Fracking dilemma goes on as companies seek to guzzle gas from the ground

Recent successes have heartened those campaigning against fracking

Something unusual happened in West Sussex last month: a small rural community took on the fracking industry – and won. Indeed, the people of Wisborough Green could barely believe it when their district council's planning committee unanimously rejected test-drilling plans by Celtique Energie.

“The vote was called all the hands shot up in the air and it was over – application refused,” says Simon Clydesdale of Greenpeace. “The room exploded, cheers, hugs, kisses, backslapping and smiles all around.

“A lot of anxiety, sweat, toil and tears had led to this moment, the sense of triumph and relief was tangible.”

This turnabout was the first major reversal of what Greenpeace has branded as "the UK's fracking juggernaut", which is backed by British prime minister David Cameron. He has said that fracking would be "good for our country", suggesting that "uncertainties, worries and concerns" derived from a "lack of understanding".


The British government is so committed to the “exciting prospect” of fracking that it is now prepared to open up more of the country to shale oil and gas companies, running from central Scotland to the south coast of England; nearly 3,000 wells could be drilled in areas totalling 96,000sq km under the latest licensing round.

Celtique’s planning application to drill for oil and gas in West Sussex had attracted nearly 2,500 objections, mainly on the grounds of its likely negative impact on the landscape, fears about the danger of water contamination from fracking fluids and a huge increase in heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) on narrow country roads.

Traffic turned out to be the Achilles heel. West Sussex District Council’s planners recommended a refusal on the basis that Celtique had seriously underestimated the increase in HGVs. The company claimed there would be an 11-13 per cent rise, but the planners warned it could be as high as 64 per cent.

Although turned down on quite narrow grounds, Clydesdale believes that the council’s decision “sets an example” for other planning authorities in dealing with fracking applications by Celtique for a site in the highly sensitive South Downs National Park and by another company, Cuadrilla, for Roseacre Wood in Lancashire.

The West Sussex refusal has been noted and welcomed by anti-fracking campaigners in Co Leitrim, where the same Australian-owned company is preparing plans for another shale gas exploration project.

Objectors have also been heartened by California’s recent decision to order an emergency shut-down of 11 oil and gas “waste-injection sites” and a review of more than 100 others in the drought-stricken Central Valley because of fears that fracking fluids and other toxic waste were being pumped into drinking water aquifers.

The US state’s oil, gas and geothermal resources department issued “cease and desist” orders to seven energy companies warning that they may be injecting their waste into drinking water aquifers and stating that the disposal of fracking waste “poses a danger to life, health, property and natural resources”.

In another fracking hot-spot, southwest Pennsylvania, a group of scientists has set up a unique project to provide free health consultations to local families who had been complaining about respiratory problems, rashes and lesions, irritated eyes, nosebleeds, numbness, tingling, headaches, nausea and vomiting.

With funding from Heinz Endowments, the project aims to establish whether there is any link between the outbreak of such symptoms and the growth of fracking. "I don't know what, if anything, can be caused by fracking," says Barry Johnson, adjunct professor of public health at Emory University, "but I think we should find out."

In North Dakota, by contrast, a red carpet has been rolled out for oil and gas companies. Once a poor prairie state, its fortunes have been transformed by these companies drilling more than 8,000 wells in its western half to quadruple oil production in four years, according to the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity (CPI).

North Dakota not only collected $4 billion (€2.98 billion) in oil taxes between 2011 and 2013, it is creating a sovereign wealth fund from the proceeds while oil companies, such as Hess, “have showered the state with additional money – new millions for universities, museums, hospitals and other charitable causes”, CPI says.

“While few want to argue with the prosperity – the cascading cash, the budget surplus, the new hospital wing, the abundant jobs – the clout and swagger of the oil companies, arguably the most powerful force in modern politics, has unsettled the traditionally amicable and moderate politics of this state of just 725,000 people.”

In a detailed report, Big Oil, Bad Air, CPI's Nicholas Kusnetz writes that the fracking industry "has gained a level of influence that's hard to overstate" – such that every significant attempt to tighten regulatory oversight of its practices had failed and "any talk about clamping down on the pace of drilling has been quickly snuffed out".

Kusnetz quotes Jim Fuglie, former director of North Dakota Tourism: “We’ve been so poor for so long, then all of a sudden, we won the goddamn lottery. You know what happens to lottery winners; you read about them three years later; they’re in court, or they’re in bankruptcy or they’re divorced. That’s the way we are.”

As the CPI report notes, these downsides include “oil field spills by the thousands, billowing clouds of dust kicked up by an endless stream of trucks pounding on deteriorating roads, radioactive waste left to degrade in vacant buildings, skyrocketing crime rates and housing costs and methamphetamine abuse and prostitutes . . .”

Notoriously, the flares can be seen from space as drillers “wastefully burn off nearly a third of the natural gas that’s produced with the oil without paying royalties or taxes because they haven’t installed the pipelines and processing plants to capture it”, while only a “fraction” of the numerous oil spills result in companies being fined.

North Dakota's Industrial Commission, which oversees drilling, recently announced a set of rules to limit flaring – the flares can be seen from spacae – the practice of burning off natural gas at fracking sites. "The rules should start reducing the amount of gas drillers waste, but they are based on a set of proposals that regulators solicited from the oil companies themselves."

Proposals for two-mile buffer zones around “extraordinary sites” – not to ban drilling from these areas, but merely to allow the public to have an input into fracking proposals – were characterised by one pro-industry politician as “a direct attack against the free market capitalist system” and ended up being limited to publicly owned lands.

“There is a set line that everybody has to toe, which is the oil companies are the ticket to the future and don’t say anything bad about them,” fracking opponent Don Morrison told CPI.

“Our state leaders set up a conversation that it was all or nothing. There was absolutely no room for anyone in the middle, none. That’s just weird.”

Industry lobbyists defeated efforts to set a new minimum separation distance of 330 metres between oil wells and people’s homes, roads in the western half of the state are lined by oil wells and clogged by HGVs and natural gas worth an aggregate $1 billion (€744 million) is still being flared into the air instead of being captured for use.

“You gotta understand that before they came, we were grasping for ways to keep this town alive,” Republican senator Rich Wardner, asays about Dickinson, North Dakota. “Sixteen thousand and dying, now, it’s almost 30,000. Most people would rather have this growing, with a vibrant economy, and they know who’s responsible. The oil is.”

This article was edited to correct a factual error on August 12th.

Frank McDonald

Frank McDonald

Frank McDonald, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former environment editor