The environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” are already clear in the United States, with flammable drinking water being only the most dramatic illustration of the problems. Now fracking — which uses millions of gallons of high pressured water, sand, and chemicals to break apart (or crack) bedrock and release the natural gas it contains — is under trial on the other side of the Atlantic too.
Despite two associated minor earthquakes in the United Kingdom this summer, planning permission applications are beginning to multiply. But anti-fracking campaigns are multiplying too, with activists opposing planning applications locally as well as working to draw attention to the issue nationally.
Of all environmental concerns with fracking, water contamination is the most immediate. Fracking fluid contains toxic chemicals that are never recovered, and the drilling process can also leach radioactive elements and methane out of the rock. Fracking wastewater has been found to contain radioactive materials at 1,000 times the level considered safe in drinking water. In the US, improper disposal of the wastewater has led to contamination of municipal water supplies.
In addition, there’s now evidence that fracking can cause earthquakes.
Exploratory drilling in the three current UK fracking sites was temporarily halted in June after two tremors occurred near Blackpool in Lancashire where the energy company Cuadrilla has three active fracking sites.
In October, the independent British Geological Survey concluded that the earthquakes were most likely caused by the nearby fracking. Last week, Cuadrilla acknowledged that it is “highly probable” that its drilling operations triggered “a number of minor seismic events.” For the moment, UK fracking remains suspended while the Department of Energy and Climate Change discuss the measures that Cuadrilla proposes to implement to avoid further problems.
Camp Frack and Frack Mobs
Despite the hold on drilling operations, now is no time for campaigners to get complacent. The companies involved in fracking have plenty of money and resources behind them, and are making grand (and unsupported) claims about a possible economic boom which is all too likely to appeal to politicians in the current recession. Cuadrilla currently has permission for five sites in Lancashire, and another company has permission for one site in South Wales. Applications for sites in other parts of Wales, the Mendips, Kent, and elsewhere are coming through all the time. It’s more than likely that after the earthquake discussions conclude, drilling will go ahead again – all the other environmental problems notwithstanding.
UK campaigners, therefore, are busy keeping the pressure up. Activists with the nationwide campaign Frack Off! did a banner-drop from Blackpool Tower last summer, Camp Frack brought numerous groups together for workshops and a march in September, and in the last few weeks, activists in London have protested against Cuadrilla's "earthquake study." On November 2, nine people halted work at Cuadrilla's Hesketh Bank site, and later that day a hundred people staged the first frack mob outside a shale gas conference in London. Sophie Choudri, 24, a member of Frack Off, said: “This conference is all about spin and greenwash. We're going to create a free space where we can discuss what's actually going on.”
The campaign is gathering political momentum. UK Green Party Member of Parliament (MP) Caroline Lucas has recently introduced an Early Day Motion calling for a moratorium on fracking. Such motions are a way for UK MPs to express opinions and gather support on issues that are unlikely to be debated directly in Parliament. Other MPs have also begun to take interest in the fracking debate, particularly those who represent affected areas.
Winning the Planning Permission Fight
The Ribble Valley sites would be active now if it weren’t for the earthquake-related drilling suspension. Activists are taking the opportunity to raise awareness locally before the test wells reopen. Ribble Valley residents are deeply concerned about the lack of local consultation.
Decisions are made at a county level, and the first that locals may know about it is when the rig appears on their doorstep. One resident near a Cuadrilla site said that an A4 piece of paper pinned to a lamppost on a remote dirt track was the only local “consultation” she'd seen. Cuadrilla says that they are required only to “engage” with local residents, not to “consult” them. This is just one example of the lack of oversight in what investigation has revealed is a largely self-regulated industry. It's hardly surprising that campaigners refuse to believe claims that the UK fracking industry is “highly regulated.”
Excitingly, the Vale Says No! campaign in Wales recently won their fight to block planning permission for fracking in the beautiful Vale of Glamorgan. Not content to stop there, the campaign is now focused on raising awareness in the rest of Wales and the UK.
There’s also increasing concern in the Mendips about the effect of potential chemical leakage on landmarks such as the world-famous hot springs of Bath, a crucial part of the local tourist industry, Wookey Hole, the main Bristol water reservoirs, and the area’s rich archaeological heritage, which dates back to the Bronze Age. The mining company interested in Mendips is the same company that had its planning application turned down in the Vale of Glamorgan, although trading under a different name.
There is still a real chance for the UK to ban fracking before any more serious drilling takes place, and before any more dramatic environmental consequences are seen here. Campaigners are buoyed by the increasing interest from local councilors and MPs, as well as from the success in the Vale of Glamorgan. As ever, the fossil fuel energy companies are determined to exploit every available natural resource, regardless of the damage. But there’s still hope that we can stop them.
Juliet Kemp is a UK writer and activist, whose work has appeared in the
Guardian and the Ecologist. She blogs at Twisting Vines on urban permaculture, cycling, and sustainability issues.