Friday, 20 July 2012

Fracking

Why do we have an article on fracking on our Canterbury blog? Isn’t that something that happened near Blackpool and caused earth tremors, resulting in the suspension of the operation? Well, the Royal Society and Royal College of Engineering have now submitted a report which basically gives the green light to do test drilling in the UK using this process of obtaining gas from underground shale rock by blasting it with water and rock-dissolving fluids at high pressure. And Kent is among the areas of the UK where shale and probable accompanying gas reserves have been identified. Permission has already been given for Welsh company Coastal Oil and Gas Ltd to drill an exploratory borehole in Woodnesborough, between Deal and Sandwich.  So fracking is something of a burning issue in the county.

Transition and the Co-operative Group held a three-hour event on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) at the Anselm Theatre, Canterbury Christchurch University, on Monday, 9th July. The centre-piece was the screening of an abridged version of the award-winning US documentary Gasland, written and directed by Josh Fox. It presents his personal quest to discover the truth about the effects of this method of gas extraction before giving permission for drilling bore-holes on his land. The company involved have made him a superficially attractive offer of over $100,000, although it turns out that a non-disclosure agreement will be attached. The reason for this soon becomes clear as Fox meets landowners who have taken up the offer in neighbouring counties. All their wells “go bad” so their drinking water becomes unusable. Water starts bubbling and fizzing, changes colour to brown, and smells metallic. One well explodes on New Year’s Day. The hair of animals drinking the water starts falling out. Washing machines produce blackened clothes, and the build-up of deposits in the pipes causes them to stop working. Brown fogs appear over the land. The most spectacular demonstration of the problems associated with fracking comes when various homeowners put a match to the water coming out of their taps and alarmingly big flames shoot up. The health hazards of continuing to drink the water graduate from regular severe headaches, dizziness, ringing in the ears and loss of smell and taste to extremely painful swelling of arms and legs and irreversible brain damage. Although the gas companies involved provide tanks of drinking water and new washing machines, the secrecy clause in the victims’ contracts prevents them from making the serious effects of fracking public without fear of reprisals.

There is an “ocean” of shale gas under North America; businessmen and politicians are united in seeing it as a “game-changer” in the future of US energy supply. Fracking is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), and the Environmental Protection Agency has been told not to investigate cases related to it. Companies involved are not obliged to reveal which chemicals are contained in the slick water used to flush out gas from underground shale rock during the fracking process. Even site managers are not privy to this information, let alone site workers. It is known, however, that glycol ethers are present in the liquids and these lead to the neuropathy contracted by inhabitants of areas where fracking is taking place. The problem acquires a much larger dimension when the effects on animals whose meat enters the human food chain are considered.

The region now targeted by Cabot Oil and Gas is the eastern section of the massive Marcellus Shale field, which provides water to the 15.6 million inhabitants of New York City and the conurbations in the Delaware River Basin. Yet the hours of hearings presenting public concerns about plans for permitting fracking in the area have not been attended by any officials, and press conferences have been empty of journalists. Local Congressmen only have their eyes on the profits and employment which will result from letting the frackers loose. Nevertheless, American citizens may be saved from the detrimental effects of the process by a new SDWA currently going through Congress, and Fox, at least, will not be accepting the $100,000 offered him for allowing bore-holes on his land.

Before viewing Gasland, participants at the Canterbury event were addressed by a representative of East Kent Against Fracking. She described the organisation’s activities lobbying councillors and MPs and their success in achieving certain conditions being attached to the test drilling at Woodnesborough. Two petitions to the European Parliament and the Labour Party Conference are underway. A representative from the Campaign to Protect Rural England emphasised the need to bear in mind the geological differences between North America and Kent when considering the dangers of fracking, but also pointed out the impossibility of gauging access to groundwater by possibly toxic slick water. One specific feature of the South-East which presents a serious obstacle for fracking is the propensity to drought. Millions of gallons of water are required in the fracking process; use of seawater is not an option. Information on whether water used would be treated or dumped is not available. A highly undesirable outcome of fracking in Kent would be the industrialisation of the countryside effectuated by a large matrix of well-heads covering many square kilometres. And last but not least, the planet certainly doesn’t need another form of fossil fuel to exploit. It is precisely the burning of these fuels that is leading to run-away global warming. And this is especially relevant to fracking because the gases extracted (chiefly methane) and subsequently burned are far more harmful to the atmosphere than other natural gases. Methane is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Moreover, there may well be only a two-year supply of shale gas underground in the UK; our focus on exploiting it distracts attention from developing renewable energy sources. The need for a moratorium on fracking until all the issues have been resolved was forcefully advocated.

After the screening of Gasland, a short film made under the auspices of the Co-operative Group called Frack-Free Future – Ireland was shown. This briefly presented the damaging effects for Ulster of fracking in the Republic. These included the threats to tourism, agriculture and human and animal health, as well as air and water pollution.

Keith Taylor, Green Party MEP for the South-East, then outlined the different stances of EU countries towards fracking. While France and Bulgaria have both banned it, Poland is engaging in it at full throttle. The UK is in a position between the two extremes, afraid that it will not prove economically viable. The Greens represent the fourth largest grouping in the European Parliament and have a good chance of obtaining overarching regulations on the process throughout the EU. There is mounting pressure from many countries for a moratorium until independent reports on the risks involved have been made. East and West Sussex have already voted to be frack-free and Kent county and local councils should be pressed to do the same.

The participants at the Canterbury event then split into groups to have a round-table discussion on the issues raised by the films and the speakers. Group leaders reported back in a plenary. Apart from the chief worries about the risks to aquifers, the hiving-off of huge amounts of already scarce water for the fracking process and the shifting of focus from renewables, the following concerns were raised:
·    More needs to be known about the costs of fracking compared with that of windfarms and other renewables;
·    There will be a detrimental impact on house prices in an area where fracking is taking place;
·    Insurance companies will not provide buildings insurance in a fracking area;
·    The effects on wildlife could be considerable;
·    The impact on transport would also be significant in terms of increased volume of heavy vehicles using the roads and the resulting disrepair and noise;
·    The South Downs consist of chalk, a highly pervious rock. This would surely be highly significant when access of slick water to groundwater is assessed;
·    Local authorities can apparently give permission for a drill-hole if it covers less than one hectare. They tend to be ill-informed about the issues involved;
·    Considering the health hazards encountered in the USA, the NHS would be faced with increased costs in treating patients exposed to the effects of fracking;
·    More research is required on fracking. The Tyndall Centre report is the only significant one on the issue (available at http://www.frackaware.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/coop_shale_gas_report_update_v3.10.pdf)
·    Many participants favoured campaigning for a frack-free Kent and/or a UK moratorium on permits for drilling bore-holes in shale. More land is due to be opened up for exploratory drilling at the end of 2012.

The Royal Society and Royal College of Engineering report mentioned at the beginning of this article concluded 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.” Considering the experience in Lancashire with earth tremors caused by broken casing of the fracking system and the disastrous effects of leakage of liquids into groundwater resulting from the same problem in North America, this conclusion seems somewhat cavalier.

As one participant at the Canterbury event put it, once they start fracking it may well be too late to prevent irreversible damage to our environment. Action is required now!

If you wish to join those campaigning for a frack-free Kent and/or for a UK moratorium on fracking until further independent research has been carried out, you can find more information at http://eastkentagainstfracking.blogspot.com/, www.cooperative.coop/fracking and at http://frack-off.org.uk/ You could also write to county and local councillors, MPs and water boards expressing the concerns raised about fracking. Various films can be obtained free of charge via the Cooperative Group, including The Sky is Pink, Gasland and Gasland II, which gives the bigger picture. You can sign the petition for a moratorium at http://38degrees.uservoice.com/forums/78585-campaign-suggestions/suggestions/1717939-a-call-for-a-moratorium-on-hydraulic-fracturing-in?ref=title


Pat Marsh