Drilling for shale gas is becoming a controversial issue and it could it come to Yorkshire. What might be the benefits and potential risks? STEPHEN LEWIS reports.
THE Conservative peer and former Energy Secretary Lord Howell of Guildford sparked howls of outrage last year when he suggested that fracking would be OK in the north east, where there were large desolate areas.
He hardly helped himself by later saying he actually meant the north west.
There have been huge protests against fracking at Balcombe in West Sussex and elsewhere where there have been plans for exploratory drilling.
Concerns about the controversial process – which involves injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand and chemicals into shale rock deep underground so as to create channels to release natural gas – have also been raised in North Yorkshire.
Maps were published last August showing that there were large areas to the west of York, south west of Pocklington and around Pickering where licences had been issued for exploratory drilling.
Worries about the process have mainly focused on the risk of pollution of ground water, and of earthquakes.
But Prime Minister David Cameron apparently has few doubts. A couple of weeks ago he threw his weight behind fracking – announcing the UK would go “all out for shale”.
Shale gas had the potential to “guarantee energy supplies” in the UK, as well as generating billions for the economy and supporting about 74,000 jobs, Mr Cameron said.
At the same time, the Prime Minister announced what many have interpreted as a ‘bribe’ for local authorities. They would be able to keep 100 per cent of business rates collected from drilling schemes, he said – double the usual 50 per cent.
So what is the truth about fracking? And how likely are we to see it in this part of Yorkshire?
What is fracking?
Fracking is a means of extracting methane or natural gas – the same gas we get from the North Sea – from shale rock deep underground.
It involves drilling a well, then injecting a high pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the rock to create cracks, or fractures, which allow the gas to be released. The name fracking is a shorthand for ‘hydraulic fracturing’.
Will it come to Yorkshire?
Yes, is probably the short answer. A briefing document prepared for City of York Council leader James Alexander by council staff says fracking is presently only at an exploratory stage in the UK. The only current sites are in England are in Lancashire, Cheshire, Kent, Lincolnshire and East Sussex.
Drilling at Kirby Misperton is not thought to have been related to fracking, says Gary Housden, head of planning at Ryedale District Council. “As far as we are aware, that’s conventional gas extraction.”
Nevertheless, according to the City of York Council briefing document, most areas of the UK with large deposits of shale gas are in similar locations to traditional coalfields – including Yorkshire.
Dr Mike Rogerson, a senior lecturer in earth sciences at the University of Hull, says large areas of North and East Yorkshire actually have two layers of rock – one dating from the Carboniferous and one from the Jurassic – which could be sources of shale gas. “It could be potentially quite big business for us.”
UK gas exploration firm Cuadrilla, which is behind shale gas exploration in Bowland, Lancashire, says it has “no interest at present” in Yorkshire.
But Dart Energy is said to be set to seek permission to sink exploration wells at sites where it has licences in a project covering Yorkshire and the Humberside, as well as the north west and East Midlands.
Coun Alexander said there has been “some interest from companies for fracking in the west of York.”
He cannot say who those companies are. “But while most people have assumed there won’t be any fracking in Yorkshire, that’s not necessarily the case,” he said.
Even if full-scale fracking does come to Yorkshire, however, it is likely to be at least five to ten years away, says Dr Rogerson. It will take that long for the UK government to put in place the necessary regulatory policies.
Licensed fracking sites in the north
Should we be worried?
There are clear potential benefits to be gained from fracking.
A British Geological Survey report estimated there could be 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas in the north of England alone.
If we extracted even a tenth of that, Prime Minister David Cameron claimed “that’s still the equivalent of 51 years’ gas supply”.
That would guarantee the UK’s energy supplies for years to come, Mr Cameron said, as well as supporting those 74,000 jobs.
Fracking for shale gas is certainly a viable proposition, says Dr Rogerson. The gas released by fracking is methane, or natural gas: the same we get from the North Sea.
It would be more expensive than North Sea gas. But with gas prices going up, that is unlikely to be a problem.
It would be easy to use, because it is the same as North Sea gas. “So you just pipe it into the system.”
Nevertheless, there are genuine concerns about fracking.
These mainly relate to the potential contamination of ground water, and to the risk of earth tremors.
Despite earth tremors in Lancashire reportedly caused by the process, Dr Rogerson is not so concerned about that.
The UK is tectonically very stable, he says – we are not on major fault lines, and never get anything other than very minor earthquakes. The UK “is about as safe as you can get” when it comes to earthquake or earth tremor risk. “So that is not something I would be exercised about.”
Potential contamination of ground water is another matter, however.
The extraction process uses huge amounts of water – anything between two to eight million gallons of fresh water per well, according to City of York Council’s briefing note.
And however careful the regulation, there will always be a risk that some of that water, which would be contaminated with sand and chemicals, could make its way into groundwater and contaminate water sources.
“That’s my primary concern,” Dr Rogerson says.
Green groups such as the York and Ryedale Friends of the Earth are also concerned about the risk of air pollution.
And even in the best of all possible worlds, if fracking went ahead and caused little or no environmental damage, they point out, it is still not a long-term solution to the UK’s energy needs.
Methane is a fossil fuel: so using fracked natural gas would still contribute to climate change. And once we’ve used up all the shale gas deposits, we would be right back to square one. “We should be putting money into renewable energy sources,” says Richard Lane, of the York and Ryedale Friends on the Earth.
Paul Gammon, of Frack Free North Yorkshire, says if fracking is so safe, the Government should “bore a hole under Hyde Park and allow fracking under Parliament”. Which is possibly unlikely.
In York, Coun Alexander says it will be up to the ruling Labour group to form a policy on fracking. York is not yet in a position to say ‘no to fracking’, he says – and it is doubtful what that would mean even if the city did.
Any application to drill within the council boundaries would have to be dealt with on planning grounds only.
Nevertheless, he admits he “remains to be convinced that it is a good thing”.
He is suspicious of the Government’s offer to let councils keep 100 per cent of the business rates associated with fracking, he says.
“I think that could be considered a bribe. And if they are offering that for fracking, they should be offering it for other forms of energy, such as wind farms.”
JENNIFER KEE asked people in York for their thoughts
Helen Jones, 73, Bishopthorpe, Retired From what I have read it is going to disturb our water supplies. I think we should be looking at more energy sources that do not damage our land which is beautiful, especially Yorkshire.
Neil McCord, 31, from The Groves, support worker I am not against it, as long as they do their research. I think more needs to be known about the side effects before they start it widespread.
Des Fell, 62, Fulford, lecturer in maths education I think it is inevitable providing they learn from mistakes that the Americans have made regarding water recollection. I do not have a problem with it. I think the problems regarding earthquakes are sensationalised and over-exaggerated.
Jodie Golding, 18, Holgate, sales assistant I know that it is has caused earthquakes in some places. They should be looking more at environmentally friendly sources such as wind power.
Geoff Chapman, 51, Elvington, retired I can appreciate that it is an untapped resource that we need but if it is cost effective, it would be better. The most worrying thing is the environmental effect.
Emma Richards, 21, Heslington, student I am generally against it for environmental issues and historical issues. I think we could find better sources of energy where the repercussions are less harmful.