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As the last remaining days of Cuadrilla’s current planning permission at Balcombe tick by, the question of where next for the anti-fracking movement is on many people’s minds (assuming that Cuadrilla do not continue working past the end of their permission – as they did in Lancashire). After all, there is no point camping outside a site where work may not restart again for several months and there are many other pressing threats across the country.
The perhaps surprising possible answer to the ‘where next’ question is Salford, where another fracking company, IGas Energy, has just announced imminent plans to start drilling on farmland at Barton Moss.
IGas’s predecessor, Nexen, gained the planning permission to explore for coal bed methane about three years ago, but IGas now intends to drill a much deeper well. This will pass through the coal, at a depth of about 4,500 feet, and continue down through the Bowland Shale to a total depth of about 10,000 feet. This is intended to allow IGas to test for both shale gas and coal bed methane with one well.
With IGas estimating that there could be 102 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of shale gas within their licence blocks in the North West, the threat is far from small. Assuming an ambitious 10 percent recovery factor, this would require around 10,000 wells to be drilled and fracked. Even with a more realistic 4 percent recovery factor that would still translate into around 4,000 wells. This is on top of the coal bed methane that they have already been targeting, which would require around 3,600 wells to extract the amount of gas they claim could be recovered. These wells would come with the associated pipelines, water contamination, air pollution, health impacts and accelerated climate change.
Coincidentally the drilling rig that is presently being used by Cuadrilla to drill the Balcombe well was bought by its owners, Meehan Drilling, to service their drilling contract with IGas. It therefore seems quite possible that once the rig has finished drilling the Balcombe well, they will be trying to move it up to Barton Moss to begin drilling the well there. There are a few other drilling rigs in the country that IGas could potentially use, but the Meehan rig presently in Balcombe is by far the most likely.
Another valid question to ask is how effective the blockade of the Balcombe site has been. After all, Cuadrilla have largely been able to continue to drill thanks to large amounts of police repression. Obviously there have been secondary effects such as increased negative publicity, but this has been an annoyance for them rather than a major headache. One look at similar blockades in Australia, or the roads protests in the 1990s, shows that Balcombe should be judged as the beginning of a marathon not a sprint. The really important question is which side can sustain their effort in the long term.
A variety of estimates have been made of the policing costs associated with the blockade, but it seems that they are already over £2.5 million and could well top £4 million by the time all is said and done. Cuadrilla’s security costs are unknown but must be substantial, given that they have had guards at the site 24 hours a day since before the drilling began and installed large amounts of high security fencing. In comparison, if Balcombe was a tight oil production well it might be expected to produce around £8.5 million worth of oil, and the cost of drilling the well alone would be several million.
This is a clear example of how extreme energy is affecting our energy systems. Long gone are the days of extracting lots of fossil fuels for very little effort. Now most new sources take huge amounts of effort to extract and provide very marginal returns. This means that there is very little slack in the system for extra costs and even relatively small amounts of disruption to the extraction process can potentially make these projects unviable. Providing the levels of policing and security seen at Balcombe for every unconventional well drilled does not seem remotely feasible.
In the longer term the answer to the ‘where next’ question is ‘everywhere’. Across the country community groups are mobilising to fight the fracking threat. In the last two years the movement has grown from one community group to over 50. This is the real strength of the movement and the Achilles’ heel of the fracking companies. Since each well produces only a small amount of hydrocarbons, coating the vast areas of the countryside with thousands of wells is the only option to produce even moderate amounts. Each one of these wells would be near a community, which will be motivated to resist. Thousands of active and organised communities are what can halt fracking in its tracks.