Last week, the Frack Free United campaign network delivered a declaration to Downing Street calling for a halt to fracking. It was signed by 8,000+ politicians, academics, community groups, environmental organisations and residents. In this guest weekend long read, Frack Free United makes the case against government policy on shale gas exploration and development.
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Local communities, local democracy and social licence
It is abundantly clear that local communities up and down the UK will never be persuaded to welcome fracking in their areas. Despite repeated efforts to entice communities with ‘shale gas dividends’ and promised pay-outs from notional industry profits, not a single community threatened by this industry has come out in favour of having fracking on their doorstep. On the contrary, wherever fracking is proposed, local people mobilise in their thousands to do whatever they can to stop this industry in its tracks.
Every planning application related to fracking results in hundreds, if not thousands of objections. For example, Third Energy’s plans to frack at Kirby Misperton in North Yorkshire was opposed by 99.2% of the people who responded to the planning application (4,375 objections and only 36 letters in favour), yet was approved by the Conservative-led county council.
In Lancashire, both the local community and the council rejected Cuadrilla’s application to frack at Preston New Road, only to have their views ignored and their decision summarily overturned by a government minister. The same story of widespread local opposition is repeated up and down the UK wherever fracking is proposed, despite the government’s PR drive to persuade people of the need for fracking.
According to the most recent WAVE survey conducted by the department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), only 15% of people support fracking – down 3% from the previous survey. It is therefore clear that fracking does not have – and indeed will never have – social licence to proceed in the UK.
The government’s response to this implacable and unyielding opposition has been disappointing, to say the least. Instead of withdrawing its support of fracking and investing heavily in clean renewable energy – which is supported by 80% of people in the latest WAVE Survey – the government have attempted to override local democracy by proposing that exploratory drilling should be classified as Permitted Development, and that major fracking projects are classed as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project. This attempt to subvert the planning process runs contrary to the government’s stated support of localism, and has resulted in a wave of condemnation from all sides of the House, including many MPs within the Conservative Party.
At a recent Westminster Hall debate, Conservative MPs lined up to condemn the government’s proposals. Mark Menzies, Conservative MP for Fylde, whose constituency includes Cuadrilla’s fracking site at Preston New Road, said,
“Moving to permitted development is nothing short of irresponsible and downright bonkers.”
Kevin Hollinrake, whose Thirsk and Malton constituency includes Third Energy’s fracking site at Kirby Misperton, said the proposals would “ride a coach and horses” through measures agreed by North Yorkshire County Council to restrict shale gas developments. And Lee Rowley, the Conservative MP for North East Derbyshire which includes the INEOS Marsh Lane site, urged the government to withdraw its plans immediately, saying:
“This proposal on permitted development and NSIP is ludicrous and needs to be stopped.”
In the same week Zac Goldsmith, Conservative MP for Richmond, issued a warning to the government, saying:
“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.”
The government’s plans to fast-track fracking are not only opposed by many of its own MPs, but also hundreds of local community groups, respected charities such as the CPRE and the National Trust, dozens of councils and hundreds of councillors from across the political spectrum. A recent survey showed that over 80% of Conservative councillors opposed the plan to make exploratory drilling permitted development. If the government cannot even rely on its own MPs and councillors to support its own policies, it is surely time to reconsider its unwavering support for the fracking industry in this country.
UK energy strategy and jobs
Much has been made by the pro-fracking lobby of the idea that fracking will help the UK maintain its energy security in the coming decades. This assertion is based on a number of myths and does not stand up to scrutiny. Recent research by Professor Calvin Jones at Cardiff Business School revealed that we would need to drill one new well every day for 15 years to replace just half of UK gas imports for 2021-2035 with fracked shale gas. This would require 6,100 fracking wells to be drilled across our countryside, as well as associated infrastructure such as gas processing plants, compressor stations and new roads. If gas production proved to be more challenging, these figures could rise to 16,500 wells.
Given that the industry has only managed to frack two wells in the last ten years, due to overwhelming local opposition and apparently insurmountable technical issues, it is clear that the there is no conceivable scenario where fracking could make a meaningful contribution to the energy mix before 2030, by which time we need to be moving rapidly towards a low-carbon economy. Even the government’s own Gas Security and Assessment Report concluded that fracking was not required to provide energy security for the UK, and fracked gas wasn’t even included in the supply reports referenced in the report. The Clean Growth Strategy report[vi], which outlined a vision for a low-carbon future for the UK, again did not even mention fracking as part of our future energy mix, but did include the following quote:
“Clean growth is not an option, but a duty we owe to the next generation, and economic growth has to go hand-in-hand with greater protection for our forests and beaches, clean air and places of outstanding natural beauty.”
The author? None other than the Prime Minister, Theresa May.
Despite repeated scaremongering by government ministers and the fracking industry that we are currently reliant on Russia for our gas supply, and that President Putin could ‘turn off the lights’ in the UK, BEIS have stated repeatedly that we only get less than 1% of our gas from Russia and we are ‘no way reliant on it’. This is confirmed in the 2018 DUKES Report (p108, Table 4.2), which shows that last year about 74.9% of the gas imported came by pipeline from Norway, with 12.8% coming as LPG by tanker from Qatar and 9.5% coming via pipeline from Holland and Belgium.
This report also shows that in 2017 we only imported 0.13% of our gas from Russia – hardly enough to allow President Putin to turn off our lights.
The DUKES report also shows that demand for gas has fallen by 23% since 2000 (p93) and the UK currently exports 26.9% of the gas it produces (p109, Table 4.3). If energy security really was such a pressing issue, surely the UK should be using all the gas it produces, rather than exporting it to other countries. The reason for this state of affairs is that all the gas produced in the UK is not actually owned by the state, but by privately-owned companies who sell the gas to the highest bidder. Were the UK to ever produce meaningful quantities of fracked gas, the same free market considerations would apply, and companies would be free to sell their fracked gas aboard if they wished. Also, much of the gas produced by fracking would not enter the energy grid at all, as INEOS – who currently have over 1 million km2 of the British countryside under licence – have stated that they would use fracked gas they produce to make plastics, again undermining any claims that fracking could ever produce energy security for the UK.
The government and the oil and gas industry claim that fracking will result in massive job creation in areas where this industry is allowed to take place. Claims of ‘64,000 jobs’ created by fracking are based largely on an outdated 2014 Ernst & Young report, which is based on a wildly unrealistic estimate of 4,000 fracking wells by 2024-26. However, only about 6,000 of these would be direct jobs in the gas industry, while the extra 58,000 jobs are described ‘induced jobs’, with little explanation of how this figure is arrived at. The reality, however, is very different. The low number of jobs created by a new fracking site make little contribution to the local economy, as many workers such as surveyors and drillers are brought in on short-term contracts and then move on to the next job. Compare this to the job opportunities that would be created if the government fully embraced renewable energy production. The government’s own Green UK video, which was used to promote the first ever Green GB week, claims that ‘There could be 2 million new green jobs by 2030’. In contrast, the impact of widespread fracking on traditional rural industries such as tourism and farming has never been adequately assessed after the government suppressed and then discontinued work on the Shale Gas Rural Economy Paper in 2015, but common sense indicates that it would be overwhelmingly negative.
It is clear to most observers that the resulting industrialisation of the countryside that would occur if thousands of fracking well site were constructed would clearly have a negative impact on current sustainable rural industries. This has been proven in other countries, with research from Queensland in Australia showing that for every ten jobs that were created in the oil and gas sector, eighteen were lost in the agricultural sector. However hard the industry tries, it’s clear that fracking will never create a jobs boom, but would be likely to result in a reduction of jobs in the targeted area.
Regulations and seismicity
There has been much discussion in the press recently of the numerous tremors caused by Cuadrilla’s exploratory fracking operation at Preston New Road in Lancashire. The company has been forced to shut down production on a number of occasions after causing tremors in excess of 0.5 – the top limit allowed under the government’s traffic light system. Observers have noted the cries of foul from Cuadrilla executives as they complain about regulations they themselves supported when they were introduced, after seismic tremors resulted the shutting down of the company’s Preese Hall well in 2011, which is the only other well that has been fracked in the UK.
It was also disappointing to see the new ‘independent’ shale gas commissioner, Natascha Engel, writing to the press to chastise them for their coverage and to rubbish the regulations that the government claims to support. The industry and government response is that these tremors are nothing to worry about because they cannot be felt on the surface.
However, this is missing the point why a relatively low seismicity threshold was put in place, which can be explained by Prof. Stuart Haszeldine, professor of geology at the University of Edinburgh, who recently stated:
“The practical significance is not whether these tremors are felt at the surface or not, but in the potential to damage the borehole, and the potential to create gas pathways from the shale towards larger faults, towards shallower aquifers, and to the surface.”
Furthermore, the government’s own former seismic advisor, Professor Peter Styles, revealed in May that fracking companies have failed to use all available geological data when applying for planning permission, and that historical coal mining data has been overlooked or ignored. Professor Styles has also suggested that it would be prudent to take a precautionary position and remove former coal mining areas from fracking exploration licences because of the heightened risks of earthquakes. This sensible precautionary step would remove nearly half of the recoverable shale gas and make the industry even less viable than it already is. It is therefore becoming increasingly clear that this industry is unable to operate safely in the UK due to its fragmented geology, and the notion that fracking will ever provide any meaningful contribution to the country’s energy mix is not based on reality.
Fracking and climate change
The recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change issued a stark warning of the potential future that lies ahead if we commit ourselves to a future driven by increased fossil fuel production. The IPPC reported that we have only 12 years to dramatically reduce our carbon impact, or suffer the damaging and terrifying consequences of runaway climate change. It is against this background that the impact of fracking on the country’s legally binding climate change commitments needs to be considered.
Fracking has long been trumpeted as a ‘bridge to a low-carbon economy’ and a ‘greener ‘alternative to coal. While it is generally accepted that burning gas – be it conventionally produced or fracked gas – in a power station produces lower emissions of CO2 than burning coal, when methane leaks from fracking production and storage are taken into account, fracking may well be more damaging to the climate than coal, as shown in recent research from Cornell University. Methane is 86 times more dangerous a greenhouse gas than CO2 over a 20-year period, yet the government often fails to take into account the impact on the climate of methane leaks in many of its conclusions. And as in the UK only 7% of our electricity is now produced by burning coal (half the amount that is now generated by wind turbines) and the government estimates that coal will be phased out completely well before 2025, the industry’s ‘bridge to a low carbon economy’ argument is now as outdated as it is inaccurate.
A 2016 report from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) concluded that shale gas development on a significant scale is inconsistent with UK carbon budgets and would breach the nation’s targets for emissions cuts unless the following key tests were passed:
- Well development, production and decommissioning emissions must be strictly limited.
- Gas consumption must remain in line with carbon budgets, which means that UK shale gas production must displace imported gas rather than increasing domestic consumption.
- Additional production emissions from shale gas wells will need to be offset through reductions elsewhere in the UK economy.
The CCC also stated:
“The long-term path for UK gas consumption, assuming carbon budgets are met, depends strongly on whether or not carbon capture and storage (CCS) is deployed,”
It added that:
“A UK approach to delivery of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is urgently needed. Without CCS, almost all fossil fuels would have to be eliminated in power generation by mid 2030, and almost all CO2 eliminated from all sectors of the economy by 2050.”
There is little evidence that any of the above conditions are likely to be met by the shale gas industry or government, particularly as successful implementation of carbon capture and storage remains as far away as ever. This conclusion makes it very clear that there is no place for a new fossil fuel industry such as fracking in our future energy mix, and we should be moving rapidly towards developing the clean renewable energy production and storage systems that this country needs.
Health and environmental impacts of fracking
Fracking causes increased air, noise and light pollution, and each well produces millions of gallons of toxic waste water, which is very difficult to dispose of safely. In countries where fracking has taken place there have been significant impacts on the natural environment, including water contamination, methane leaks, spills of fracking chemicals, earthquakes and loss of wildlife. The latest report from the UK government on fracking and health was published by Public Health England back in July 2014 – yet over 80% of peer-reviewed scientific studies published since then show that fracking is a threat to public health, air and water quality. There is now convincing scientific evidence that fracking can be a danger to the health and well-being of people living near well-sites, with several studies pointing to an increase in premature births, miscarriages, birth defects, migraines, childhood asthma, and other lung and skin diseases.
While the UK government has been reluctant to assess the growing body of evidence of the health impacts of fracking, other organisations around the world have been taking the lead. One of the most thorough and wide-ranging reviews of recent scientific evidence is the Compendium of Scientific, Medical and Media findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking, which is produced by The Concerned Health Professionals of New York and the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organisation Physicians for Social Responsibility. The fifth edition of the Compendium was published in March 2018 and drew upon government assessments, news investigations and more than 1,200 peer-reviewed research articles – most of which have been published in the last four years.
The Fifth Compendium’s conclusion reads as follows:
“All together, findings to date from scientific, medical, and journalistic investigations combine to demonstrate that fracking poses significant threats to air, water, health, public safety, climate stability, seismic stability, community cohesion, and long-term economic vitality. Emerging data from a rapidly expanding body of evidence continue to reveal a plethora of recurring problems and harms that cannot be sufficiently averted through regulatory frameworks. There is no evidence that fracking can operate without threatening public health directly or without imperiling climate stability upon which public health depends.”
The UK oil and gas industry would no doubt argue that all these problems can be avoided in Britain because we have ‘gold-standard’ regulations – even though every other country where fracking takes place also claims that their regulations are of a similarly high standard.
However, across Britain the health and environmental impacts of fracking are already becoming evident, even with the current low level of activity. Recent research on air quality at the fracking site at Kirby Misperton, which was conducted by the University of York for the British Geological Survey, showed that a rise in levels of nitrogen oxides coincided with increased traffic movements and the operation of equipment at the Kirby Misperton wellsite. The authors concluded that the air quality changed from that typical of a rural setting to what you would expect in an urban area. And that was just from the activities relating to one exploratory well that was never actually fracked. And with the UK government already defending illegal air quality levels in our cities, imagine the air pollution in our countryside that would result if there were over 6,000 wells in full production across Britain.
This BGS report echoes the government’s own findings, which were revealed only four days after ministers had approved fracking in Lancashire after being left unpublished for three years. This report, which was written by the government’s Air Quality Expert Group (AQEG), estimated that a fracking industry of 400 wells would increase national emissions of pollution, with nitrogen dioxides rising 1-4% and volatile organic compounds 1-3%. The report also warned:
“Impacts on local and regional air quality have the potential to be substantially higher than the national level impacts, as extraction activities are likely to be highly clustered.”
In 2016 the UK organisation Medact reviewed over 350 academic papers published in the previous twelve months on the impacts of fracking for shale gas. Following the release of their report, Medact released a statement saying that
“hydraulic fracturing for shale gas (‘fracking’) poses significant risks to public health and calls for an immediate moratorium to allow time for a full and comprehensive health and environmental impact assessment (HIA) to be completed.”
An open letter about the report was also published in the British Medical Journal and signed by 18 health care professionals, which concluded:
“The arguments against fracking on public health and ecological grounds are overwhelming. There are clear grounds for adopting the precautionary principle and prohibiting fracking.”
While the UK government continues to rely on outdated reports and industry press briefings to justify its pro-fracking policy, other countries are taking action to protect their citizens. Last year the Republic of Ireland and Scotland undertook thorough reviews of current evidence of the environmental, economic and health impacts of this controversial technology, and have joined the growing number of countries and states that have effectively banned fracking. The Scottish enquiry was described in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health as
“the first truly national assessment of the public health and related implications of Unconventional Oil and Gas Exploration”.
The authors of the research paper praised the high level of public engagement in the enquiry, which received over 60,000 responses to a public consultation, and added,
“Rarely have governments brought together relatively detailed assessments of direct and indirect public health risks associated with fracking and weighed these against potential benefits to inform a national debate on whether to pursue this energy route.”
With de facto moratoria in both Wales and Northern Ireland, this leaves England as the only country in the United Kingdom where fracking can take place.
It is clear from the evidence presented in this briefing document that the fracking industry cannot contribute to UK energy security in the near or medium term, and has no place as a bridge fuel in the country’s much-needed transition to a low-carbon economy. It is also evident that promoting fracking over cleaner, cheaper means of energy production is causing harm to many affected communities up and down the country, as well as draining financial resources that would be better spent on renewable energy projects.
Fracking cannot help the UK achieve its legally binding climate change targets, and is more likely to result in increased emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly methane. Furthermore, the government’s latest attempts to fast-track fracking by subverting the democratic planning process has created a huge backlash, alienating residents, communities, councils and Conservative MPs alike.
We therefore ask you to reconsider your support for the fracking industry and call an immediate halt to this unwanted, unnecessary and unsafe industry across the UK, and instead rapidly increase government investment in the clean renewable energy production and storage.
Finally, we note that the fracking industry has met with government ministers 31 times during the last three years, which works out at almost one meeting every month. We therefore request that you offer us the same opportunities to meet with the ministers of the relevant portfolios as you have done for the fracking industry, so that we can put forward our reasoned and fact-based case against fracking and in favour of renewable energy.
- Frack Free United is a network of residents, communities and campaign groups who are coming together to protect our countryside and communities from the threat of fracking, strengthening and building a coalition from all walks of life and working together to oppose fracking across the UK.
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