect.

And then it was time for the Chairman to sum up.

He wanted to add two further proposals. Firstly to formally ask the Cabinet for their support to the recommendations, and secondly to propose that that the Committee keeps a watching brief on developments with shale gas.

This is probably being 'picky' of us, but we didn't see anyone second those propositions. Nor do we recall hearing any opportunity to debate them. We make this point only to illustrate how it would seem to outsiders that there seem to be different rules applying to different members of the Committee.

The final vote was on the whole package. That included the recommendations as proposed and the additional propositions from the Chairman which were approved by vote with some abstentions. We didn't quite hear the details (we think it was Cllrs Hopwood, Mrs Nulty, and Rigby who abstained) but we'll add the voting details to this report once the minutes are published

Those wishing to make comment to Government directly can follow this link to the Department of Energy and Climate Change website. Comments have to arrive by Friday 25th May.

Fylde's Cabinet will consider the report on Wednesday evening.

One afterthought for our readers. Everyone is assuming that the production phase will require a lot of preparation and permissions, including planning permissions and so on, and that as the Chairman said, Fylde itself would be doing a great deal more investigation were that to happen.

And that's probably right in the normal course of things, but we noted in Cuadrilla's submission to Government that the 'middle course' in their scenarios envisaged 400 individual wells drilled over 9 years, starting from 2013. That was the only option to be given a start date and we wonder if they know something we don't.

Could it be that they plan to seek some sort of limited fast-track interim approval for part of their license area - including extensive fracking and well testing - to gather more data before a possible longer-term full field development application.

And could it also be that Government might send the issue to the National Infrastructure Directorate? The Localism Act, made the Planning Inspectorate the agency responsible for operating the planning process for nationally significant infrastructure projects which this could be seen as, (thus taking decisions out of the hands of both Fylde and Lancashire County Council)

Neither of these is impossible, and were either to happen, Fylde might have wished it had done more at this stage to be covered in glory, rather than in the smelly stuff it might find itself standing in.

Dated:   19 May 2012


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