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The UK's fracking dilemma

A reserve that could help solve the UK's energy worries has been discovered, but is it worth the environmental damage?
Last modified: 7 Jul 2013 05:58

There was a brilliant documentary on BBC 4 a few days ago, fronted by the American comedian Rich Hall.

It told the story of the first successful attempts to drill for oil in Texas at the turn of the 20th century – and how anyone with a rig and a taste for the good life moved in to exploit the Lone Star state's mineral wealth, with all the messy consequences that followed for the winners and losers.

Having just attended a news conference in Westminster, London in which the government announced that "this is the moment we get serious about fracking" I couldn't help but think history is repeating itself.

Because accompanying the news conference was a powerpoint presentation detailing exactly how much shale gas experts believe is sitting underneath mainland Britain, and Northern Ireland as well.

It runs like a seam throughout much of the length of the country. Other countries (France, for example) have said they're not interested even in trying.

Britain, by contrast, could end up being fracked from top to bottom.

The logic for fracking runs like this: gas is terribly expensive and Britain imports it in bulk from all kinds of countries. If the UK doesn't become more self-sufficient the lights might go off.

Fracking could serve the country's energy needs for a quarter of a century.

But try selling that to little villages all over the country which value their peace and quiet and you get a different picture.

The thoughts of the people of Balcombe can be seen in the above video.

Balcombe is a little place in Sussex, about 45 minutes by train south of London. It's very pretty, sits in an area designated as "outstanding natural beauty", where buzzards circle the ancient woodland and dragonflies flit about near the reservoir.

The plan is to test to see if there's oil (and possibly gas as well) on the edge of the village.

In order to release the minerals, they need to frack. It's the same principle whether it's oil or gas – very high pressure water mixed with highly toxic chemicals are pumped into the depths of the earth to fracture the rock.

Opponents say that if they find it they'd want to "industrialise the Sussex weald" – the entire area of countryside.

The nightmare picture is of lorries rampaging round on the country roads, excess gas and toxic fumes being burned off into the air, and people forced to stay inside with their windows shut.

Oh, and the possibility of earthquakes as well, which happened in the north of England when fracking was tested there.

In short, opponents of fracking say that the extraction companies are looking at Britain now in the same way as drillers looked at Texas in 1900.

The government is enthusiastically supportive of fracking for the reasons above.

It is at pains to say that the regulatory regime here will be the most stringent in the world and that the environment will be protected.

In response, opponents say fracking can never be safe, that chemicals have been seen to leak into the water supply, and that ecosystems will be irreparably damaged.

In Balcombe, that would mean streams around the site polluted with chemicals; those streams feed into the reservoir which supplies drinking water to a big chunk of southern England.

Contamination of that would be a far worse issue than an electricity deficit.

The problem seems to be that for all their reassurances, neither the government nor any operator can possibly provide a cast iron guarantee that there will be no leakage of gases or chemicals as the water is pushed back up after fracking.

You could argue that wind power on a little island in the north Atlantic – if there were enough turbines put up right across the country – could provide energy for far longer than 25 years without even disturbing the sheep.

But lobbyists and sections of the media have done a great job in undermining the reputation of wind as a sustainable solution and alternative to drilling into the ground.

So fracking it will be, the government determined to push ahead in the face of almost universal opposition in the places where it will be done.

But here's a question: whether it turns out to be safe, or disastrous for the environment in Britain, what happens when all the shale gas is removed?