A member of Truth Ferret Films, “fishing for frackers”. (Who says you cant have a good sense of humour in such serious times?)
“Police intimidation” was a phrase I heard a lot while on site.
There was all a lot to take in over the summer, and as the start of my second year of university drew near, I sought the view of a lecturer I knew would show me a contrasting perspective. I’d previously debated with Dr Roger Smith in lectures over environmental issues such as deforestation. As a soil specialist, he also teaches subjects surrounding resource management, energy and climate change. I knew he’d be the person to tell me that everything would be ok. Roger was my admissions tutor when I first signed up for higher education, and I’ve grown to respect him and enjoy his dry sense of humour as he challenges people’s opinions of topical issues.
Before the interview Roger had emailed me a link to an opinion article by one of the only three Members of Parliament to have voted against the Climate Change Act, the Conservative Peter Lilley. In the article Lilley argues that fracking is the only way to avoid an energy crisis. He says we shouldn’t listen to the concerns of the green movement. Dr. Smith was equally dismissive of the greens “Because things are a problem to the ‘greens’, it doesn’t mean they are perceived as a problem to wider society”. He sees green concerns as not being about the safety of fracking, but as part of a wider resource question:
“When the green movement thought that future gas supplies were relatively limited, then they were very happy to have gas as a low-carbon transitional fuel towards renewables. The difficulty with fracking is that it appears to be a disruptive technology on a world scale, which people are saying will result in a lot more gas being available than was previously thought to be the case. So we’ve seen a shift in attitudes of green organisations towards gas production, which I think is reflected in this fracking concern, which really, in my mind, is just about the amount of future supplies that fracking might release. If the “greens” don’t want us to use this stuff, I think that they have to be prepared to admit that there is a lot of it, and try and persuade us politically not to use.”
I quizzed him about the aforementioned environmental concerns and the large quantities of water used.
“How much evidence is there from USA?” Roger replied, “where most of the fracking has been done, that fracking has reduced the water supply to the population, or agriculture? Well…. Just stump up some examples of places suffering water supplies due to fracking?”
“They’ve only been doing it for a few years so it’s early days for conclusive evidence” I replied.
“But that’s what we want to see! It’s easy to produce all sorts of rumours about earthquakes and stuff coming out of taps and all the rest of it. But…. you know… stump up some widespread example of this occurring where it has substantial impacts on considerable amounts of people. Because, as I said. I think that extractive industries of all sorts have environmental impacts – that is inevitable!”
“To my view, in relation to environmental impacts associated with coal production, I don’t think that fracking has substantial environmental impacts. We can point to wind turbines, and the bird deaths and noise associated with them, the disruption to communities and the large amounts of people don’t like them. If you took that amount of annoyance together, is that equivalent to the amount of annoyance that fracking produces for its neighbours in the USA?”
I asked whether the issue of fracking would be covered at all in the School of Environment and Technology at the university?
“I think the geologists talk about it, but otherwise I don’t know if you’d find anybody in the school who’d thought it was a big problem, quite honestly. And with the geologists, it’s really quite difficult to get them to worry about anything that is in less than time-scales of millions of years. They take the view that the world changes constantly, and tend not to worry about what they see as day-to-day things.”
I wanted that geological perspective, so in the weeks that followed the Roger’s interview; I approached someone with experience in hydrogeological investigations. I’d got to know Leslie Vlaservich over the previous year at university, and with her research background in waste water recycling and applied geology, she seemed the right person to talk to. From the Deep-South of the US, she’s aware of the research conducted in her home state of North Carolina, where baseline monitoring is already in place to assure a representative data set can account for seasonable variations.
Before giving her opinion, Vlaservich pointed me towards independent geologist, Professor Emeritus David Smythe of the University of Glasgow. He had recently performed a desk study, using Cuadrilla’s data of the shales and faultlines at Balcombe. Smythe is hard-hitting in his analysis and sees Cuadrilla’s planning application for further drilling as seriously flawed. No 3D seismic survey has been performed at Balcombe of the fault-lines that underlie the area. These are important to know of as “any faults intersected (by drilling) may act as fast-track conduits to the surface for contaminated frack water and released methane.” He also points out that “It is not yet known whether fracking in an earthquake-free area like the Weald could induce shocks.” . In concluding the study he questioned whether Cuadrilla’s exploration is a cover-story for shale gas fracking.
Vlaservich talked a lot about the need for baseline studies of methane to be conducted at potential fracking areas, as has been done in North Carolina by Professor Robert Jackson of Duke University. For this to happen there is a desperate need for an increase in funding. Geology is a subject influenced by the industries of mining and fossil fuel extraction. Most undergraduates at university aspire to work in these fields, but Vlaservich mentions that there are grants available for interested students through Oil and Gas Catalyst Operations.
After speaking to Robert Jackson about his research in Pennsylvania, Vlaservich talked about the public’s access to environmental science
“The commercial restraints seem to be encroaching on public accessibility to information, regarding the quality of the publics’ liveable environment. In the US, the ‘rules of corporate-state-public’ play is different to the UK. In the UK, the more socialised approach to evidence-based science can be an advantage if political, corporate and class power struggles stay at bay. UK research groups at Durham University are looking at fracking in the European context; however, they are not remitted to lead research on UK-specific sites, leaving Balcombe as a potential research site in limbo.”
Vlaservich’s interests in the subject stems directly from her academic work: “My research in waste water recycling makes me concerned about any waste water which is artificially recharged in to the aquifer.” (The process of pumping the contaminated water back under ground for storage.)
“My research shows that the initial waste water quality needs to be of a very high standard, higher than current regulations ask. This is in order for our environment to retain a good standard of water quality.”
This is one of the big questions about fracking – what can be done with the millions of litres of toxic waste water produced?
“Well it would need advanced water technology incurring high costs and specialist technology, such as reverse osmosis. This requires industrial grade facilities. It is time consuming and very costly to treat any water that has chemical constituents.”
Leslie continued by emphasising the need for further research into the practice, and for stronger environmental monitoring.
“The Environment Agency (EA) has to make a responsible decision at Balcombe,
which could be a major exploration site There needs be a 5 year Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) period. Current air and water quality has to be monitored at surrounding boreholes. The methane monitoring – currently undertaken by the British Geological Survey – began two years ago and is a short period of monitoring to note patterns or strong correlations. We’re lacking enough science based evidence in order to quantify any true effect that fracking might have on environmental quality.”
In other words – let’s not rush into this without knowing the potential long term impacts.
Caudrilla’s website claims that its processes are safe and have EA approval and regulation for all of its activities. But reassurances from an industry with a disastrous safety record are hardly convincing. This is an industry who’s leaders include; Chevron who’ve been fined $19billion in Ecuador for trashing the Amazon; Shell, wrapped up in a lawsuit for similar carnage in Nigeria; and of course BP (Beyond Petroleum?), oh so famous for that spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
This is an industry that’s shown it puts profit before all else. Cost-cutting is the name of the game. Documentaries, such as Gasland 2 and Drill, baby drill, delve into the powerful PR machinations of fracking companies. Issues such as trust, accountability and the environmental costs of plundering the earth are driving resistance.
Back to Balcombe
On a chilly, bright Sunday afternoon in November, I was passing through Haywards Heath and decided to pop back up to Balcombe. Cuadrilla’s planning permission and test drilling operations had come to a halt on the 28th of September. They had packed up and were now waiting for the next round of planning to come through from the council.
As I stood on a muddy road-side verge deep in the Sussex countryside, the site of that summer activity was all but deserted. All that remained was the small tent set-up of the Balcombe Community Protection Camp Vigil. I introduced myself to the handful of die-hards that were camped opposite the gate. After a warming cup of coffee, one of the “wardens” took me up to look at the ominous site. Coils of barbed wire topped the fences, and behind the gates was a security cabin. Two G4S Ghurkhas stood in hi-vis waving to us. Inside the sealed site there was nothing apart from a blue cube right in the centre of the drill-pad. It stood like Pandora’s Box, covering the well that’s fuelling the debate.
I stayed for tea and coffee with the guys and we talked at length about what had been happening. The locals were still largely against the drilling, and were still delivering food to the protestors since the summer blockade. They explained that since Cuadrilla had packed up, most of the protest movement had split apart (fractured?), and “follow the drill” to different parts of the country. That handful remaining had a variety of backgrounds: a part-time gardener, a trade-unionist, one had been active with Occupy Bournemouth. ………..
Within days an injunction was placed on the camp and the bailiffs came down to evict the vigil. Balcombe is now in a state of flux, but not forgotten. Cuadrilla are waiting for their planning permission, hoping the spotlight won’t return to this otherwise quiet corner of Sussex. Other applications for drilling have been made around the county, notably in Fernhurst and at a site near Chichester. The current focus of the anti-fracking protest movement is now at Barton Moss, Greater Manchester. 60% of the UK has been opened up for gas exploration by the government. David Cameron is offering cash-strapped councils money for allowing fracking in their local areas. Many, like Brighton’s MP Caroline Lucas, are calling this outright bribery in a time of austerity.
The big question is whether we really need to still be extracting and burning fossil fuels in this day and age. The only alternative being talked about is wind-farms, which are far from perfect. But are fracking and wind-farms the only two options for energy in the UK? Dr. Smith didn’t seem to think that there are many alternatives to reducing carbon. He suggests “solar is not productive at these latitudes, tidal is a possibility, but the engineering isn’t there yet.”
Dr. Smith was not convinced by attempts to prevent climate change, “instead we can adapt to climate change and not have to reduce emissions. You could, for example, get very wealthy and mitigate the impacts, like building sea walls and other things. To de-carbonise the economy would be of high risk on a global scale at considerable cost.”
And there it was the driving force of all we’d talked about. Economic growth!
“The model for all mainstream political parties is economic growth. That is what the voters want. The difference between these political parties is how to prioritise the spending of the benefits of economic growth. I don’t get the sense that many people – although they might be prepared to be green in the sense of recycling plastic bags etc – wish to adopt the low-consumption, localised lifestyle that seems to be the green model.”
“Going back 500 years, Renaissance man took control of his destiny from the forces of nature. We increasingly seek to control our destiny, and that is technocentrism (scientific/technological progress to solve our problems). It has transferred from its invention in Europe to most areas of the world, who are implementing it at varying rates and efficiencies, but it’s there.”
“As technology and science progresses it solves problems that are behind it. It addresses problems that emerge in front of it. Recycling is a classic problem. When we created consumerism, we had recycling to clear it up.”
“I think that is how it happens – inventing new components of the system. Personally I am optimistic that this will continue. What we have at the moment. Out at the front you have the scientists, engineers, innovators dreaming things up. Second rank of people are the greens, jumping up and down shouting about the great risks. Behind that you have the rest of society aggressively moving forward with the widely accepted model of continuing economic growth. When a way of organising society seems to appeal to so many people, you are on difficult grounds to argue that it is wrong.”
“Bad things happen in the environment, some are irreversible, some we find a way around, but we continue to move things forward. People want progress. It may be having consequences for the environment, which some people judge to be unfortunate, such as loss of forest, animals and wilderness,
“Less fish to eat…”
“That may be, but it’s not obvious to me that we’ve run out of everything. And I may have said it in the lectures. I wrote my first essay on environmentalism in 1968, and what we’ve seen in the meantime are huge scares over population growth and mass-starvation, that was in the 1960’s. Huge scares over resource depletion in the 1970’s. 1980’s there was concern over pollution and acid rain – forest death – it never happened. 1990’s the ozone hole…”
“That happened and we solved that.”
“This century we have climate change.”
“And several other issues”
“Yes, and deforestation, coral reef bleaching, all these big concerns together. Some may not have happened in the past but…”
“There are environmental problems out in front of us, there are also a lot of environment problems that have been mitigated and solved. For example, lead in cars, acid rain from coal, release of dust and toxic metal in atmosphere, organic pollutants, all largely addressed. Human disease and ill health related to unsanitary conditions have been dealt with in developed countries.”
“What I don’t have time for is this sort of …. green misery … and utter pessimism about the sustainability of the present system and the supposed inability of the people to find a way forward. A lot of the world’s religions are based on a similar set of beliefs that the greens have. That you are consuming too much and have to make certain sacrifices to appease the gods and make things better. A lot of Greenism is not much different from that.”
“You see it as a new religion?”
“Some people do. There are some quite considerable and well thought analyses of the green movement as an earth-worship substitute religion; the feelings of guilt about consumption; the taking of steps to reduce consumption; the possibility to purchase absolution by planting trees somewhere, if you want to. You can point to all these things and draw some very strong parallels in how people in societies have organised themselves in the past. The basic guilt about consumption appeared in the Bible, it’s there in Christianity. Some of the green stories seem to emulate the Christian stories.”
During the Balcombe protests of the summer, a lot of fuss had been made in the media about so-called “professional-protestors”, supposed well off bums who float from protest to protest. This demonization distracts from the genuine concerns being voiced. I agree that some of the green movement is fuelled by doomsday predictions and fear-mongering, often too critical without offering an alternative. But I also know that a big part of it is about recognising mankind as part of the biosphere we inhabit, not its master. People in the Westernised world are starting to increasingly reject the notion of “business as usual, economic growth at all cost”. The brief rearing of the Occupy movement was a sign of this, and Anonymous seems to be gaining in strength and reach. On local levels communities are retaking control of their food sources, and Brighton is a perfect case study of this. Nationally voter turn-out is dropping, and in the 18-25 age bracket the turnout was only 44% in the 2010 elections. The undercurrents of real change (not Obama’s version) are flowing beneath society as people search for something different.
Written by Max Withey