To frack or not – that is the question facing rival factions

A Cuadrilla drilling rig

The county of Lancashire is sitting on billions of pounds worth of natural gas and its extraction, many say, could solve the UK’s energy conundrum for years to come.

The reserves identified deep under the earth is probably the largest ever gas discovery in Europe, says Francis Egan, chief executive of fracking company Cuadrilla Resources, which has just applied to explore two new sites in Lancashire near Elswick and Little Plumpton.

The Preese Hall fracking site

The process however is sounding alarm bells with environmental campaigners as people try to come to terms with the possible fall out and risks such as earthquakes and water contamination.

The government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has produced a map showing that most of the UK is up for grabs for oil and gas licensing, including north Lancashire and south Cumbria.

Here, chief reporter Nick Lakin asks Lancaster University professor Mark Shackleton and Green Party county councillor for Lancaster Central Gina Dowding for their thoughts on the matter.

Mark Shackleton:

Francis Egan, chief executive at Cuadrilla Resources

Hydraulic fracturing does not involve the removal of layers or material; rather it forms tiny cracks within rocks that allow gas to escape into the borehole, whilst leaving them able to bear weight.

Probably the major risk to the environment is gas (methane) escaping via poorly sealed bore holes. If these are properly cemented, little gas will escape, but will be captured for use.The British Geological Survey visited Lancaster University last year and concluded that the risk of earthquake disruption was negligible.

At that meeting, public members asked for monitoring of baseline methane emissions. The rock layers concerned are thousands of feet below the surface; in the UK (unlike US) these “mineral” rights are Crown property hence the Government’s interest and licensing of this activity. Compared to the size of the underground gas field, the disruption to the countryside at the surface will only cover a very small fraction.

“The drilling areas will be small and limited in number, “fracking” can occur deep below fields and properties with very little effect above.

“Furthermore once a well is established, its gas can be extracted with no further impact over a long time horizon.

“Natural gas and oil from the North Sea are running out; the UK needs energy and is now importing gas for example via pressurised sea containers from distant locations such as Qatar. Without domestic sources our energy bills will be more variable and subject to international market forces and risk. In order to balance the energy needs in the near future, several different sources of fuel are needed to replace generating stations that will be decommissioned.

“Nuclear generation will remain part of the mix and construction is planned in the UK, wind and renewables too are part of the plan.

“However coal fired stations and oil consumption have worse CO2 emissions than methane, so if gas replaces coal and oil it is an important transition toward greener fuel consumption.

Government departments are discussing ways to share the gains that they would capture with local communities. “There will also be jobs during the development phase of each well; if these are staged these jobs will be sustainable.

The underground environment does not directly affect the countryside and due to the great vertical separation the risk of groundwater contamination is low.

“The research, design and construction of energy projects that are even greener than gas will take time and energy to develop and construct.

“Until this occurs and over the coming decades, we should use this resource and invest further in fuels with even lower C02 impact.

“It is natural for people to have concerns but this is a significant positive change in our energy generating mix.”

Gina Dowding, Green

Party county coun for Lancaster Central:

“Shale gas is a fossil fuel and burning it will add to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Fracking brings many environmental and health risks, through the pollution of groundwater, surface water and the air. Evidence is well-reported in the scientific literature and by communities in the USA who have already suffered devastating damage to their health, their water and the local wildlife.

Some argue that the risk of earth tremors is not the most significant problem, but the people whose homes in Preese Hall that were affected by the earthquake in 2011 may feel differently. It was caused by fracking-fluid entering a natural fault, and the tremor damaged the well so severely that it had to be abandoned.

A Professor of Geophysics at Glasgow University gave evidence to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee that Lancashire is wholly unsuitable for shale gas extraction due to the nature and quantity of the faults in the county. The industry is talking about hundreds of wells in Lancashire alone.

Impacts will come from the huge numbers of lorry trips needed to transport equipment, water, chemicals and extracted gas, as well as from the aesthetic impacts and pollution risks.

The government’s claim that our energy bills will be lower or more stable is unproven.

The UK is linked to the European energy market for oil and gas. Unlike the USA, we have so many pipelines connecting us to other countries that if the price were lower here, it is likely that gas traders would buy it and export it to the highest bidder.

We need to reduce our overall demand for energy and increase the proportion of our energy that comes from renewable sources.

Burning methane gas may be cleaner than coal or oil, but over its whole lifecycle it is worse than coal because of all the carbon produced by the enormous number of vehicle movements, compressors and generators. Shale gas consumption has increased dramatically world wide, but this has not led to a reduction in CO2 emissions – quite the opposite. The coal that would otherwise have been used in the USA has simply been exported and burned elsewhere.

The Government has announced that it will let local councils keep 100% of business taxes from fracking operations. Many councils have made public announcements saying they won’t be ‘bribed’ to accept a dirty industry, but Lancashire County Council has welcomed it!

Green Party policy is based on the fact that the costs of fracking outweigh the benefits. This is well documented by researchers such as Scientists for Global Responsibility. It is far wiser, economically and politically, to invest now for the low carbon future that everyone agrees will have to happen sooner or later, and to minimise the devastating effects of climate change. Fossil fuels have had their day.”

Francis Egan, chief

executive of Cuadrilla Resources:

“We’ve been working hard to assess our site options and have undertaken extensive technical and geological analysis.

“As a result of this work, we have decided to focus on just two sites at this time. This will allow us to reduce the potential impact on the local area during exploration while still gathering the important information we need to determine how much gas could be recovered. We’re committed to being a good neighbour and to talking with the community at every stage of the process.”

County Councillor

Jennifer Mein, leader of Lancashire County Council:

It is of paramount importance that concerns about environmental impact and public safety are properly addressed if fracking and shale gas extraction are to have a future in Lancashire.

Our councillors unanimously supported a Notice of Motion last year calling on the government to put in place industry-specific regulation for fracking, and to ensure local planning control is maintained. It also asked the government to put in place a regular and robust inspection regime. I stand by these things and the bottom line is that safety must be first priority.

“There are various claims about what such an industry could mean in terms of job creation, which is very important too, but if a company comes in and profits from the area’s natural resources then the benefits should extend beyond the shareholders and workers, to the wider community.”

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