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Should we give fracking a go or is it just unsafe?

City councillors will debate whether to oppose frackmg and unconventional gas drilling in the entire district at a full council meeting tonight. The Liberal Democrats are bringing forward a motion calling on the council to stop any exploration on council owned land and instead support growth in renewable energy sources. Cllr Mike Sole said:

“We had to take it to committee stage first, but I think it’s fair that all councillors get to have their say on it in a proper debate.”

It follows a debate on Wednesday at Canterbury Christ Church University, where a panel debated what effects fracking could have upon the energy industry and the environment. There were seven on the panel – geologist and Carboniferous Ltd director Dr Nick Riley, Coastal Oil and Gas chairman Gerwyn Llewellyn Williams, Chatham House professor Paul Stevens, Whitstable campaigner Julie Wassmer, EU Commission advisor Michael Hill, Thanet Green Party councillor Ian Driver and geophysics professor David Smythe. Gerwyn Llewellyn Williams’ company applied for drilling applications in east Kent last year. He said:

“It’s not new. We have been drilling conventional gas wells for coal bed methane for 20 years. Fracking is used for all sorts of things including getting unconventional gas and oil and even drilling for water wells. But since the Balcombe protests the industry has changed and I think it’s for the worse.”

Julie Wassmer
Julie Wassmer

Julie Wassmer and Cllr Ian Driver (Green) challenged Mr Williams. They campaigned against the applications and cited safety fears. Ms Wassmer said:

“The government is conspiring to conceal the truth about fracking. You can make fracking safer but you cannot make it safe. The risks are unquantifiable. The evidence is out there.”

ClIr lan Driver
Cllr lan Driver

Cllr Driver pointed out that the main political parties appear to be supporting the industry, with Chancellor George Osborne encouraging fracking and Kent County Council investing £193m from its pension pot into companies with links to the industry. He said:

“We need people who are not conflicted by interest to judge this issue instead of political institutions in the grip of the frackers.”

Dr Nick Riley
Dr Nick Riley

But geology expert and Carboniferous Ltd director Dr Nick Riley defended the practice. He said:

“We should at least allow the exploration. We have to look at whether we can do this safely. I believe we can. This is a wonderful opportunity and we should not lose it due to scaremongering campaigners.”

Fracking: How it works — The science, and the mechenical operation explaineda

  1. A well is drilled down beneath the ground, then horizontally once in the shale layer – followed by a casing being inserted and cemented into the hole, which helps protect local aquifers from spillage and contamination of its water
  2. A perforating gun is lowered by wire and a charge is detonated electrically, shooting through the casing and cement into rock layer
  3. A composite mix, including sand, is pumped at extremely high pressure into the well bore
  4. Pressure causes the rocks to fracture; the sand is forced in and keeps the cracks open
  5. Released gas flows up the well bore, and is processed for market

Splitting cracks in the rocks

bThere are large layers of shale rock deep underground which contain shale gas particles trapped inside. The drilling process is much the same as for getting conventional oil and gas. But to get shale gas the rock needs massive force. So the technique of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is used. This is where water and chemicals are pumped into the well at immense pressure to split open cracks in the rocks. Gas is then able to flow back to the surface.

More lorries?

Despite drilling applications by Gerwyn Llewellyn Williams’ company for sites in east Kent, it is unclear whether tracking would actually be used. His company has explored options for coal bed methane, which doesn’t require hydraulic fracturing of rocks to be extracted. Nevertheless there are strong tears about pollution and more lorries on the roads.

THE POTENTIAL BENEFITS

Britain continues to rely on gas imports from overseas to meet its energy needs. In the United States fracking has grown to become a major player in the supply of energy. Gerwyn Llewellyn Williams said his company has found large deposits of shale rock and believes it can benefit the community. He said:

“Something has to be done to kickstart the economy and there are community benefits. For every well fracked £100,000 would go to the council along with 1% of operating profits.”

Dr Nick Riley said:

“This could be useful to the country as energy security is extremely important. If we are not producing our own energy then we are even more vulnerable.”

Chancellor George Osborne supported the industry with generous tax breaks in his Budget speech last year. He said:

“Shale gas is the future and we will make it happen.”

But Chatham House professor Paul Stevens warned:

“It doesn’t work that it you produce more gas that you are suddenly going to have lower gas prices. In the USA their revolution was 30 years in the making. My message is, don’t expect it to happen any time soon here.”

Green Party councillor Ian Driver said:

“Millions of pounds of taxpayers money has been wasted. Wouldn’t it be better supporting non-polluting renewable sources like solar or tidal and a large insulation programme to cut the amount of energy used in the first place?”

FEARS ABOUT DRILLING

The biggest fear is that chemicals used during the process will seep into the water table and become harmful to the public if the drilling wells leak. In the USA there have been documented well failures. Julie Wassmer pointed that 6,000 people were affected in Pennsylvania and that a family in Texas claimed a $2.9m pay-out. Expert adviser to the EU Commission on shale gas Michael Hill drafted 10 recommendations to regulate the industry, but only one has been implemented. He said:

“We are not regulating. They are not checking the chemicals which flow back to the surface, or what is being put back into the ground once the well has been used. A study including 124,000 births showed that there is a 30% increase in birth defects and a 38% higher chance of cancer within 10 miles of a fracking well.”

But the claims were disputed by Dr Riley, who said there are yet to be any studies which conclusively prove that tracking is bad for public health. He disputed claims that the drilling wells lose integrity, and put failure rates In the USA down to poor regulation. He said:

“I’m a scientist and work from the evidence basis. There is some awful rhetoric and I’m quite disappointed with how the media reports the issue. I acknowledge there is a deep mistrust of government, but a vocal minority is scaring the public.”

Herne Bay Gazette, November 27th 2014

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