On the 28th of September the last Cuadrilla trucks left the site of the energy firm’s ‘exploratory drilling operations’ at Balcombe. Around 60 tents remained on the grass verges, the remnants of the 1000 strong encampment of protestors who had occupied the area for the previous two months. Among those who stayed, many were awaiting trial at Crawley Magistrates Court; some of the 124 people arrested since the anti-fracking campaign began in July.
For those not in the know, ‘Fracking’, more properly known as Hydraulic Fracturing, involves pumping millions of gallons of water, silica and a cocktail of chemicals deep into shale rock formations. The immense pressure cracks the rock, releasing natural gas which then flows towards the wells. According to the Energy Information Administration, shale fields in America are expected to provide enough gas to supply the country for 110 years. As a result the USA is projected to overtake Russia as the biggest global gas producer by 2015. While no one knows exactly how much shale gas is recoverable in Britain, a study of 11 counties alone has estimated reserves of approximately 1,300 trillion cubic feet. Even with a 10% extraction rate, this would be over 50 years’ gas supply. According to Prime Minister David Cameron, this resource has “real potential to drive energy bills down”.
Unfortunately, the economics don’t quite add up. Unlike America, the UK is part of the huge European gas market. Companies such as Cuadrilla are therefore free to sell the gas they extract to the highest bidder. In their own words the impact of British shale on energy bills appears “basically insignificant”, a 1.7% reduction according to a report they commissioned. Even in the USA, the gas boom has already led to an inevitable slump in prices. This sounds great for consumers until you realise that, as profits fall below production costs, leading energy companies such as Exxon will simply stop drilling until demand increases again.
And then there’s the environmental cost. Pro-frackers claim that in contrast to conventional fossil fuels such as coal and oil, shale gas is relatively ‘clean’, emitting only about half the amount of carbon when burnt. However, this analysis is incomplete; according to Cornell University between 3.6 and 7.9% of the methane released in the fracking process escapes into the atmosphere. Approximately 25 times as polluting as CO2, a methane leak of only 3.2% renders fracking more harmful. And besides, comparing gas and coal is akin to comparing assault and criminal damage; neither is a pleasant first choice. To promote fracking as the better option is to obscure the issue. In the words of Alexis Rowell, editor of Transition Free Press, “it’s not a clean gas; it’s still a fossil fuel. They say it’s a bridge fuel, they say it’s better to burn the gas than burn the coal. We’re still burning the coal. We’re burning everything”.
Fracking also brings with it a whole set of specialised problems. Unique to hydraulic extraction methods is the amount, and severity, of water contamination it creates. Approximately 40,000 gallons of chemicals are used per fracturing operation, a mix of up to 600 carcinogens and toxins including uranium, lead, hydrochloric acid, formaldehyde and radium. As a result of the high pressure used to crack the shale, some of this ‘fracking fluid’, laced with methane, inevitably escapes into the groundwater nearby. Methane concentrations of up to 17 times higher than usual have been recorded in drinking water wells near fracking sites. Of the fluid that does not escape, only 30-50% is recoverable. The rest remains underground, and is not biodegradable.
In Pennsylvania, America’s lead fracking state, Duke University discovered radium levels up to 200 times higher than normal downstream of a water treatment plant. The University of Texas found that private wells within 3km of fracking sites contained around 18 times the usual concentration of arsenic, as well as other dangerous heavy metals. Incredibly, despite all the fears of contamination, the fracking process is exempt from America’s Clean Water Act. Nor do fracking companies have to reveal the chemicals they use if they can be deemed ‘trade secrets’. In fact, in Pennsylvania the law is so much on their side that doctors are not allowed to make it public if they fear their patients’ symptoms are related to drilling in the area. While these specific loopholes do not apply to British law, the danger of contamination does.
Cuadrilla’s Balcombe site is little over a mile away from Ardingly Reservoir, which provides 8% of South East water. Among local residents, there are concerns that the risks to the groundwater that feeds this reservoir have not been properly addressed. A recent poll revealed that 85% of those who live in Balcombe were opposed to Cuadrilla’s presence in the area. “This technology must be feared because we can’t control the results” stated local campaigner Alan Rew, “It’s a process with an environmental legacy that will unfold over decades.” Indeed, given that fracking is such new technology, it’s long term geological and environmental effects won’t be fully known for years, and may be irrevocable.
Nonetheless, the government continues to push the fracking agenda. Chancellor George Osborne recently announced the “most generous tax breaks in the world” for shale producers, at only 30%, and cash incentives are offered to local communities who accept drilling in their area. A recent Freedom of Information request by Energydesk reveals that Lord Browne, a government energy advisor (who is also the Chairman of Cuadrilla) actually intervened in a debate between the company and the Environment Agency to try to bend the rules on waste disposal. The echoes of US legislation are alarming. And all this despite a YouGov poll which recently concluded that the British public are seven times more likely to welcome a solar farm in their area than a fracking field. In fact, a poll by the Department of Energy and Climate Change found that 82% of Britons are now in favour of renewable energy over fossil fuels.
That 82% is unlikely to be found camped at roadsides outside potential fracking sites, or hauled up before a magistrates’ court for “obstructing” the passage of industry. They may not even identify with those who do. Protestors, by the very strength of their conviction, tend to be a little outside the norm. Walking among the few remaining tents at Balcombe it’s easy to dismiss this conviction as extremist. It’s easy to forget the weight of science and caution and educated thinking on their side and see a collection of under washed, over-zealous hippies who, the Daily Mail continues to impress upon us, are probably unemployed. But perhaps their fanaticism can be forgiven. Mark Mansbridge, one of the first to be arrested, reflected on the effect of the Balcombe protest: “I think it does send you a bit mad in a way. It’s about the whole viability of life on this planet. And if you think too much about it, about temperatures rising and no clean water, about all the challenges that we face, then it can push you over the edge. It’s a bit bigger than worrying about the mortgage.”
Experts agree that fracking is not a long term solution to the energy problems we face. Eventually shale gas, like all other fossil fuels, will run out. What fracking will provide is a quick buck to those who exploit our need for fuel and, for the rest of us, a host of new environmental challenges in the years to come. Cuadrilla is currently applying for a new drilling permit. Maybe next time they try to drill there will be more protestors waiting for them. In the meantime, don’t go too near the water.