Fracking: Are we powerless to energy giants?

As the government pushes towards a major shale gas industry, northeastern Derbyshire Dales may be next in the crosshairs for exploration - but is there anything you can do about it?

By Nick Charity
Thursday, 27th August 2015, 3:16 pm
A Cuadrilla exploration drilling site in Balcombe, West Sussex. Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
A Cuadrilla exploration drilling site in Balcombe, West Sussex. Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

A new bout of oil and gas exploration licences has shown that the government is keen to open up the Midlands and northern counties to energy companies.

And in north eastern Derbyshire, we await further assessment to see if a land block btween Matlock and Chesterfield is on the market.

People are strongly divided on the idea of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, which has caused minor tremors in the past and could open up swathes of countryside to shale gas drilling sites, while the benefits are touted as an abundance of gas reserves and decades of energy security.

The latest batch of licences (light green) are mainly in the North of England - as are those still being considered (dark green).

Matlock county councillor Andy Botham said he is openly opposed to the practice, but as the government drives policy in favour of it, it may be impossible for local opponents to stand in the way.

He added: “I don’t see the need for fracking. I feel that we should be investing in renewable and Derbyshire County Council, I’m proud to say, are currently in the process of building some solar panelled farms.

“But the government is encouraging councils to sell licences, and at times of serious financial pressure on local authorities, they are herding us into that area.”

The news of the latest 27 licences, as close as Alfreton, Sheffield, Derby and Nottingham, closely follows a government policy to take decision-making power away from councils if they delay fracking applications for more than 16 weeks.

The area around Alfreton has been affected, and a landblock covering Northeast Derbyshire is now being assessed - expected to be decided by the end of the year, along with areas of Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire (green).

But there is already a policy framework in favour of it when assessing applications, he adds, which favours drilling and makes it difficult to fight appeals from the developers.

“We’ll end up spending a lot of money fighting large companies in the courts, and that judgement will have to come whether we spend taxpayers money fighting the inevitable, or just lie down and get walked over by central government and big business,” adds the Labour member, who advocates a much greater precedence on renewable energy.

In Calow, outside Chesterfield, local people are currently awaiting a decision on an appeal to drill gas on greenfield land. They’ve won their battle twice at the county council, but now the appeal is in the hands of a national planning inspector.

And in Lancashire, campaigners have fought off fracking twice already in a historic battle seen as a triumph of local democracy - but which is now also facing appeal and fear that councils can no longer protect their communities. “It’s about national Government interfering into local democratic decision-making,” said Donna Hume, of Friends of the Earth.

Only one-fifth of people support fracking, according to a national poll, and here in the Dales, where the countryside is valuable, the view may be similar, adds Cllr Botham.

“I’m absolutely certain that local people will oppose any fracking, certainly in my constituency in Matlock.

“Derbyshire is wonderful countryside, we encourage visitors to come from all over the world to see the heritage we have. The last thing we want is fracking wells cropping up all over the place.”

Cllr Barrie Lewis, Conservative county councillor for Wingerworth, in the licence area with Matlock, said: “The Conservative Group is broadly supportive of the concept of explorations and testing to further define the viability of shale gas in parts of Derbyshire. However, each application for test sites must be judged on its merits and suitability and suitable safeguards enacted.

“Global economic difficulties and continued uncertainty highlight the need to ensure UK energy security.

“We are perilously close to a point where, should matters be out of our control in the wider world, we would find ourselves weeks or days away from having no gas and therefore, in places no means to generate power.

“Aside from this worry shale gas may provide economic opportunities and jobs for Derbyshire, particularly in former mining areas.”

The gas-lover’s guide

Hydraulic fracturing was invented in 1949, involving deep drilling into the layer of shale rock, thousands of feet underground.

By pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into the gas-saturated shale, companies cause small fractures, releasing methane.

The process requires a lot of water, often sourced from pre-existing resources and results in around two million cubic metres of contaminated waste-water, around a tenth of the Ladybower Reservoir, which would need to be transported away on trucks.

Low-volume hydraulic fracking has been used in conventional gas extraction for years – but deeper shale deposits require high volumes of water, and high pressures, to make the rock permeable so gas can flow.

Council: ‘Too early to tell if we’re going to be fracked

Derbyshire County Council said fracking is ‘a new and still evolving issue that is causing concern to some residents in Derbyshire’.

“There is currently little information on how this might affect Derbyshire. Recent work carried out by BGS and DECC suggests that some parts of Derbyshire – around Chesterfield in the north-east, Long Eaton in the south-east and Glossop in the north-west – might have some prospectively. However further detailed exploratory work would need to be carried out before any production could begin.

“It is too early to say where any exploratory wells might be drilled, or even if there would be any interest from gas companies in exploring the areas identified in Derbyshire.”

Pros & Cons

Shale gas is cleaner than coal - the UKs biggest energy polluter, and in the USA shale has meant a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to pre-1990 levels.

Igas estimates that in its licence area in Cheshire alone, it could make the UK’s gas needs self-reliant for 10-15 years.

Meeting our energy needs with more gas produced at home will lower fuel prices

A second wind for the oil and gas industry could mean up to 75,000 new jobs in the UK economy, says the government, directly and indirectly.

Communities also get £100,000 per well site and ‘one per cent of revenues’ according to the department of energy.

BUT... studies have shown dangerous levels of toxic air pollution near fracking sites, and oil and gas extraction has caused smog in rural areas at levels worse than downtown Los Angeles.

One report from South Dakota in 2013 has shown shale gas leaking into groundwater can cause tap water to be flammable. Continued reliance on fossil fuels will delay our targets for reducing carbon emissions, and draw interest away from the developing renewable energy industry.

When will we know?

In the Derbyshire Dales, a land block over North East Derbyshire, part of the the Derbyshire Dales and Chesterfield is still being assessed before a licence is issued – likely by the end of the year, a source in the energy industry tells us. If a company accepts this licence, they will be able to begin exploration and apply for planning permission to frack locally.