Our present system is addicted to fossil fuels but we are running out fast. As a result the system is turning to more and more extreme measures to feed this habit. Welcome to the world of extreme energy. Tar Sands, Mountain Top Removal, Deep Water Drilling, Coal Bed Methane and Shale Gas are all symptoms of this scramble to suck the last and most difficult to reach drops out of the British Isles.
Concern has been expressed over the possible long and short term health effects of air and water contamination and radiation exposure to Britons by a method of gas production called Induced Hydraulic Fracturing or Hydrofracturing, and commonly known as ‘fracking’. Put simply it is a method used to free gas trapped in rock (that would usually be inaccessible) by cracking the rock using a pressurised fluid. Wells are drilled and the fracking fluid injected into them under high pressure to crack the rock. The fracking fluid consists of water, sand and a lot of chemicals. Millions of gallons of water are used to ‘frack’. Fracking has already become wide-spread in the United States where it is destroying the environment and making people’s lives a misery in many places.
Fracking is carried out in the United Kingdom by Cuadrilla Resources, though other companies have exploration licenses. Though not officially suspended, the process was unofficially suspended for nearly a year in the UK from June 2011 over safety concerns, but an expert report in April 2012 concluded the practice was safe, clearing the way for its resumption.
Protest groups have emerged since April 2012, with the major nationwide group being Frack Off, who are a grassroots direct action campaign aimed at stopping the spread of extreme energy in the UK but specifically concentrating on unconventional gas extraction. The group started off campaigning against use of fracking for Shale gas extraction with a banner drop from Blackpool Tower on 6 August 2011.
On 2 November the Frack Off activists stormed Cuadrilla Resources drilling site at Banks in Lancashire at 5:30am and 4 activists scaled the drilling rig and dropped banners. The action was timed to coincide with an industry conference, the Shale Gas Environmental Summit, in London and the release of an independent report commissioned by Cuadrilla Resources which said that their fracking in Lancashire may have triggered two small earthquakes.
Latest developments in the UK
Whichever way you look at it, Cuadrilla Resources have had a pretty dodgy couple of years. Following the Lancashire earthquakes the pressure has had a visible effect on the company. Direct action and grass-roots reaction has seen Cuadrilla ditch a CEO and repeatedly change their PR line up – most recently recruiting Bell Potinger ‘creative generalist’ Mark Linder. But for all the industry reports and government lip service, what is ACTUALLY happening in Lancashire ? Put simply, they are ploughing ahead – albeit massively behind schedule. Cuadrilla currently has five sites in Lancashire. Here’s a brief rundown of the state of play at each of them:
- Anna’s Road, Westby – Francis Egan, CEO suggested in a recent interview that the UK’s second ever test-frack may take place here, where the company is also applying for permission to drill the UK’s first horizontal well. Cuadrilla are in the process of drilling a second vertical well at the site after their first attempt ran into trouble at 2000ft. The company are moving extensive seismic monitoring equipment to the area in an effort to avoid future well-damaging earthquakes via an early warning ‘traffic light’ system. There is currently an application for a time extension at the site although Cuadrilla have now said there will be no action here until 2014.
- Preese Hall, Weeton – The site of the notorious earthquake that crushed their well-bore and halted the company’s ambitions to have thirteen wells drilled and fracked by the end of 2012. Having discovered a geological fault-line in the area, the company have decided to avoid the headache of causing another ‘seismic event’. There is currently an application to ‘plug and abandon’ this well by Dec 2013.
- Grange Road, Singleton – Being within 3 miles of Preese Hall, it’s unlikely the company will be willing to risk fracking so near to a known fault-line. There is currently an application for a time extension at the site.
- Bonnie Barn Lane, Banks – The Banks site was subject to exploratory drilling in 2012. If the company’s expired planning permission is extended, it is likely that subsequent work to be undertaken at the site will be involve a test-frack. There is currently an application for a time extension at the site.
- Inskip Lane, Wharles – Cuadrilla have not yet built a drilling pad or undertaken any exploratory drilling at the site. It is unlikely that the company will be ready to test-frack the site in the immediate future.
If we are to win this fight to keep our soils and groundwater useful to life, we need to keep our eyes and minds on the big picture. And that means playing a long-game. Each of these planning applications is a valuable opportunity for intervention. Not because there is a chance of permanently over-turning any particular decision, but because objections cause delays and delays cost the company money.
Cuadrilla and the myriad of other fracking start-ups that have been granted exploration licenses by the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) with some having no intention of exploiting and producing anything. They want to prove the existence of a resource then sell-out to BP/Exxon/Shell/Centrica/etc and retire to some palm-lined beach in the Caribbean.
Cuadrilla don’t make any money. They don’t produce anything. They have some city-investment that they’re burning through at the rate of £10m per well. If that money runs out before they’ve enticed a Big Oil buyer they’re history. Similarly, if the resistance is visible enough, investors will be wanting to place their dirty bets on a ‘safer’, less-public game.
Dart Energy has submitted planning applications to Falkirk and Stirling County Councils, in Scotland, to build 14 new well pads with 22 new wells, around 20 km of pipelines to connect the sites, a gas processing facility and an waste outfall into the Firth of Forth, near Airth between Falkirk and Stirling. Their aim is to produce Coal Bed Methane (CBM) from coal seams around 850 metres below the farmland to the west of Airth.
This would be the first serious unconventional gas development in the UK, which involves gas production rather than testing. Dart and IGas, in Cheshire, have been producing small amounts of gas from a couple of wells and burning it on site to produce electricity. However this development will involve producing gas from a number of wells and feeding it into the national gas grid through a network of pipelines. Dart, and its predecessor Composite Energy, have previously drilled a number of test wells at the Airth site and two of the test sites will also be redeveloped into production facilities.
While 14 well pads may seem fairly modest, especially if you don’t have to live next to them, this is just the thin end of what could become a massive wedge aimed at the heart of the British countryside. Investor documents mention 35-45 wells in the Airth development so it appears there are already plans to expand this initial development even further. Beyond the immediate vicinity of Airth the PEDL 133 block covers 367 square kilometres of central Scotland and Dart is bragging to investors that the block may contain 597 billion cubic feet (bcf) of CBM resources (2C), which might require 600+ wells if it could all be exploited.
In fact, in their environmental statement for the planning application Dart say that other ‘clusters of wells are also planned for elsewhere in the License area’. On a larger scale Dart expects there to be around 4 times as much gas in its license blocks in the East Midlands, Cheshire, Staffordshire, Wales and Yorkshire, which could mean thousands more wells across Engalnd and Wales. Add on top of this potential CBM exploitation by other companies like IGas and a parallel wave of Shale Gas extraction and we are looking at the threat of the wholesale destruction of vast swathes of the British countryside.
In the case of CBM, the seams tend to be much closer to the surface than shale rock and also differ in that they are flooded with water. The main method of stimulating CBM wells is de-watering of the coal seam, rather than hydraulic fracturing, though hydraulic fracturing may also be needed to increase the permeability of the seam. De-watering involves pumping out millions of gallons of contaminated water (which has been marinading in coal for years) and disposing of it.
In many cases the cost of disposing of the produced water is the determining factor in whether the process is economic or not and there is a lot of pressure to minimise costs of disposal. The produced water can be up to 5 times more salty than sea water and may contain a variety of toxic and radioactive materials including heavy metals and hydrocarbons. In the US all sorts of scams have been used to dispose of produced water more cheaply, including spreading it on roads under the guise of dust suppression or gritting.
In Dart’s case they plan to dump all their produced water into the Firth of Forth via an outfall pipe, after minimal treatment. They are expecting to be extracting around 80,000 gallons per day of produced water once the proposed development is in operation.
So why will fracking destroy the British countryside ?
In the vicinity where fracking takes place the largest worries are water contamination. Fracking uses huge amounts of water mixed with toxic chemicals, a large fraction of which are never recovered. The fracking fluid also leaches chemicals like arsenic out of the rocks when it is used making it even more toxic and so the fluid that is recovered becomes a big disposal problem. Even more worryingly the fracking fluid can also leach radioactive elements out of the rocks causing radioactive contamination as well. The contamination of irrigation water means that everyone’s food supplies could potentially be affected. Fracking in the United States has already resulted in numerous spills of these fluids.
In addition fracking has been shown to result in the contamination of water tables with methane. In some cases in the United States this has resulted in people being able to set the water coming out of their taps on fire. Fracking also triggers earthquakes and the first test well in the UK caused two.
Fracking, like other forms of extreme energy (e.g. Tar Sands), is very carbon intensive. You use a lot of energy (and therefore emit a lot of carbon dioxide) in order to get a bit more energy back. In the case of fracking this is because you have to drill a lot wells, since each one only produces gas for only a short while. Fracking has the additional problem that the natural gas (methane) that it is trying to extract is a stronger greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide emitted by burning it and the method results in significant amounts of methane leaking directly into the atmosphere (fugitive emissions).
If all the conventional fossil fuels already discovered are burned, that will emit more than enough carbon dioxide to cause runaway climate chaos. Trying to find more that can be burned to fuel civilisation’s addiction using these extreme energy methods is complete madness. We need to leave this nightmare fuel safely in the ground.
Why is fracking not a solution to anything?
Like all extreme energy methods fracking is a desperate bid to suck the last, most difficult to reach, fossil fuels out of out planet. It is a road to nowhere. Unlike conventional oil wells that produce for decades, the output of fracked wells quickly declines and more wells need to be drilled until there is nowhere left to destroy.
The fracking debate is full of deceit by those who stand to profit from shale gas, or see it as a weapon in neo-con geo-politics.
We are told that most fracking in the USA is by Small and Medium Enterprises. Yet few real SMEs have the capital or technology for fracking. What look like SMEs are more likely limited liability fronts for giant corporations. They exist solely to spare the parent companies the huge cost of eventual clean-up operations – which will therefore fall on taxpayers. The game is simple: Loot, pollute and scoot!
Claims of massive job creation are lies too. The Public Policy Institute of New York State claimed that 500 new wells per year would produce 62,000 jobs. Yet a review by Food and Water Watch showed that the true figure would be less than 7,000 jobs – scarcely one tenth of the promised boom.
In every part of the USA where shale gas is exploited, house prices crash by 25%, with environmental devastation from hundreds of platforms and huge poison slurry ponds. The longer term threat to water supplies will be even more costly.
Gas fracking is short-termist, boom and bust exploitation. Yes, it produces energy, but so would burning all our forests. It makes no sense – except to lobbyists and politicians in the pay of the companies doing the exploitation.
Article by Ian Bell
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