Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
When I was told ‘They’re drilling for gas in Singleton’, near Blackpool, I wanted to know more. A web search revealed that this was ‘shale gas’, which sounded interesting – but a search for the term left me aghast. Americans protesting against gas drilling? This was in the country where the oil and gas industry has been part of the scenery for a century and a half.
So what’s new?
Fracking. Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, is the practice of injecting fluid and sand under pressure into a shale rock formation to open fractures and release gas trapped in the rock. Pollution had been reported near US gas wells as a result of spills, accidents or well development practices. It had been so severe that in Colorado a health impact assessment was called for.
Singleton won’t like this.
The local Green Party agreed to campaign against the practice and I agreed to lead the campaign. The planning application had been passed with ‘no objection’ from the parish or borough councils.
Are they crazy?
The county council minutes accepting the planning application noted: ‘The site is located on land designated as open countryside under policy SP2 of the Fylde Borough Local Plan. Policy SP2 states that development within the countryside will not be permitted except where it is required for the purposes of agriculture, horticulture, forestry or other uses appropriate to a rural area.’
Except for shale gas?
The minutes also said: ‘The proposed borehole would pass through the Sherwood sandstone, which is an important aquifer. The borehole would need to be constructed so as to avoid affecting the water resources in the aquifer.’
Is that possible? What about those ‘spills, accidents or well development practices’?
Just at that time the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) had started a consultation on the ‘strategic environmental assessment of the 14th onshore oil and gas licensing round’. Then came the House of Commons energy and climate change select committee investigation into shale gas.
I responded to both. I told the ministers and MPs about the ‘spills, accidents or well development practices’, about the risk of pollution to drinking water sources, river depletion, air pollution and health, the impact on locally produced food, on wildlife, on the farming and tourism economies of the region, and on house prices. And that’s before we got to explosions and earthquakes!
The first problem that became apparent was that hardly anyone in Singleton knew what was going on. The rig went up, but nobody I asked knew what it was. They didn’t like the look of it though – it was lit up at night ‘like Cape Canaveral’. And they certainly didn’t know about fracking.
We showed a video of the documentary Gasland, revealing toxic pollution of drinking water supplies and health problems occurring near the rigs. The response was sceptical but people were angry they hadn’t been told about it.
The company concerned, Cuadrilla Resources, sent out a community newsletter, three months after setting up a rig about 100 feet high.
Then came the local elections. In our leaflets, we questioned a number of claims the company had made in the newsletter. It claimed that ‘all our operations are regulated by the Environment Agency and Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’.
But there are no regulations that mention fracking!
The Environment Agency said: ‘We’ve made a site-specific decision not to issue a permit during the exploration phase.’ The HSE hadn’t been asked to look into the safety of the nearby primary school either.
The company newsletter insisted: ‘It’s safe for people and the environment.’
But in the US, Congress had ordered a scientific study to ‘help evaluate potential risks associated with hydraulic fracturing in an effort to protect communities’. Then Singleton was struck by an earthquake. And it was followed eight weeks later by a second earth tremor. Each occurred at the time fracking was taking place. The tremors were recorded as 2.3 and 1.5 magnitude – residents were shaken in their beds following a loud ‘cracking’ noise.
People blamed Cuadrilla; the British Geological Society agreed there may be a link. Cuadrilla announced that fracking had been suspended. A study into the potential link was ordered.
So who is writing the report?
Cuadrilla Resources. Its website states that ‘hydraulic fracturing will not recommence until discussions are satisfactorily concluded with the regulatory authorities’.
But fracking is not mentioned in UK regulations.
Cuadrilla has stated that the study ‘may result in new guidelines from the DECC before any further testing [ie fracking] is carried out’. Its news release states that ‘the intensity of the tremors is well below anything that could be realistically considered as an earthquake with any meaningful or tangible local impact.’
What do Singleton residents think?
Prior to the Cuadrilla statements, local members of the public had harangued its executives following a presentation at a council meeting, demanding to know whether their funds were able to pay legal compensation.
So this could mean the end of fracking in the Fylde?
Cuadrilla has acted with supreme self-confidence. Long before the expected report, in a statement dated three weeks after the second earth tremor, the company announced that it was still drilling the Singleton borehole through which the chemicals would be pumped, spending what has been described to residents as £50,000 a day.
Have any other problems occurred?
Breathlessness. A number of residents have reported being struck ill during the period that fracking took place. They reported feeling like ‘someone was standing on their chest’. The symptoms passed months later after the fracking had been stopped. Similar problems have been noted in the US.
So let’s get this clear. A company whose sole business is to unlock unconventional resources such as shale gas, an industry that has caused controversy in the US and may have been the cause of two earthquakes and serious local health problems, and this company is at the centre of government decision-making on the issue?
It was described by one commentator at the council meeting as ‘the tail wagging the dog’.
Does this only affect the Blackpool area?
No. At least one third of the country could be suitable for shale gas extraction. Cuadrilla claims that an ‘explosive expansion’ of thousands of wells a year is a practical proposition for the UK.
Harmful chemicals: Drilling and fracking fluids contain harmful chemicals. Cuadrilla has said it uses a friction reducer (FR-40) ‘commonly found in contact lenses and face creams’. However, the safety data information provided to the Environment Agency suggests that caution is needed in handling them since they can cause ‘acute irritation’ to the eyes and skin. Many frack fluids are harmful to aquatic life, and streams and rivers have been left polluted with dozens of different species killed due to spillages, waste disposal and illicit dumping. The Endocrine Disruption Exchange lists the known health effects of hundreds of chemicals and products used by the industry.
Air pollution: Common air emissions related to gas rigs include methane, nitrous oxides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs, such as benzene), particulate matter and sulphur dioxide. These can combine to form ozone, which can cause asthma and respiratory problems. Hydrogen sulphide (‘sour gas’) affects the lungs and can cause headaches and dizziness.
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going