By Andy Rowell
In their belligerent and blinkered attempt to replicate the US shale boom in the UK, the fracking industry and Conservative Government cannot bury three immovable and inconvenient truths that threaten to kill off the industry, even before it has been shown to be commercially viable.
Firstly, the simple one is scale: the UK is a small, densely-populated island and any fracking boom, with the number of wells it would require, was always going to pit community after community against the industry.
No matter how many false promises of energy independence are muttered by the industry or politicians, there was never enough land or space to achieve it, without a full-scale confrontation with hundreds of thousands of people. One estimate from earlier in the year is that there would need to be 6,100 wells to replace just 50 per cent of British gas imports between 2021 and 2035. This level of intrusion was never going to happen without a full-blown community-led rebellion across the UK.
The problem for the Government and industry is that local communities are vehemently opposed against fracking and it has taken seven years for just one well to be fracked. Only 18 per cent of the population currently support it. And support is falling all the time.
There have been bruising battles from Balcombe in East Sussex; to North Yorkshire and of course the seven-year clash in Lancashire between shale company, Cuadrilla, and the local community. In Lancashire, Cuadrilla’s shale application was rejected by every pillar of local democracy, from District to County level. But the Government over-ruled everyone and gave the go-ahead.
Emboldened by the fact they could steam-roll democracy at a local level to start fracking, the Tories then came up with the supposedly bright idea of steam-rolling democracy at a national level and are attempting to make it easier to frack for shale gas than put up a garden shed. They have just put the idea out to public consultation.
The obvious hypocrisy of a Government – one that for years pushed local control for local people agenda – taking away democratic control was obvious to anyone not in the pocket of the shale gas industry. Indeed, even one parliamentary Committee report on fracking and planning agreed that decision-making should stay with local authorities.
The committee noted: “that the Government has not provided any justification or evidence for why fracking has been singled out to be included in a national planning regime in contrast to general mineral applications”.
Clive Betts MP, Chair of Committee, said: “Taking decision-making powers away from local planning authorities would be a backward step. It would remove the important link between fracking applications and Local Plans and be hugely harmful to local democracy and the principles and spirit of localism.”
Last week, the government’s consultation closed with over 300,000 people signing a petition opposing the government’s proposals, after a campaign called “Let Communities Decide”.
Indeed, there is a growing political backlash against the move too, with more and more Conservative MPs worried that it will cost them votes. Over the weekend, Tory MP, Zac Goldsmith said: “Fracking is an issue that has the potential to turn whole regions against the government. The drilling rigs and pollution, the industrial equipment and sheer volume of trucks all make it an alarming prospect for communities up and down the country.”
He added: “If the government’s answer is simply to change the planning rules so that even elected local representatives have no say on the issue, then it will have to be prepared for a huge backlash.”
The second problem for the government is the geology, which is much more complicated and fault-ridden than in the US. This means that the industry is going to cause many more earthquakes than it did in the United States.
Back in 2011, when Cuadrilla was starting to explore for shale in Lancashire, the company caused two earthquakes in Lancashire, pausing the whole process for years. So the warning signs were already there.
This month, Cuadrilla got the go-ahead to finally begin fracking again after a seven-year battle. On Saturday, there was the eighteenth tremor at the site since fracking started just 12 days ago. On Friday, the 0.8-magnitude quake was large enough to be classified as a “red light” in the government’s so-called traffic-light scheme of regulation on seismic activity, forcing the company to cease operations for 18 hours. Saturday’s tremor was big enough to be a deemed a “red light” too.
On Saturday, Cuadrilla’s CEO, Francis Egan conceded that “You can’t create fractures in the ground without generating a seismic signature.”
The earthquakes and tremors are no surprise to the industry’s critics, however, who warn that Cuadrilla has failed to understand the local geology or understand how many faults there are. This means the chances of something going badly wrong are high.
Further afield, Professor Peter Styles, Emeritus Professor in Applied and Environmental Geophysics at Keele University in the UK, says fracking could cause earthquakes on up to half the land in the UK. According to Styles, who has studied the maps of former coal mining areas and proposed fracking sites, the data shows they “are riddled” with potentially dangerous faults capable of producing seismic activity greater than a 0.5 magnitude, which is when fracking must stop under the Government’s red light system.
Finally, the elephant in the fracking industry’s room is climate change. You can’t tackle climate change and keep fracking at the same time. As I and many others have written many times before, there is nothing clean or green about gas.
We know the fossil fuel industry’s emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, is dramatically higher than previously thought. The biggest study of its kind ever undertaken has found that emissions of methane from gas, oil and coal production were 20-60% greater than existing estimates.
Earlier this month, leading climate scientist, James Hansen, attacked the UK’s promotion of shale gas: “So the UK joins Trump, ignores science… full throttle ahead with the worst fossil fuels,” Hansen told the Observer. “The science is crystal clear, we need to phase out fossil fuels starting with the most damaging, the ‘unconventional’ fossil fuels such as tar sands and ‘fracking’.”
Hansen wrote to the UK Energy Minister, Claire Perry, warning that the decision to allow fracking would contribute to “climate breakdown”.
Indeed, as Craig Bennett, the CEO of Friends of the Earth, pointed out just yesterday: “One day soon society will see attempts to frack in Britain as the last-gasp, death-throes of a tired, old oil and gas industry that just doesn’t know when it’s time to fade into history.”
Despite this, Cuadrilla restarted fracking in Lancashire this morning and on Wednesday, MPs will debate the government’s plans to fast-track fracking. However up to 20 Tory MPs are said to be ready to rebel to rebel against the government’s plans, which would be enough to defeat the fast-track proposals.
Meanwhile, the locals in Lancashire did not have long to wait for yet another earthquake or tremor to happen. This morning, as fracking resumed, the British Geological Survey, which is monitoring the seismic activity around the site, recorded the biggest earthquake to date, measuring 1.1 on the Richter Scale.
So once again, fracking has been suspended. It won’t have escaped the attention of local activists that slowly but surely the earthquakes are getting larger. The trouble for Cuadrilla is that every time there is an earthquake and every time there is another delay, more people lose confidence in the technology and the company. Day by day, they are seismically shooting themselves in the foot.
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