UK debate over pros and cons of fracking will echo in Ireland

Fri, Sep 28, 2012, 01:00

LONDON LETTER:Battles over wind farms may be just the prelude to more bitter conflict as fracking spreads, writes MARK HENNESSY

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS delegates grabbed coats and scarves as they made their way, heads bowed, along Brighton’s promenade for their party’s conference this week in the face of howling winds and rain, as an unseasonal winter gale battered England’s south coast.

Despite being preoccupied with their own political survival, delegates had time to consider the UK’s future energy needs, as climate-change pressures clash with the world’s insatiable demand for energy, mostly fossil.

For some, the stores of shale gas lying deep underneath parts of Britain are the solution – with exploration of the Bowland basin in Lancashire the most advanced – with some of the most optimistic but questioned estimates putting the potential supplies at 40 trillion cubic feet, enough to supply gas needs for years.

However, Liberal Democrats energy secretary Ed Davey is less than a fan, judging by his remarks during a number of fringe events at the conference. Every time he appeared doubtful, cautioning against hopes that shale gas is the revolution its promoters promise.

Opinion about energy is divided in the British cabinet. The Conservatives, despite past exhortations to “vote blue, go green”, favour gas over all forms of renewables, with chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne increasingly concerned that focusing on renewables will scupper plans to get economic growth.

Former Northern Ireland secretary of state Owen Paterson, now running environment after this month’s reshuffle, enthusiastically backs exploiting shale gas reserves – though green campaigners point endlessly to his scepticism about the influence of man on climate change.

The Lancashire explorations are, in any event, the warm-up act, since far larger deposits of shale gas exist across Sussex and Hampshire and in a line from Cambridge through Oxford and on to Bath, passing close by prime minister David Cameron’s Witney constituency, as it happens.

Licences for the Conservative-leaning Cotswolds, where inhabitants are already bridling at the plans to build a high-speed railway to Leeds and Manchester, are already up for auction, while others are up for grabs in Somerset – a Liberal Democrat heartland.

One of the proposed drilling sites in Sussex lies just metres from the London-Brighton railway line. In time, the battle in such areas that is already under way over wind farms may be just the prelude to far more bitter confrontations, as fracking spreads outside of Lancashire.

Davey, not Paterson, will have to decide if the Lancashire test drillings – which were suspended last year after minor earthquakes caused by exploration company Cuadrilla’s “fracking” woke locals and caused minor damage – can resume, though the expectation is that permission will be granted.

The drillings, near Lytham St Anne’s and Singleton, are unpopular with locals, who worry that fracking – where sand and water are pumped deep underground to break up rock formations to in turn let gas free – could bring future tremors, pollute water supplies and lead to heavy truck traffic on country roads.

Late on Tuesday night, delegates gathered in the Grand Hotel to hear from a Cuadrilla geologist, Hugh Clarke, who rejected fears that the company was using dangerous chemicals: the polyacrylamides used to make the pumped-in water “slippy” are the same as those used safely in contact lenses, he maintained.

Fracking is not the problem, he added: poor drilling is. Properly protected by cement and multiple layers of piping and impermeable sheeting, drilling is safe and the fractures provoked will not climb upwards from 3,048m (10,000ft) below to open up aquifers, Clarke told the gathering.

Local engineer Mike Hill, who began a study of fracking after the Lancashire project was mooted, seems happy with Cuadrilla’s work, but despairs about regulators: “I had thought that I would find them to be very hot on the issue. Instead, I found that they were clueless.”

The UK’s Health and Safety Executive, based in Aberdeen, had agreed safety standards for Cuadrillas drilling beforehand, yet it had done no pipe inspection at the drilling sites since the company began work. “They rely entirely on information from Cuadrilla,” he told the fringe.

The agency, separately, had made eight sampling visits to Cuadrilla but had not checked whether chemicals had been used in the test drills.

“I believe Cuadrilla, but it isn’t good enough – there has to be independent inspection. You can’t rely on industry to say, ‘honest, Guv’.”

Public opinion about fracking has been significantly influenced by the documentary Gasland, which showed water on fire as it emerged from taps. About half of it was right, 30 per cent could not be verified, while 20 per cent was “a fix”, Hill said.

Demanding full transparency, Hill complained about some of the conduct in Lancashire to date.

Cuadrilla has not carried out an environmental impact survey, for instance, because its drilling sites are 0.99 hectares in size – just below the one hectare that would make a survey compulsory.

In words that may echo in Ireland, where fracking applications for the midlands and along the Border are in the works, Hill said Lancashire County Council faced problems as it prepared to deal with a full planning application from Cuadrilla if tests finish satisfactorily: “Ignorance is not a good enough reason to refuse planning permission.”