Fracking battle lines drawn in England’s countryside

by Robin Mckie

The Observer

For a site symbolizing a future that will either poison our countryside or bring us unlimited amounts of cheap, pollution-free energy, Elswick, in northeast England, is a distinctly underwhelming destination for a visit. The gas-power station, owned by the U.K. drilling company Cuadrilla, lies in the Fylde area of the county of Lancashire and consists of a large square of cleared ground, a few cabins and some metal pipes. For most of the week, the site — surrounded by farmland — is unmanned.

Yet according to Cuadrilla, Elswick is a model for the kind of energy plants it will set up on several Lancashire sites once it has completed test drills involving the hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — of underground shale beds in the area. The reserves of natural gas found this way would then be pumped up to stations like Elswick. At present, natural gas from about 1,000 meters underground is brought to the surface here. It is then burned on site to generate about a megawatt of electricity for local homes.

This reservoir was first tapped 20 years ago. However, fracking technology has advanced considerably since then, and gas from richer wells situated in deep beds of shale is now being targeted. This would then be pumped directly into the nation’s gas grid.

On July 5, Cuadrilla announced it was seeking consent to set up six new test sites in addition to three that it already runs in the region. “Natural gas from Lancashire could lead to thousands of new jobs, higher tax revenues and lower emissions,” said Francis Egan, Cuadrilla’s chief executive. It would also free the U.K. from its growing dependence on imported gas from Russia and other countries, the company argues.

Cuadrilla’s hopes for the future of fracked gas here has also been supported by the British Geological Survey, which last week announced estimates that an area stretching from Lancashire to North Yorkshire and into England’s Midlands holds 1,300 trillion cubic feet of gas, which would be enough to supply the country for at least 43 years, even if only 10 percent of reserves can be extracted. It is a stunning prospect. And those seeking to exploit these resources have pledged that the work will be carried out “transparently, safely and sensibly,” Egan said last week.

But not everyone agrees with this sunny assessment. Many environmental groups have reacted with horror to the prospect of fracking in the area, including local protest group Residents Action on Fylde Fracking, which has roundly denounced the new plans. “We continue to be concerned at the rush to extract shale gas through fracking, before the safety of residents and our resources are assured,” said a spokesman. “We will object to the planning applications and urge others to do the same.”

Fracking is a process in which water, mixed with sand and chemicals, is injected down wells at high pressure to create fractures in shale beds and so release their reserves of gas and oil. Opponents say the process is inherently dangerous and environmentally damaging: they point to sites in the United States where underground water reserves have become polluted in the wake of fracking operations. They also cite the problems encountered at local test sites such as Preese Hall in Fylde — where fracking probably triggered earth tremors — and nearby Anna’s Road, where equipment jammed and broke down. In both cases, test drilling had to be abandoned.

In addition, green activists point out that relying on shale gas as a future energy source, instead of renewables, would prevent Britain from achieving the cut in carbon emissions it has pledged to achieve.

It is an intriguing clash. The future of British energy is being shaped here in the green lanes of Lancashire — a point that is not lost on local people, who follow the issue of fracking with intense interest. Most residents currently voice cautious support for the technology.

“It is going to provide us with energy and probably quite cheap energy as well, so you have to think that it is going to be a good idea,” said 67-year-old Paul Stevens from St. Anne’s. Similarly, Barbara Marsden, who lives in nearby Peel, believed wells opened up by fracking would bring welcome employment to the region. “We need jobs here,” she said.

But a note of caution was provided by Bob Fairley of Blackpool. “The technology is still not proven. Look at what has happened in the U.S. Fracking has contaminated water supplies. How are we going to prevent that? How will we deal with millions of tons of contaminated water? I don’t think this has been thought through.”

In the end, the issues boil down to a simple dichotomy: the benefits that might be brought to the area versus the damage that might be done if fracking is permitted on an indiscriminate or poorly regulated basis.

The issue of employment is also contentious. Cuadrilla has suggested fracking could bring thousands of jobs to the region, but opponents point to the example of Elswick, which is essentially unmanned and only sporadically maintained by a local farmer. Not many jobs there, it would seem.

However, fracking expert Chris Green, director of G Frac Technologies, believes there could be a tremendous boost to local employment. “It could certainly bring thousands of jobs to the area, though most of these would be relatively low-skilled posts — drivers and mechanics — as well as ancillary staff, who would include canteen workers and others.”

Such an input would have a knock-on effect, however, as Green acknowledged. “In Pennsylvania there has been damage to infrastructure — mainly giant trucks churning up roads — in some areas. If we are to get the most out of our shale gas in the U.K., we need to find a straightforward scheme under which this damage would be paid for. We have not done that yet.”

For its part, the British government has pledged that communities will be given £100,000 for each test well drilled in its neighborhood. And for each one that is successful and becomes a production well, 1 percent of revenues will be given to the community. Millions of pounds could be handed out this way. Cuadrilla has already pledged £2,000 for refurbishing Elswick village hall.

Most opponents see such sums as a sop and point to the pollution caused by fracking in the U.S. In Arkansas, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Texas there have been reports of tap water turning gray, of bath water causing skin rashes, and of methane — the principal component of natural gas — bubbling through water supplies and occasionally exploding. However, a review by the University of Texas in Austin last year found “little or no evidence” to support claims that fracking had contaminated more than a handful of aquifers but nevertheless urged U.S. officials to step up the policing of shale gas operations.

Similarly in Britain, a recent joint report by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering concluded that these incidents were not caused by basic flaws in the technology but by poor practice. “We found that well integrity is of key importance, but the most common areas of concern, such as the causation of earthquakes with any significant impact, or fractures reaching and contaminating drinking water, were very low risk,” said professor Robert Mair, of Cambridge university, who chaired the two organizations’ investigation.

His group insisted that fracking could be done safely but argued that it needed tight control in the U.K., and should be run by a single regulator with far-reaching powers.

In short, the situation is delicately balanced, a point summed up by Bob Ward, of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. “Shale gas is a fossil fuel and is therefore a carbon emitter,” he said. “However, our studies indicate that if you use shale gas to generate power rather than coal — which emits twice as much carbon per unit of electricity — then this will actually help us keep carbon emissions down in the short term. However, in the longer term — beyond 2030, when we will need to completely decarbonize our power industry to keep to our carbon emission targets — we will need to stop using shale gas.

“In addition, we have little experience in fracking so far. In America, it is practiced in wide open spaces. In densely populated Britain it will succeed only if the business is tightly regulated. And accidents could have grim consequences. Natural gas mostly consists of methane, which is a pernicious greenhouse gas that is far worse in raising atmospheric temperatures than carbon dioxide. We would have to be very careful to extract it safely and not let it escape.

“In general, however, shale gas, if properly regulated, does have potential to help the U.K.”