We haven’t heard so much about fracking – or shale gas extraction – since Cuadrilla packed up and left their site at Balcombe in Sussex at the end of September. But it hasn’t gone away. The government is still pretty keen on it, and wants to offer the industry “the most generous tax regime for shale in the world”.
So where are we?
It is often suggested that fracking does not cause “environmental effects if it is done correctly”. I’m afraid I can’t agree that there would be no damaging environmental effects if fracking is done ‘correctly’, but it is true to say that proper regulation can be used to reduce them. Which is why it is worrying that the UK’s Environment Secretary appears to be actively trying to find ways to resist new EU regulations designed to do just that (as reported in the Telegraph recently – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/oilandgas/10370306/UK-fracking-ambitions-threatened-by-EU-warning-over-methane-emissions.html)
Even if fracking could be made environmentally safe, shale gas is still a fossil fuel and will contribute to increased CO2 emissions at a time when we need to be reducing them to stave off the worst effects of global warming. Those who claim that shale gas emissions are lower than coal are on shaky ground according to research into fracking site methane leaks, which suggest that, overall, fracking’s contribution to the greenhouse effect is actually greater than that of coal (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10584-011-0061-5). And the idea that shale gas will be burned instead of coal, rather than in addition to coal, strikes me as a bit fanciful. (As George Monbiot commented recently “using shale gas as a ‘bridge’ to a low-carbon economy is like using chocolate fudge cake as a bridge to a low-calorie diet”.)
Lots and lots of water. One fracking site uses the same amount of water in a day as the whole of Gatwick Airport, according to a local water company manager in conversation with a local Green Party Councillor recently. If fracking is given the go-ahead it won’t just be one little site in Balcombe or The Fylde (and one is disruptive enough) – there will be eight or more wells per square mile across the countryside. That’s a lot of extra water to find, especially in an area like South East England, which is already water-stressed.
In my view, there really isn’t much of an economic case for fracking. Shale gas will be no cheaper than any other gas, so will not contribute in any way to the alleviation of fuel poverty. (The price of gas in the USA is currently very low because they have an over-supply of gas and they are not connected to an export market – they are working on building facilities for that. The situation in the UK is completely different – we are connected in to a Europe-wide market and any gas produced will be sold at the prevailing market price. See http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-09-17/the-american-myth-of-cheap-oil-and-gas.html.) Fracking will create jobs of course, which we desperately need, but it actually isn’t a very labour-intensive business.
Shale gas is ultimately a short-term, but potentially very damaging, distraction from what we should be doing – creating hundred of thousands of jobs insulating millions of poorly built (or just old) homes and offices, and building renewable energy generation capacity (from domestic solar to off-shore wave and wind). If we allow fracking to happen here, we will be decimating our landscape – see http://www.flickr.com/photos/amymyou/9431314171/ – in a last desperate attempt to put off the inevitable reduction in fossil fuel consumption by just a few years. [UPDATE 12th Dec 2013 – it has been pointed out that the Flickr picture referred to above may not be of fracking sites, but conventional oil drilling sites. Fracking sites would apparently not be so close together. So fracking in Surrey might not look quite as much like Texas as the picture suggests, but I’m not sure that makes me feel any better about it.]
Locally we are keeping our eyes on an application for exploratory drilling by Magellan Petroleum in Horse Hill near Horley. Planning permission was granted by Surrey County Council (SCC) in January 2012, but work hasn’t started at the site yet. A local Green Party Councillor recently noticed similarities between this application and Cuadrilla’s application in Balcombe.
Further investigation revealed that an important technical document referred to in other parts of the application – the ‘testing and stimulation document’ – was missing. This has now been made available, and reinforces the view that what is proposed at Horse Hill is some form of fracking. The document is dated October 2013, so was clearly not available when planning permission was granted, so Green councillors are currently checking whether SCC should conduct a further consultation on this application given the new information. In the meantime, residents living near the site have been in touch and are doing their own research into the drilling proposal.
The documents relating to the Horse Hill application are available on the Reigate & Banstead Borough Council planning portal (visit http://planning.reigate-banstead.gov.uk/online-applications/search.do?action=advanced and search for application 10/02089/CON). The recently received testing and stimulation document can be downloaded from our website – here.