The UK accepts fracking. Do you?

In the past few weeks I have made a couple of visits to Fylde in the north-west of England, near Blackpool. If you are not familiar with this area, tucked away beyond Liverpool and Manchester, some way off the M6, you may be unaware of a field that lays beside Preston New Road, where an energy company called Cuadrilla has been granted licenses for four wells at the site, to commence ‘fracking’ – hydraulic fracturing – extracting gas from shale rock deep beneath the surface.
You may be unaware of this development, or you may have heard about it and not care, or think it’s nothing to do with you. I think you should care and I want to explain why, and why it has everything to do with you and each and everyone of us.

The fracking process and its environmental impact
So what is the process and why is it controversial? Deep boreholes are drilled vertically into the rock formations over 2km below the earth’s surface and then laterally outwards in a number of directions for about 3km to try and maximise the use of the ‘seam’. A mixture of water, sand, lubricating fluids and other chemicals is injected through these boreholes at high pressure to fracture the rock and release the methane gas trapped within it. The chemicals used can include hydrochloric acid, tetramethyl ammonium chloride, methanol and many others.
This is not a simple process and raises many issues:
  • Fracking uses vast amounts of water (about 10 million litres) pumped into the borehole under extremely high pressure.

  • Some of the water and chemicals from the fracking fluid (as much as 40%) is flushed up from underground and this carries trapped minerals, carcinogenic hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds, which have to go somewhere. What remains underground could threaten aquifers and what comes to the surface can pose a risk to soil, rivers, lakes and other surface waters. A fleet of heavy trucks will be involved to take this contaminated flowback away – somewhere!

  • The geology of the UK is more complex than that typically found at US fracking sites. The seams are further apart and it is likely that the quality of the methane gas will be poorer than that drilled in the USA. The complexity of the geology makes the outcomes unpredictable. In April and May 2011 there were two earthquakes near the Preese Hall shale gas drilling site operated by Cuadrilla. They were only of magnitude 2.3 and 1.5 respectively but fluid injection was taking place at the Preese Hall site shortly before the tremors occurred. The well casing was deformed by the earthquake. After some remedial attempts, the well was plugged with cement and has been abandoned. In a statement issued by Cuadrilla on 17/12/2013, they said “as part of ongoing evaluation of its exploration sites in Lancashire, Cuadrilla has just announced that no further work will take place at its Preese Hall site".

  • There’s no such thing as being a bit fracked. The industry can only function if there are multiple well pads in any given area. These pads are exploited for the gas content and then the company moves on within 3 – 5 years. Industry reports show that 6% of gas wells leak immediately and 50% leak within 15 years. Thousands of wells are planned for Lancashire alone, wells that can never be removed or recycled. Who is going to take responsibility for these fragile spent wells once the extracting companies have finished exploiting them?

So who are Cuadrilla and how competent are they to undertake this difficult and unpredictable mining venture at Preston New Road? Cuadrilla was founded in 2007 by Dr Chris Cornelius and has its headquarters in Lichfield, UK. 45% of the company is owned by A J Lucas (an Australian engineering company), 45% by Riverstone Holdings (an Anglo-American private equity firm based in NY, focused on leverage buyout, growth capital and credit investments in the energy industry), and 10% by Cuadrilla Management. Until now, the only well to be hydraulically fractured by Cuadrilla in the UK is the one where it caused an earthquake and has been abandoned.
Despite claims on their website and evidence given in Parliament in 2011, that shale would cut the price of gas in the UK, Mr Mark Linder, a public relations executive at Bell Pottinger who is also responsible for Cuadrilla’s corporate development, was forced to admit that even a boom in shale gas extraction would have a basically insignificant impact on UK prices.

Local Democracy
In June 2015, after vigorous representations by the local community, Lancashire County Council refused planning permission to Cuadrilla to use the site at Preston New Road for fracking. In October 2016 the secretary of state for communities and local government, Sajid Javid, overturned the decision. Solicitors for the local residents argued that the decision to allow fracking had been taken in breach of the council’s development plan and in breach of the correct planning law tests, but to no avail.
So there you have it. Local democracy has been overturned to allow a mining project that will have a huge impact on the local environment, that will use millions and millions of gallons of water, that has the potential to cause earthquakes, that will create vast amounts of toxic waste, that will require hundreds of truck journeys to and from the site, that will render the sites unusable when they are abandoned in the relatively short future, and all of this will have virtually no impact on the cost of gas.
And just in case you might still think that this has nothing to do with you, you should know that the government has granted over 8,300 square miles of fracking licenses across this country. Your local authority might object but the government won’t be listening. They have their own agenda and it doesn’t include local democracy.

The small picture
On my recent visits to Preston New Road I met some amazing people. Many of them were locals and had been demonstrating against this invasion of their locality by Cuadrilla for many months. Others had come from further afield, recognising that this was a national issue, and prepared to give their support.
I spoke with people who lived just down the road who faced a future of hundreds of lorry journeys passing by, of uncertainty about how the toxic waste would affect their environment and of what the outcome would be if the gas leaked.
When a hundred or more protestors gather outside the gate the police shut the site for safety reasons and nothing enters the site that day. These delaying tactics are costing the company millions and putting off the day when they can begin drilling. On some days the protestors numbered at least 150, of all ages and backgrounds, united in their understanding of the grave importance of this struggle against Cuadrilla. The bravery of some was awe inspiring. A convoy of lorries delivering heavy equipment to the site had been stopped by protestors and some clambered on to the roofs of the driver’s cabins to prevent them from continuing. They stayed up there for more than two days and two nights, through the wind and the heavy rain, so the convoy could not move. Others chained themselves together and lay across the road, blocking the traffic for hours whilst the police cut them free. This was determination on an epic scale. These were not frivolous acts taken lightly. They knew that they faced arrest as a result of their actions. These were people who had seen a democratic process overturned and saw no other option to stop a terrible wrong being perpetrated on the locality and on the environment. There were many more who had stood through the long nights to register their protest, utterly committed to the cause. They are well organised - meals cooked nearby at a protestors' base camp are fed to those on the line everyday - and 'legal observers' in orange vests watch and record every incident and development. These protestors aren't going anywhere. What they stand for is too important. You should thank them for what they represent – a voice that says fracking is wrong and we cannot allow it to proceed. They need all the support they can get.

The big picture
The bigger picture may be familiar to you but it deserves a mention and for the link to be made. Almost 97% of the scientific community now accept that climate change and global warming are man-made. The changes taking place in our climate are unprecedented. No, not spikes like the world has experienced in the past. UNPRECEDENTED!
In December 2015 representatives of 196 nations met in Paris and discussed measures that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, with the aim of limiting the temperature increase to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels. It is now widely accepted that failure to achieve this in the next couple of decades will result in significant changes to the earth’s climate that will bring catastrophic damage to many regions of the world.
To cut carbon emissions to the level necessary we must relinquish our dependency on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels that are still in the ground must stay there. For the UK to embark on a fracking binge just at the moment when 194 countries, including the UK, signed up to the Paris accord, demonstrates a monumental disregard for the environment and for our future.
So which planet are you on?