Using contemporary environmental law and policy, critically discuss the Government’s unequivocal support for hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the context of large-scale opposition to it.
Within a week of a headline-grabbing ’12 years to save the world’, fracking has recommenced in Lancashire after a seven-year hiatus. Despite vociferous public opposition and contrary to its green energy agenda the Government are driving forward fracking as a core policy. The reasons and the methodology the Government are prepared to utilise achieving this are intriguing and somewhat disingenuous.
Within the UK there are several areas where the rock formations appear to have the potential to produce shale gas in commercial quantities, i.e. areas of North West, Central and Eastern England associated with the Carboniferous Bowland shales of the Pennine Basin, the Weald and regions in southern and eastern England associated with Jurassic formations. The British Geological Survey announced that there were an estimated 40 trillion cubic metres of shale gas (more gas than that so far extracted from the North Sea) in and around the Bowland Basin alone.
The government has stated that the benefits of developing the onshore shale gas will protect the UK market from global price fluctuations and events in politically unstable areas of the world. It also believes that shale gas will benefit ‘the whole of society’in providing jobs and affordable bills, based upon the reduction of the wholesale price of gas in the United States. The Government claim that Shale gas has lower emissions of mercury, sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides compared to burning coal and oil. They also claim that Shale gas will lead to lower carbon dioxide emissions than coal and act as a bridge to a lower carbon future helping to meet energy demand until developing effective renewable energy sources and increasing UK’s nuclear capacity.
Opposition to fracking ranges from international environmental pressure groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace to local pressure groups and ordinary members of the community not customarily associated with protesting. Claims that fracking produces fewer greenhouse gases are disputed in periods less than 50 years negating the bridging policy. Apart from climate change concerns, those opposed to fracking also raise water contamination threats, overuse of water resources earthquakes and tremors, noise and disruption to residents and health risks from air pollution.
The Government’s policy is clear and resolute. David Cameron, writing in the Telegraph endorses unreservedly fracking as a solution to the energy needs of Great Britain and ‘we cannot afford to miss out on fracking.’ This policy has continued as a theme in the following years, beyond the general election in 2017, in which the Conservative party manifesto stated a commitment to Fracking.
Of the major political parties, the Conservatives are alone in this position. Labour has stated they will ban fracking because ‘it would lock us into an energy infrastructure based on fossil fuels, long after the point in 2030 when the Committee on Climate Change says gas in the UK must sharply decline.’ Similarly, in their 2017 Manifesto, the Liberal Democrats pledged to “oppose ‘fracking’ because of its adverse impact on climate change, the energy mix, and the local environment” The position of the Scottish National Party policy on fracking is that it “will have no place in Scotland’s energy mix.” Elsewhere in Europe, France has a complete ban on fracking, a decision that upheld in the courts.
While prima facie evidence from the USA shows that wholesale gas prices drop, a direct comparison of the UK and US energy markets is somewhat naive. The UK is part of the Integrated European Regional Market and Russian supply via pipeline and the Asian Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) and future North American LNG market by arbitrage. While basic economic theory suggests that an increase in supply will exert downward pressure on prices this is unlikely to be discernible; the other gas producing nations are likely to reduce output to suit their price-volume strategy.
Poland regarded as Europe’s front-runner in shale gas extraction, having established over 40 wells has recently scaled back its production, with a large number of companies have withdrawn The reasons are multi-faceted, but all appear to have made the process unviable in both financial and political spheres.
The Government are dismissive of the need of regulation specific to fracking, stating that EU and UK regulations adequately cover fracking. The Government have resisted attempts for particular legislation as the UK has ‘the most robust regulatory regime in the world for shale gas’ and Michael Fallon, while Minister of State for Energy stated ‘We are opposed to further regulation in this particular area.’ The Government places considerable emphasis that the UK has a strong track record and over 50 years of experience in regulating the onshore oil and gas industry.
It is clear that in the succeeding years the government has sought to introduce legislation specific to the fracking industry and its practices. On closer analysis these legislative changes have been brought in, not to regulate and protect the health and environment but to absolve any legal barriers.
Using fracking in the USA as a comparator, Public Health England report, that so long as fracking is regulated correctly and following best practice, there is no significant risk to public health. The American Energy Policy Act 2005 absolves operators from disclosing information about the chemicals they use in the fracking process which means its hard to predict potential health impacts. The report makes no account that the UK is almost 8.5 times more densely populated than the US averaging 272.9 and 35.61 persons per Km respectively. Various studies have highlighted the risks of cancer increase the closer people are to the fracking sites due to air emissions.
Critically this analysis is flawed on another point. The geology of the American Shale fields is significantly different to that of the UK. Typical geology of American in that the strata are in a ‘layer cake’ formation. However, the UK has significant fault lines running up through the strata. These faults are conduits for fracking water to leach into the groundwater zones. It was Caudrilla drilling into an unknown fault line at Preese Hall No.1 which caused the earthquakes causing the fracking to stop in 2011.
The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. Reported in 2012. Hung up on the earthquake. Not on the potential of the faults. They relied on a report by Haliburton, which used American wells and completely discounted the presence of faults.
The regulation starts with the issue of licences by the oil and gas authority, formally DECC., sound companies, licences handed out like sweets. County councils permit to drill they are being pressed on by the government, failing in various ways. Recent well Broadford bridge. Ukoil and gas. Using existing permit to had to go through the drilling pad. UK oil and gas breached the conditions by mining in a different place, but West Sussex county council have done nothing about it.
To make fracking an attractive proposition to drilling companies, The former chancellor George Osborne announced huge tax concessions: 30% tax on profits (ToP) for shale gas production. In comparison, 62% (ToP) on new North Sea oil operations and up to 82% (ToP) for older offshore fields. At the same time, subsidies for renewable energy sources where being cut under the guise of austerity. Angus energy drilling at Brockham in Surrey. The permit ran out ten years previously; all Surrey County Council have done is to ask them to apply retrospectively for a permit.
Preese Hall No1 created a flow back, which is highly saline radioactive and polluted water. One tanker full. Stored on site. Not water waste facility could do with it, Caudrilla disposed of it in the Manchester ship canal. The Health and Safety Executive retrospectively permitted them to do so.
Caudrilla is now fracking at Preston New Road and Roseacre Woods. The complexity of the faults, cant avoid fracking through fault lines. The Environment Agency is supposed to regulate the purity of water and the only issue permit to drill it is safe. The most significant groundwater resource in the northeast is in the Bowland Fells Water falls off the Fells and passes through fault zones into the sandstone where there are a large number of water wells used to feed the Manchester and Liverpool conurbation. However, what the Environment Agency says is the Woodsfold Fault is a barrier to flow, and exceptional unlike all the other faults
Pernicious definitions introduced into the Infrastructure Act 2015. Fracking is a national infrastructure project and taking powers away from local people and County Councils and taking it all back to Westminster and overruling the wishes of several local councils. The first specious definition is how an unconventional resource is classified as opposed to conventional resources. Scientific convention typically classifies conventionality on the physical permeability of the rocks, causing some tight sandstone and limestone formations to be unconventional, in the Act, they have merely defined it as limestone and sandstone. In Sussex the majority of sites are limestone and sandstone, classing it as conventional therefore circumnavigating the rules.
The second of these definitions introduced by the Government centres on the definition of high volume hydraulic fracturing. Legislation has defined the criteria for high volume fracking at 10,000 cubic metres of water per well. The US geological survey defines an unconventional gas well as using more than 2,500 cubic meters of water. The UK Government’s figure has been deliberately set very high, enabling companies in Sussex, to frack a well and stop at 9,999 cubic meters and be able to say they are not fracking as legally it is not high volume hydraulic fracturing.
Permitted development rights to derive from general planning permission through the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015.45 As such, development done under permitted development rights does not need planning permission. From 6 April 2016 the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) (Amendment) Order 2016 allows during a period not exceeding 28 consecutive days the drilling of boreholes for
(a) carrying out groundwater monitoring;
(b) Seismic monitoring or
(c) locating and appraising the condition of mines.
In each case which is preparatory to potential petroleum exploration. This right is subject to some exceptions (for example where drilling would be carried out within a National Park or protected groundwater source area). This work can be carried out to establish baseline information on the groundwater environment without the need for planning permission, although other regulatory
So why, within a few years, has the government has changed policy from the greenest government everto that of increasing the production and the usage of fossil fuels, contrary to their legislative obligations?