Fracking promises to create the largest energy race in Britain since North Sea oil. It could supply cheaper power to the nation and ease our reliance on foreign imports, so why are people so opposed to it, and why is Lancashire on the front line of the fight against fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing, usually referred to as ‘fracking’, is the process of fracturing rock using a highly pressurised liquid to release shale gas. A well is first drilled down to where the gas is located, trapped in small rocks. A liquid, usually comprised of water, sand and chemicals is then shot down the well at high pressures to fracture the small rocks and release the gas inside.
A short demonstration from the company who carrying out the fracking, Cuadrilla.
Fracking originally began in the 1940’s in America, but up until 2000 it was only providing 1% of America’s power needs. Now it provides around 20%. We see similar figures here in Britain, where shale gas fracking has begun to provide a real alternative to oil and coal as a power source. According to the group ‘Residents action on Fylde fracking (RAFF)’ “Lancashire has been identified as having 200 trillion cubic feet of potential shale gas reserves.” Such a large reserve of shale gas would ease Britain’s reliance on other fossil fuels, so why is it met with such a negative response from communities in the area.
An exploratory drill site in Lancashire. Courtesy of ‘Justinwoolford’ on Flickr
I spoke to Janice Buckley, from the ‘Garstang against Fracking’ group. She told me that “In areas in the USA and Australia where fracking is already taking place many things are happening with health concerns, air contamination, and water and soil contamination.” Health complaints range from mild headaches and nausea to the more serious such as breathing difficulties. Is it mere coincidence that people living near to the wells have suffered these problems, or is it sign of a larger problem with fracking?
Frack off’s map of drill sites in Lancashire. Click through to find a site or group near you
Margaret Hartley from the ‘Longridge against fracking’ group told me “Look at the example of the USA, where fracking has been taking place for 20 years now. Areas devastated by poisoning of the water table”
“Air poisoned by methane which has been well documented as affecting human and farm animal health. This will happen here if it isn’t stopped before it starts. There is no such thing as ‘safe’ fracking. Regulations will be meaningless. Well casing failure happens in a known percentage of wells and is unavoidable due to the nature of the fracking process.”
According to a study by Public Health England, the general public should not face any health risks from fracking and any problems such as those seen in the USA, are the result of improper usage and maintenance of the wells. They said “potential risks to public health from exposure to the emissions associated with shale gas extraction are low if the operations are properly run and regulated”.
This however, does nothing to allay the fears of residents who live in proposed fracking areas. Lytham St Annes is one such area where Cuadrilla, the company who are running the fracking operation in the North West, wishes to explore. The “Defend Lytham St. Annes” group however are opposed to this. A statement from them says “Fracking has been associated with significant adverse health impacts which are a cause for serious concern. Fracking is minimally regulated and has no specific regulatory framework or monitoring associated with it.”
I approached Cuadrilla for questioning, but did not receive a reply. However, their website says “Our operations are also deemed to be completely safe by the House of Commons Department of Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, following a wide-ranging inquiry into shale gas exploration and production.”
Cuadilla chief executive Mark Miller, on the benefits of fracking.
There are also fears that increased traffic to and from the sites, carrying heavy loads of chemicals and equipment, will create environmental and noise pollution in the towns and villages close to the drill sites. Janice Buckley said “The most obvious effects on the community would be increased traffic of heavy loads carrying equipment, water, chemicals, sand.” This is something that all community groups protesting against fracking are keen to fight. Many of the drill sites are close to historical towns and villages, and it is feared that these interruptions would ruin the appeal of the area.
It isn’t just people who will suffer if fracking goes ahead according to Janice. “Wildlife will lose precious habitats as the countryside becomes industrialised.” She pointed out the examples in Pennsylvania, where many families claim to have lost pets and farm animals due to the effects of fracking, a list of which can be found here. It is believed that the water used in fracking seeps into the ground water. This water is filled with the chemicals that are used during the process, which are then drunk by the animals, doing harm to their health. There are fears that fracking close to a water source could contaminate the drinking water, however the fracking companies say there are no risks to the general public.