To some, shale gas is potentially the best thing energy development in Britain since North Sea oil. To others, shale gas is a potential environmental catastrophe. Will the growing environmental opposition to hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, stop shale gas in Sussex in its tracks? Tim Probert digs deep. This article was first published in the May 2012 issue of Sussex Life.
Last September, US oil company Cuadrilla Resources announced a 500 square miles area of the Bowland sedimentary rock basin in West Lancashire held ten times existing UK natural gas reserves, enough for more than 50 years’ consumption at current rates. Cuadrilla now believes there could be a sizeable quantity of unconventional oil and gas in the Weald and Wessex basins.
While no shale gas drilling has yet taken place in Sussex, Cuadrilla has permission to test drill for oil and gas at Lower Stumble, a mile south of Balcombe in West Sussex. Cuadrilla intends to drill at the same site on the 3,000-acre Balcombe Estate where oil major Conoco started, and later abandoned, an exploratory well in 1986.
Mark Miller, CEO of Cuadrilla Resources, is using the undoubted success story of Wytch Farm in Dorset – which BP developed to be Western Europe’s largest onshore oilfield – as a role model. However, in contrast to this ‘conventional’ oil and gas, extracted from porous rock, shale is relatively impermeable, meaning gas cannot easily move through the shale in which a well is drilled.
In order to break open the shale and release the methane, shale gas drillers use a method called hydraulic fracturing, also known as ‘fracking’, essentially pumping large amounts of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure. Therein lies the rub. Fracking is highly controversial and has been banned in France, Bulgaria and in some regions of Germany, the United States, Australia, South Africa and Canada.
Most of the opposition centres on the use of water. Shale gas requires approximately 30 million gallons of water per drilling site. Approximately one-third of this water is returned to the surface and this ‘flowback’ fluid typically contains methane, naturally occurring radioactive substances, metals and volatile compounds such as benzene.
Numerous scare stories emanating from the United States, of inflammable water supplies, polluted ponds and exploding houses, have added fuel to the environmentalists’ fire. Closer to home, an independent study concluded two small earthquakes near Blackpool on 1 April and 27 May 2011 were directly attributable to Cuadrilla’s fracking activities.
Fracking is safe, say authorities
Miller says Cuadrilla will use ten fracking methods in the UK “fundamentally different” from the United States. These include the use of steel tanks to store flowback water rather than in a bare pit dug out of the earth; impermeable plastic sheaths to prevent leakage; and monitoring wells to detect methane leaks in shallow water supplies used by farmers.
Meanwhile, the Environment Agency has concluded there is no risk to groundwater if regulations are adhered to, while the British Geological Survey says groundwater pollution is extremely unlikely. Lucy Field, of Oxford-based energy consultants Pöyry, author of a shale gas report for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, says the environmental opposition to shale gas is overblown.
“Quite a lot of the scare stories are inaccurate,” she says. “Clearly there have been instances of pollution which can’t be ignored, but these are mostly due to poor practice. If best practice is followed, such as proper cementing of wells, fracking can be done safely.”
Opposition to fracking by local residents could be viewed as perfectly rational, as there are no immediate benefits to the community but plenty of drawbacks should an accident occur. However, Simon Greenwood, owner of the Balcombe Estate, which earns thousands of pounds in annual rent from Cuadrilla, says he has more to lose than anyone.
“There has been some measured concern expressed locally but also a lot that is ill-informed,” he says. “If there was a problem I would have as much to lose or more to lose than anyone else; if it is detrimental to Balcombe, it is detrimental to me.”
Fracking is unsafe, say campaigners
Whatever the realities, the negative public publicity for fracking has galvanized increasing numbers of people to protest against shale gas development. Vanessa Vine, co-ordinator of the No Fracking in Sussex protest group, believes fracking could irreversibly pollute the region’s drinking water supplies.
Vine notes the Lower Stumble site is located 100 yards from the London to Brighton mainline, and less than a mile from both Ardingly Reservoir and 170-year old Balcombe Viaduct. “There are too many unknowns Cuadrilla won’t answer, like whether or not the fracking water would come from the Ardingly Reservoir, which is already at very low levels due to drought,” she says. “And can we be sure that even a small earthquake would not cause damage to an ancient Grade II viaduct?’
In response to a statement released by Cuadrilla last December signalling its intentions at Lower Stumble, Vine organized a meeting at Balcombe Victory Hall on January 11, inviting Cuadrilla’s Miller to speak. Miller agreed, with the express intention of winning round the local population with arguments based in fact, not emotion.
The meeting attracted more than 250 attendees and a passionate debate ensued. The meeting was covered by BBC radio and independent television news, while prominent features appeared in The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian.
Public awareness of fracking in Sussex – and opposition – is growing. In February, a nationwide protest group, Frack Off, unveiled a 22 m2 anti-fracking banner, for which a local property developer has given permission to display for four months in full view of trains from London and the South East, on a billboard at Brighton station.
Does Vine think the protest movement can put a stop to shale oil and gas fracking in Sussex? “I do not see it as a foregone conclusion that there will be fracking all over the place. We are not the United States and people aren’t used to seeing nodding donkeys on fields in Britain. They can’t get away with it in such densely populated land as Sussex.”
Whether the Balcombe site will ever be developed is still very much yet to be decided, says Miller. “We have no immediate plans in Balcombe but we have a deadline of 2014 to decide whether to drill or lose the licence,” he says.
“Exploration is a high risk venture and the percentage of exploration wells that go into production is very small. We have a number of these licence areas that we may never go forward with. Lower Stumble is one on our list that we’re debating.”
Whether or not shale gas goes into production in Sussex remains to be seen, but the Battle of Balcombe continues to rumble on.