Toxic gas: why we need to stop fracking

Tony Bosworth and Helen Rimmer report on plans to expand fracking across the UK and look at why we need to leave shale gas in the ground
June 2013


Activists take on fracking by turning the Tory club in George Osborne’s constituency into ‘Frack & Go’ HQ. Photo: Steve Morgan

To listen to its advocates, there’s little shale gas won’t do: bring down energy prices, cut carbon emissions, support renewables and bring us out of recession. The ‘climate-sceptic’ Global Warming Policy Foundation even claimed that ‘because of shale gas, wealth and health will be distributed more equitably over the planet’. Add to this newspaper stories with misunderstood numbers saying that we have enough shale gas to heat UK homes for 1,500 years and you can see why some people are getting excited.

In the UK, the initial activity has been in Lancashire, where test drilling in 2011 caused earthquakes that led to a de facto moratorium on further fracking. Energy secretary Ed Davey lifted this ban in December 2012 and interest is now on the rise again. Many areas are already covered by licences giving companies the first option on oil and gas exploration. A few companies have got planning permission for test drilling. Among the areas being eyed up in this current round are Lancashire, Sussex, Kent, South Wales and the East Midlands. And the government is planning more licensing, potentially opening up more areas for drilling.

Do the claims made for shale gas stand up to scrutiny? Green groups and local community organisations think not.

We believe that large-scale shale gas extraction is unnecessary and unwanted.

Environmental experiment

Fracking is rightly a controversial technology. In conventional gas production, the gas flows freely up a well. Shale gas is held within shale rocks thousands of feet underground, which have to be fractured (or ‘fracked’) to allow the gas to flow. This is done by pumping millions of gallons of water – mixed with potentially toxic chemicals to help the gas flow more freely – down the well at extremely high pressure. Only maybe half of this water comes back to the surface – the rest remains underground.

It’s an experiment with the local environment. The European Commission has said the cumulative impacts of fracking at several sites pose high risks of problems for water resources, water contamination and air pollution. There is clear evidence of problems in the US: water supplies contaminated by fracking chemicals and by the gas itself, increased air pollution, communities blighted by traffic.

Nor will shale gas help to tackle climate change. The industry says the UK should go for shale gas as a ‘companion fuel’ for renewables as it’s a ‘clean’ fossil fuel. But tackling climate change means getting off the fossil fuel hook as quickly as possible and exploiting the UK’s abundant potential for renewables – wind, wave and solar. Shale gas will be a dangerous distraction and could hit investment in real low-carbon solutions.

Globally, exploiting shale gas reserves could be disastrous. The International Energy Agency’s so-called ‘golden age of gas’ scenario, with use of unconventional gas such as shale tripling by 2035, would set us on course for a global temperature rise of 3.5 degrees Celsius – well above the threshold for triggering catastrophic climate change. The IEA did admit that a golden age of gas might not be a golden age for humanity.

US expansion

Bills are the public’s top current concern about energy. George Osborne points to the US where natural gas prices fell as a result of fracking and says he doesn’t want the UK to be left behind. Would shale gas deliver lower gas prices in the UK? At best it seems unlikely. Operating costs in Europe could be 30-50 per cent higher than in the US as a result of factors such as higher population density. And claims of cheaper gas prices ignore fast rising global demand for gas, particularly from China and India.

The US shale gas industry is looking to expand internationally, with Europe a key focus. But it is meeting strong resistance. France and Bulgaria have banned the technology, following grassroots protests. And many other countries are concerned about the environmental impacts and want to know more before making any firm decisions.

Despite his welcome commitment to action on climate change, President Obama’s state of the union address reaffirmed his support for shale gas as a way of promoting US energy independence. And the planned free trade agreement between the US and the EU is a real concern, with the EU possibly having to accept US environmental standards on issues such as GMOs and fracking. This is particularly worrying as fracking is excluded from some key US federal environmental regulations, thanks to ex-vice president Dick Cheney – a former CEO of Halliburton, one of the leading fracking companies.

Fracking could be an electoral liability for the government in key constituencies. Seven of Labour’s target Tory seats are in Lancashire, and fracking in the south east could cause uproar in the Tory heartlands. Not that Labour can claim a clearly better policy. It supports tougher environmental regulation, but concerns about climate change don’t seem to feature highly with regard to shale gas.

The message from green groups is simple: we should leave the shale gas in the ground. It’s a gamble we don’t need to take in the UK. The priority is to get our broader energy policy right, and the government’s energy bill offers the chance to do this. We must make sure there is a clear commitment to cut carbon almost entirely from our electricity system by 2030. That won’t just help stop fracking – it will also set us on the right path to tackle climate change, and reap the economic and social benefits of a green energy revolution.

Tony Bosworth is an energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth and Helen Rimmer is Friends of the Earth’s North West campaigner. For more information, see

The view from the ground

by Eve McNamara, Ribble Estuary Against Fracking

The first I knew about it was when a rig appeared in a field near where I live in Banks, a small village in West Lancashire. I made inquiries and soon found out that the rig was for shale gas exploration – and a company, Cuadrilla, had permission to frack. No one I spoke to in our community knew about it – there had been no community consent.

We called a public meeting and 40 people turned up – Ribble Estuary Against Fracking was born. We started as a small group and our purpose has been to give people more information about the risks to our environment and community. Our area has a thriving market gardening industry – salad crops and root vegetables provide not only local markets but many of the UK’s supermarkets. The beautiful Ribble estuary, an internationally important site for wildlife, is on our doorstep. We’re worried that fracking could devastate our agricultural economy and our environment.

Since we started, our group has grown and several new anti-fracking groups have formed across the county – we’re networking and supporting each other. Now politicians and the local council are listening to us. Together we’ve got hundreds of objections to planning applications from concerned residents and Cuadrilla’s plans have been delayed. We’re also countering the spin from the shale gas industry that they’re going to create thousands of jobs and boost our economy. They’re even taking their PR into our local schools. We know their claims are exaggerated and the real future for our economy and energy security is in renewables.

We often get accused of being Nimbys. We don’t want fracking in our community – but we don’t want it anywhere else either. And we’re not against development. Our county needs jobs and investment – but shale gas in not the answer.

What happens in Lancashire this year is crucial for the development of the shale gas industry across the UK. We’ll be keeping up the fight against Cuadrilla and the shale gas lobby. Our region has the potential to be a leader in green energy with huge offshore wind and tidal resources and a strong manufacturing heritage. Instead of risky shale gas we want investment in a green future.


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ursula stubbings 10 June 2013, 11.45

Fracking is not the way forward -it is grossly inefficient and polluting of the environment.

Nick Grealy 20 June 2013, 08.26

Disappointed that left wing progressives would get tricked into allying themselves with the Green Tea Party one percent who ensure that the Cameron cuts to education, health and public services will continue.

Shale gas is our gas: it belongs to everyone in the UK. The use, or not of natural resources are one of the few communitarian choices we have left.
Renewables are a lifestyle choice of the affluent that shouldn’t be confused with an actual means of keeping the lights on. They sound noble and easy, but the reality is that they simply don’t work. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying, but we do need to inject scientific reality.

How do Tony and Helen propose to supply gas? We will need it for many years to back up renewables , and nuclear another option the Friends of the Earth reject. The FoE love the earth because they already own so much of it it seems to me. Look at the unlikely alliance they are trying to cobble together between Southern Tories and the anarchists at Frack Off for example.

Tony and Helen have no way to keep the lights on. They simply enable coal, and ensure that we export billions to import gas to support the Qatari Royal Family, We forego tax revenue that could be used for social needs, not to buy football clubs. In the meantime, they also condemn working people to fuel poverty and will ensure mass layoffs in the chemical and steel industries.

The CGT in France for example are full supporters of shale gas exploration and trying to divorce Greens and Socialists. That is the model we need to have: Using the people’s resources to serve the people’s needs. All of them, not just the nimbys who are happy to condemn the Arctic to environmental destruction so they don’t get disturbed by working people driving trucks.

We need a full debate on using our common resources. The Greens need to tell us exactly what they would do, but the Reds need to defend the people’s wealth.
Mix Red and Green and we end up Yellow!

Alec 24 June 2013, 15.27

Nick has some very good points about renewables not being solution, even though we would all like them to be.

One point I’d like to make is that the majority of the controversy surrounding the environmental effects of fracking stems from a well intentioned but unfounded Green campaign. It all started with a man making a documentary called ‘Gasland’. This is where most people stop at how much they know about this issue. Some of the issues raised in Gasland were startling, and I was horrified that in the postscript there were plans to go ahead with fracking in the UK.

But then an independent documentary filmaker kickstarted another documentary, investigating the claims of Gasland. The amount of stuff that was wrong with Gasland was unbelievable. People pretending to be scientists, people pretending to have flames come out their taps so they could sue the fracking companies. The guy that made Gasland refused to talk about any of it, and just got angry when confronted.

I’m not saying fracking is good. But people should question everything they read, and not just jump on the bandwagon everytime it rides past.

Nel 24 June 2013, 21.00

I’d rather not have the lights on if I had no clean water to drink, or any food to eat. I’ve worked in renewables and I’ve worked in conventional – renewables can and do work, and the only way they’ll become even more efficient is to keep developing them.

Nick talks about scientific reality – the process of extracting shale is still experimental, that is the reality. It has been proven – and not just shown on Gaslands – that fracking has a massive impact on water and air quality in the immediate and intermediate vicinity. On a small island such as Britain, is the risk worth taking? Are we really that desperate for more gas?? I don’t think so

Alec 27 June 2013, 02.38

Can you give an example of how we could possibly run our country on renewables? I’m curious as to what you have in mind? I don;t think fracking is a very good solution, but (and that’s a very big BUT) our country is broke. Surely fracking our enormous supply would free us from expensive imports, allowing us to wean ourselves of them easier. I don’t understand what you are suggesting? Wind farms everywhere and solar panels for everyone?

The sad truth is lots more research needs to be done on these methods before we can use them, and even then they are only short term. Climate change is a worldwide problem, and there simply isn’t enough of the precious metals around make more solar panels.

You’re all for developing renewables, but not developing fracking to make it safer?

John Pritchard 10 July 2013, 11.31

Concerning the issue of gas-land as the bible of truth your right it should not be, maybe inspire you to go on and do some proper research into the subject and get evidence from INDEPENDENT scientist concerning this subject.
As for the rebuttal of Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney with the documentary FrackNation, this is anything but impartial and uses emotive language and not pure science on the issue. I would also like to point out that Phelim McAleer has made a other films refuting climate change i.e. ‘Not Evil just Wrong’ a rebuttal of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, Phelim McAleer is not an independent filmmaker looking to bring another view and highlight misinformation but as many have accused him a corporate interest puppet and everything he has done points to this.
We do need to take ourselves away from utter dependence from fossil fuels, and I am in the camp that we need to take another serious look at nuclear (maybe not popular with some greens but the science needs to be looked at and the problems addressed), along with fossil fuels and renewables without the emotive language used by all camps.
Far more money needs to be invested into new technologies for energy production because I do not want to see a return to the dark ages that some environmentalist do, nor do I want to see the world destroyed by insane corporations looking no further than the next bonus.
One last note concerning the class issue, this is not about class this is about the survival of the species as we know it and there is a lot about the human race that I would like to keep: science, literature, art, community and our questioning nature, the list is a long one. Regretfully we live in insane times and ruled by scum that have no idea what they are doing and look no further than self-gratification and demean us all as a species, the class issue is a distraction, nonsense and makes me sick to my stomach and before anyone asks, never had money(paid minimum wage).

Dom 12 July 2013, 15.27

A good article, with well-made points. Most of the locations selected for licensing cannot support the sheer volume of tanker traffic, or the huge volumes of water required. Something like 50% of wells have casings that break, as a measure of the seismic events that are part of the process : the fracking companies normally take out ‘seismic permits’. The ASA warned one company, Cuadrilla, over misleading information when it dumped toxic waste in the Manchester Ship Canal. They continue to use this misleading information about safety, however, in contempt of the order, but it is perhaps no wonder since its Chairman, Lord Brown of Madingley has been shown to have lied on oath, according to the judge in a case revolving on his dishonesty.

Kathryn 27 July 2013, 19.22

Plenty of indendendent, scientific studies exist (in addition to the “anecdotal” misery of real people) to illustrate the problems with fracking. Shale gas is NOT a clean alternative. Another problem here is Lord Browne’s appalling conflict of interest. He has a highly influential cabinet post, appointing people who made decisions that affected his personal profit. The jobs and economic benefits certainly have not materialised in the States or Australia. In fact, many jobs in farming and organic produce have been sacrificed; house prices are inflated by O&G employees; local roads are ruined by heavy vehicles; health problems rise. Nanotechnology promises to multiply the output of renewables, making it a far more reasonable investment than finite shale gas. If schoolgirl Eesha Khare can develop a supercapacitor to charge her cell phone within seconds, surely we have a real hope of developing renewable energy that will serve our needs?

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