By Ed Pybus
The Queen’s Speech contained extraordinary new powers to fast-track fracking across the whole of Britain. The controversial Infrastructure Bill will allow fracking companies to drill under homes without owner’s permission.
John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said announcing the measure in the Speech only days after launching the consultation made “a mockery of public participation”. He said: “Ministers are losing the argument on fracking and are now steamrolling over people’s rights in order to sacrifice our countryside and climate.”
This Monday (9th June) the debate comes to Glasgow: We Need To Talk About Fracking is a series of debates on Unconventional Gas – with both pro and anti UG speakers.
Unconventional gas companies are apparently finding it hard to convince communities that theirs is a benign presence that will only bring prosperity, cheap gas and energy security. Australia has seen scores of sites closed down by local communities, a scene that is being repeated in Poland. And in the UK residents of Balcombe have blockaded Cudrilla’s drill site that has routinely broken planning regulations, ‘community defenders’ in Salford have set up camp at iGas’s site and community groups are mobilising against developments across England, Wales and Ireland.
Resident’s in Scotland are fighting their own battle near Falkirk where Australian energy firm Dart Energy hope to open the UK’s first unconventional gas production facility.
Unconventional gas (UG) is a term used to describe the hard to get gas reserves that are only now profitable due the current high global energy prices. Conventional gas deposits are usually understood as reservoirs of natural gas trapped under an impermeable layer often under pressure, this contrasts with UG which is natural gas trapped in layers of rock, typically shale or coal, which then need to be stimulated in some way in order to release the gas. The fields are stimulated, and the gas extracted, by drilling multiple wells into the seams.
In the US ‘Fracking’ has been used to extract gas from shale deposits with devastating environmental and public health consequences across the country, concerns that are highlighted in the Oscar nominated film Gaslands. In Australia Coal Bed Methane (CBM) has had a similar worrying effect. The industry there is on the back foot with legal challenges, environmental breaches and community blockades stopping work at a vast number of sites across the country.
With significant shale and coal seams across central Scotland the UK government has licensed vast swaths of Scotland for UG development – with more licenses due to be issued this year. Energy firms are planning on using these techniques, along with underground coal gasification – an new untested technique when coal seams are burnt underground in the hope that the gas released can then be captures – to extract ever last drop of fossil fuels.
The Scottish Government have stated that the unconventional gas industry (described as ‘unregulatorable’ by Australian government adviser Dr Mariann Lloyd, ) is subject to a “robust regime” of regulation. Many local residence dispute this, and Freedom of Information requests have revealed fundamental flaws in the regulation process. Responsibility for regulation currently falls between local council, the Scottish Government and Whitehall departments. For example Frack Off Scotland have unearthed documents that show Dart Energy currently have licenses from DECC to vent up to 4 tonnes of methane per day yet neither the local authorities nor the Scottish Government is responsible for monitoring and regulating these emissions. If fugitive emissions on this scale are allowed from only 14 test wells then the gases that are released from a field that stretches from Stirling to Anstruther will blow a hole in Scotland’s climate change commitments.
With the UK Government due to start issuing further licenses for unconventional gas extraction over the summer, this could be an issue where the Scottish Government could demonstrate a commitment to a greener, cleaner Scotland. Whilst energy policy isn’t devolved planning is and there was hope that the new planning framework would include ‘buffer zones’ between UG developments and settlements – a condition that would effectively kill off UG extraction in the central belt. However Planning Minister Derek Mackay has indicated that it will be up to the UG developers to determine the size of buffer zones. Self regulation by the oil and gas industry – what can possibly go wrong?
The principle arguments against the development of UG is man made climate change. 97% of climate scientists and all government across the world agree that we have to reduce our carbon emissions to avert catastrophic climate change. However there is often a contradiction, the Scottish Government may state that it wishes to reduce carbon emissions whilst it continues to encourage fossil fuel extraction – and the Scottish Government is by no means the worst. If we are to reduce our fossil fuel consumption we need to leave some of the fossil fuel reserves under ground. UG extraction is costly and has large energy inputs – it is a difficult to extract fossil fuel reserve. Out of all the reserves we are extracting it makes sense to leave these difficult to extract reserves in the ground.
Investment in UG diverts money from investment in other, renewable, forms of energy. If money was invested in renewable infrastructure projects, such as the western isles inter-connector (which would allow renewable energy from the western isles to be transmitted to the grid – a project that has been in the pipeline since the turn of the millennium) rather than extracting the last drops of fossil fuels Scotland could be set up with a carbon free energy infrastructure.
It has been suggested that Natural Gas is a ‘cleaner’ fossil fuel than other fossil fuels – when it is burnt it produces more energy per emissions, say coal. However if the UG tha is extracted is burnt, it will not result is less, say, coal being extracted – it will just be burnt elsewhere. The only way to reduce carbon emission is to leave fossil fuels in the ground. The analysis that claims that UG is a clean transition fuel also fails to take into account the natural gas that escapes during the extraction process. Estimates of the amount of gas that escapes vary widely, the industry is understandably reluctant to fund research into this but we do know, thanks to freedom of information requests submitted to DECC, that the 22 wells that Dart Energy hope to drill near Falkirk to extract unconventional gas could expect to ‘release’ 5 tonnes of methane per day. (Methane is a greenhouse gas that is far more damaging to the atmosphere that CO2).
The reason that these unconventional gas reserves haven’t been extracted earlier is due to the high cost of extraction, and are only now viable thanks to the high global gas prices and tax breaks that are being offered to the industry – there is concern that investing in UG infrastructure will lock Scotland into long term high energy prices. It is nonsense to suggest that UG extraction in the UK will reduce domestic energy prices, a claim described as ‘baseless’ by economists – the small amounts of gas produced in Scotland will have no effect on the international markets that set the price UK consumers pay. It’s noticeable that whilst the industries cheerleaders seem to play up this supposed benefit the companies themselves make very little mention of it, possible because they are aware that their business model relies on high gas prices as unconventional gas extraction is much more expensive than extracting conventional gas.
As well as these global problems there are concerns about regional and localised environmental pollution. The ‘stimulation’ of the wells poses a threat to local water supplies, for example ‘Fracking’ involves pumping millions of gallons of a mixture of water and chemicals underground at high pressure to force the gas, and water, back out of the rock seams; “de-watering” involve pumping polluted water out of underground coal seams to release the gas. This polluted water then needs to be disposed of, this has resulted in whole aquifers being polluted in the USA and Australia where the industry is more developed. The sheer number of wells that are drilled results in the industrialisation of the country side, along with the resultant air, ground, noise and visual pollution.
Dart Energy (a subsidiary of an Australian firm) have a series of test wells drilled near Falkirk and have applied for planning permission to drill a further 20 wells and being produce gas for the mains supply. Residents in Flakirk are hoping to stop Dart’s development, without recourse to blockades, by drawing up a community charter. Drawing inspiration from Community Bills of Rights in the USA – often a community response to unwelcome UG developments there – the Charter refers to the EU Environmental Impact Assessment Directive, which recognises the importance of ‘cultural heritage’ in a broad sense. This ground-breaking document is a direct expression of community opposition to Dart Energy and any future unwanted, risky developments.
Due to this local opposition Dart attempted to bypass the local councillors and take their planning application directly to Scottish Ministers. This has resulted in a public planning hearings which has just concluded (full commentary and analysis are available on the Friends of the Earth Scotland blog) and will make a decision over the summer.
What’s the alternative?
One thing’s for sure – there’s no one answer. Personally I see the problems with the extraction of UG as symptomatic of the problems of an energy intensive economic system that calls for continuous “growth” on a finite planet – at some point we will run out of resources. However much we reduce our consumption we need to supply our energy needs from somewhere, we should be dramatically shifting our energy generation to lower carbon sustainable sources, this obviously included wind, tide and solar and maybe even nuclear.
But there is certainly no consensus – even amongst the anti -fracking community. Some people come to the campaign from an deep ecology perspective, some from a NIMBY (or Not Under My Back Yard in this case), some have a concern for local conservation, some set the threat that climate change poses and some have a concern social and community justice. The interesting thing about this campaign is that people from many different backgrounds are sharing these views which can give everyone involved a broader prospective of the issues, and the solutions.
Falkirk Against Unconventional Gas are still raising money to fund the legal costs that they have accrued due to their decision to participate in the Public Enquiry. http://www.faug.org.uk/
Friends of the Earth Scotland have organised a series of training events for effected communities – they can provide support and advice forcommunities threatened by unconventional gas developments. http://www.foe-scotland.org.uk/fracking
Categories: Environmental Justice