Fracking could be conducted offshore to ease public resistance, says Thanet geologist

Fracking facility in New York Fracking facility in New York

Saturday, January 18, 2014
2:00 PM

Debate over controversial gas extraction technique rages on as the Government announces cash incentives for councils who support fracking

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It is either a timely solution to our reliance on Middle East oil, or the biggest threat to our environment in a generation.

Either way, the debate over fracking shows no sign of easing after the Government this week made its most outspoken defence yet of the practice it once banned for fear it caused earthquakes and, critics claim, could contaminate water supplies.

Fracking involves blasting water and rock-dissolving fluids underground at high pressure to break apart rocks and releasing shale gas which is then pumped to the surface.

In a move which split opinion, Prime Minister David Cameron dangled a carrot in front of cash-strapped local authorities promising major cash incentives if they gave it a go.

Critics in Kent – a key battleground in the fracking dispute – described it as nothing more than bribery.

Supporters, on the other hand, argued it would help pave the way for cheaper gas bills and a secure energy supply in Britain.

While the debate raged, a Kent geologist stepped in, calling for hydraulic fracturing – or fracking as it is commonly known – to be conducted offshore.

The geological consultant, Dr Alasdair Bruce, who is also a Thanet councillor, told KoS that taking the controversial method of shale gas extraction out to sea could ease public resistance and reduce the associated risks.

It is, perhaps, the first glimmer of hope there could be a way of resolving the dispute.

But he admitted cost restrictions would be the fly in the ointment with offshore drilling more expensive than onshore.

“It may be cost prohibitive but it’s certainly worth looking at,” he said.

“We need a proper debate, without all the hype – with facts and not rumour.”

The prime minister this week told local authorities that instead of handing over 50 per cent of business rates collected from such projects to the Government, they will get to keep every penny.

In addition, local communities would also benefit from one per cent of revenues once extraction is under way.

Sevenoaks MP and energy minister Michael Fallon said it would make a huge difference to the economy with up to £10m per site for developers to share out.

For cash-strapped councils, already forced to tighten their belts due to deep spending cuts, it could be seen as the silver lining to what is a widely scorned extraction method.

Dover and Deal in particular are in the spotlight with planning applications for exploratory borehole drilling to search for methane in Shepherdswell, Guston and Tilmanstone previously submitted by Coastal Oil and Gas Limited.

Overwhelming opposition by local people meant they were withdrawn, but that’s not to say they won’t return.

Cowden near Tunbridge Wells has already seen test drilling taking place, in 2010, by energy company Cuadrilla – the firm behind the drilling in Blackpool which is believed to have been responsible for two minor earthquakes; events which forced the Government to put a temporary ban on the extraction method.

The site in Cowden and another in Woodnesborough, near Sandwich, are already licensed for exploration for oil and gas reserves.

Dr Bruce, who runs consultancy firm RockDoc Ltd, said money for incentives should not form any part of the debate.

“If it’s a good thing then incentives aren’t needed,” he said.

“All that does it muddy the waters. We need to decide this on merit.”

He also pointed out there was every chance future governments would alter grants to take into account the fracking money, cutting budgets elsewhere.

“They wouldn’t ever be able to ringfence that money,” he added.

Dr Bruce said not all councils would benefit from the cash either but may well be at risk from the negative impacts of fracking.

“Take Thanet council. This incentive will be of no benefit. We’ve got no material under our feet so we won’t be able to get the money, but our ground water comes from other areas impacted by fracking, like Deal and Dover.

“In Dover and Deal, they could get money because they have the gas and that’s where the extraction would take place.”

It would mean Thanet having no say over the decision whether or not to allow fracking yet could be vulnerable to the risks.

He adds: “We need a proper debate, with precautionary principles everywhere, weighed up against the risks and the benefits.”

But while Dr Bruce is remaining cautious, others are taking a more eager approach.

Sevenoaks MP Mr Fallon says the incentives could provide the economy with a huge boost.

He has always insisted that shale gas has the potential to provide the UK with greater energy security, growth and jobs.

He said: “We are encouraging safe and environmentally sound exploration to determine this potential. Fracturing for shale gas will only be done in a safe and environmentally sound way – and for the benefit of the local community as well as the country.”

No consent has yet been granted for hydraulic fracturing in the UK, but licences are in place, however, for exploratory drilling to take place for oil and gas reserves.

Ian Driver, Green Party councillor and parliamentary hopeful for South Thanet, said the latest announcement was “fracking bribery”.

“The Government is preparing to hand out cash sweeteners and inducements in advance of the Petroleum Exploration and Development Licensing (PEDL) round, taking place later this year,” he said.

He warned that maps produced by the Department of Energy and Climate Change show “every last square inch of Kent’s land will be brought under the PEDL licensing scheme”.

Cllr Driver said it would allow companies such as Cuadrilla – the company with the high-profile drilling site in Balcombe in Sussex – to purchase exploration rights anywhere in the county, provided they have permission from the landowner.

“The Government predicts a strong interest in the licence sales, especially in the south east,” he said.

He also said there was compelling evidence emerging in the US and Australia to suggest fracking can never be carried out safely.

“Even the Government’s own environmental assessment highlights the dangers of fracking, including the astronomical demand for billions of cubic metres of water – much of which will become polluted by the extraction process – the danger to underground drinking water supplies, the huge number of additional vehicle movements and congestion in the countryside – where many drilling rigs will be located – and the noise and atmospheric pollution associated with this process.

“I expect to see many more examples of people power and community opposition developing across Kent and the rest of south east England as the new licences are sold and planning applications to drill are submitted.

“Whatever the Government might say, and no matter how much it tries to bribe local communities, most people don’t want their villages and towns disrupted and devastated by fracking, or the security of their water supplies put at risk. It’s too high a price to pay.”

Geologist Dr Bruce said while technology was improving, there were still potential risks to water supplies.

“The more this looks like it’s a good way of getting energy – for the short-term at least – out of the ground, the technology will increase and get better and better and more reliable.

“Some of the former problems in America are now behind us. Nonetheless, it’s a small factor that needs to be put into the debate.

“I do not agree at all with the kind of protests that went on down at Balcombe, it’s not the way to go about debating this issue.

“I find that kind of protest is almost like fundamentalism.

“While on the one hand it draws the attention of the public to the issue, it doesn’t really give them the opportunity to debate it.

“I heard some amazing stories on a radio debate from people being questioned and I was staggered that they were just regurgitating stuff that they had heard from the States, some of which wasn’t even proven. It was just a rumour and turned into a fact.”

Dr Bruce has put forward the suggestion to his local MPs to consider offshore drilling – but admitted cost was a drawback.

“The only reason they’re looking at fracking at the moment is because of the cost of fuel and gas,” he said.

“Were we awash with cheap gas from the North Sea we wouldn’t even be looking at this process, so it’s all cost driven.

“There could well conceivably come a point where it works really well and they’ll say, well we’ll subsidise the offshore stuff from the land stuff because it’s much easier to drill on land, and have a look at some of the target rocks offshore.

“You’ve got the whole of the Durham coastline, Northumberland has coal that goes offshore, down here and up on the north east it does.

“There could be some phenomenal areas which have far less public resistance too that could be exploited.”

He admitted, however, the Government was “clearly keen” to get fracking going and looking into offshore would take some time.

“There’s so much of a lag time before stuff comes on stream – look at atomic, we’re way behind on our atomic programme because the previous government dithered and didn’t want to press that button while the French and other countries were roaring ahead.

“That’s the problem; we need to think about starting something now that will come in and put us in a really good position in 10 years time which is what’s happened in the States.

“They brought this forward and now they’re exporting gas instead of importing it. It’s a phenomenal turnaround.

“I can understand Cameron looking across the water and thinking, crikey, if we could get that, look what it could do to our industry.”

The majority of Kent’s MPs are on board with the technique – in all cases as long as the safety and risk factors are examined in detail.

Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke, who represents Dover and Deal, says fracking could be a “huge opportunity” to reduce electricity bills and create jobs.

“However,” he said, “It’s very important it is safe and assurances are given that our water tables are not contaminated and there are no problems with ground stability.”

David Cameron calls came as French company Total confirmed plans to invest about £30m to help drill exploratory wells in Lincolnshire.

He stressed that nothing would go ahead if there were environmental dangers.

The PM said: “Shale is important for our country. It could bring 74,000 jobs, over £3bn of investment, give us cheaper energy for the future, and increase our energy security.”

Speaking to KoS last year he said shale needed to be part of the UK’s energy industry.

“We have to recognise that a fracking revolution has taken place in the US and we ought to be thinking about it here.

“Recent reports have shown we may have twice as much shale gas as previously thought and so this is an industry we should be encouraging.

“But we want to make sure it’s an industry we encourage for community benefit as well.”

What is fracking?

Fracking is the process of extracting natural shale gas by blasting water and rock-dissolving fluids into the ground to break apart rocks and release the gas.

It is banned in South Africa and France but has taken off in the US.

So far only exploratory work has taken place, but fears are that it could lead to fracking.

The Government says it should be encouraged and will lead to less reliance on unstable countries for oil and lead to cheaper energy bills.

However, opponents say it increases greenhouse-gas emissions, contaminates water supplies and can cause earthquakes.

Questions have also been raised about whether we have enough water to cater for a fracking revolution in this county. Water is crucial in the fracking process, but Kent is already deemed a “water-stressed” county with an official drought in 2012.

Companies such as Cuadrilla, which has a licence to carry out exploratory drilling in Kent, says it wells are designed with stringent safety measures and have been examined independently and by the Health and Safety Executive.

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