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What the frack?

Philip Mitchell on how ‘fracking’ may have brought earthquakes to Blackpool

December 8, 2011
7 min read

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.

Fracking facts

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.

Sign a petition to ban fracking: www.ipetitions.com/petition/ukgas
See Campaign against Climate Change www.campaigncc.org and www.frack-off.org.uk for ‘Camp Frack’ and ‘Fracking Hell’ resources

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