notes from a small island… about to be fracked

Saying that the British constantly talk (most often complaining) about the weather is a cliché but then clichés are often clichés because they happen to be true. And this one is true principally because Britain is a peculiarly weathery place. Rarely extreme (in spite of the frequent and increasingly stern Met Office warnings of “flood alerts” and whopping “level 3 heatwaves”) and yet by virtue of being geographically perched in a temperate maritime climatic zone, cursed by weather that is highly unpredictable and uncommonly capricious. Sunny one minute, “tipping it down” the next – we run the gamut of weather from icy to baking (sometimes in the space of twenty-four hours) and always with insufficient lorry-loads of grit or hopelessly inadequate access to air conditioning. Unpreparedness for regular seasonal changes being almost a matter of national pride.

So cast your mind back to last spring… or perhaps you don’t remember it because it never properly happened. Instead, we simply skipped spring and launched ourselves barechested into a scorching summer. Nevertheless, as April approached the news was that Britain was quickly getting herself into a bit of a weather-related pickle. Another overheated drought of sorts…

This year an unseasonably cold March has seen a spike in gas demand – with forecasters predicting this weekend could be the coldest in March for half a century.

Temperatures could drop to -3C in parts of the country, and the Met Office has already issued several severe weather warnings.

“Severe weather warnings” were a hazard we might negotiate, but then there was far worse news riding on the back of our especially dreary couple of months of inclemency:

A study by Reuters claimed that if the current cold snap continues as forecast, Britain could run out of gas by April 8. 1

This absolutely gobsmacking claim that Britain had “the equivalent of less than two days’ consumption remaining” (as the same Yahoo News story reported) being echoed right across the news media. And yet as April skated into May and then May sledged into June somehow the lights stayed on and the hot water kept on flowing. But just what might have happened if the sun had never got his hat on, would Britain have eventually run out of gas altogether? I mean just how unprepared can any nation be…?

The subtext of these stark messages was also clear. That what our nation so very urgently requires (aside from a hefty dose of sunlight for our pallid hides) is a reliable and ‘alternative’ supply of energy. Preferably – especially given the precise nature of our deficit – huge gas reserves directly beneath our feet.

Thankfully BBC news were ready to present us with just such a viable and almost immediate rescue package:

“Gas, we cook with it, we heat our homes, we use it to drive turbines to make electricity. The thing is we don’t have huge amounts of it. In fact we’re a net importer of gas.

What if we were standing on a new supply of UK gas? We’d want to take a look wouldn’t we? That’s what fracking is…”

So begins a characteristically upbeat and rather nannying BBC report delivered by Giles Dilnot on March 25th – and so right on cue to save the day.

Dilnot’s ‘report’ for the Daily Politics show was then closely followed by a debate (of sorts) between Cuadrilla Resources chief executive Francis Egan praising the wonders of shale gas that his company is so determined to get its grubby mitts on, whilst opposed and supposedly balanced by environmental campaigner Tony Juniper who says he objects to plans for a future powered by shale gas principally on the grounds of climate change. A discussion (available on the same link above) that was as consistently sidetracked and irritatingly one-dimensional as it was brief, and at every turn hindered by misdirected questions from mediator Andrew Neil, very likely addled on Blue Nun. Inevitably, therefore, all of the most salient points were skipped past or overlooked entirely; points which I will return to later (even if I’ve hammered those same points nearly to death in previous posts).

Come late April, however, and the BBC was in any case reporting more cautiously on the prospects of our shale gas energy renaissance:

Shale gas in the UK could help secure domestic energy supplies but may not bring down prices, MPs report. […]

The MPs say the UK’s shale gas developers will face technological uncertainties with different geology.

And public opinion may also be more sceptical, they add.

The UK is a more densely populated landscape, and shale gas operations will be closer to settlements as a consequence.

Interestingly, those same MPs felt that any undue concerns of the general public might be overcome by recourse to “cash sweeteners” offered to the local communities most affected (“cash sweeteners” being a form of inducement that MPs seem to know a lot about these days). Unfortunately, of course, even such direct forms of bribery only get you so far (since not everyone is as venal as most of our parliamentarians), added to which, there were a few other awkward hurdles that needed jumping:

The MPs believe operators will have to overcome potentially tighter regulations.

What is more, the extent of recoverable resources in the UK is also unknown, so the report concludes that it is too soon to say whether shale gas will achieve US-style levels of success. 2

Incidentally, “US-style levels of success” is another thing I will need to come back to later, and even if it again leads me to issues I’ve already hammered long and hard on many previous occasions…

Meanwhile, as May defrosted into June, and as the British public waited and waited for the sun to come out more fully attired… lo, another (minor) miracle!

UK firm IGas says there may be up to 170 trillion cubic feet (4,810 cubic km) of gas in the areas it is licensed to explore in northern England. […]

The company’s licences cover an area of 300 sq miles across Cheshire.

It had previously said it had about nine trillion cubic feet of shale gas. It now estimates that the volume of “gas initially in place” could range from 15.1 trillion cubic feet to 172.3 trillion cubic feet, the higher figure being nearly 20 times higher than the previous estimate.

The UK’s annual gas consumption is currently about 3 trillion cubic feet. […]

“Our estimates for our area alone could mean that the UK would not have to import gas for a period of 10 to 15 years”. 3

Yes, little more than a month had passed, and suddenly (as if completely out of the blue) it turned out that Britain has nearly limitless bags of lovely gas just waiting patiently to be defracked – potentially trillions and trillions of billowing cubic feet of the stuff. Enough gas for every man jack amongst us. Enough gas to power all our homes and factories, enough to keep the telly on and Andrew Neil tepid, enough even to satisfy that most gassy of gas-expelling institutions, our houses of parliament.

The same BBC article also provided us with a handy map showing the considerable swathes of black shale deposits running though the country like thick veins of fat coursing across a rasher of streaky bacon. And in the midst of these, those areas where onshore licences are now being granted. Areas which happen to surround my own beloved city of Sheffield like, like, like…

… like day-old bruises… or like the mottled skin of a plague victim. Since this is how such a map appears if you are inclined to turn your nose up at the prospect of poisoned land and contaminated water supplies the colour of crude oil, reeking of turps and fizzing with methane…

Yes this, unfortunately (and to finally return to those other issues), is precisely what those “US-style levels of success” have actually meant for countless farmers and other residents penned in by the hundreds of thousands of drilling rigs so tightly arrayed across the Marcellus Shale in the Appalachian Basin and far beyond to distant horizons. And soon, with dubious credit going to President Obama and his unrestrained assent for the thorough-going expansion of the fracking industry, there will be quite literally millions of similar rigs operating day and night from coast to coast across the whole of the United States. All this fracking bringing to the folks who happen to live in the ever-encroaching vicinities of the drilling, not so much a blessing, as a most terrible blight:

My daughter looks up. Her rash is all over her face. She has a nosebleed. Bob has a nosebleed, burning throat, burning eyes. I had a rash. It covered my scalp. It went through my entire body, literally to the bottoms of my feet. My throat would start swelling. I started gasping for air. I started stuttering. I started stumbling. My face drew up on my left side like I had Bell palsy.

Here is part of the testimony of just one of many such victims speaking out on Josh Fox’s recently released Gasland Part II. Lisa Parr of Wise County, Texas, explaining how her family’s health deteriorated after shale gas drilling began around their home. [The documentary has since been released on Vimeo – it is embedded at the end of this article.]

And whilst the ordinary victims struggled on to make themselves heard, and besides the anticipated silence maintained by the greater part of the US corporate media, the fracking industry has nevertheless felt obliged to fight dirtier than ever before. Resorting to quite staggering and altogether outlandish strategies for reversing the battle they had been losing over hearts and minds:

Well, this is audio that was recorded by a blogger named Texas Sharon, working for Earthworks, who was at an oil and gas industry conference where they were discussing all the bad PR that they were getting and how to counter it. And what they go on to do is explain how they’re using former PSYOPs officers, psychological operations officers, who were newly coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, to write local laws, to develop techniques to divide local landowners. That’s Matt Pitzarella from Range Resources talking about that. Chesapeake then goes on to talk about people who are fighting the gas industry, like landowners, like you just saw, Jeremiah Gee, as insurgents. And one of the PR spokespeople for Anadarko, another huge petroleum company, says that what they should actually do is download the counterinsurgency manual, which is a 300-odd-page book about, you know, how to deal with an insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are terms of war, and it was very, very shocking to see that.

Those are the words of Josh Fox speaking on Democracy Now! [July 12th], addressing a question about his own discovery of industry’s use of military PSYOPs tactics. It’s a PR approach, he explains, that combines bogus science with more familiar methods of advertising:

But it goes hand in hand with a strategy that’s very overt in the media, which is to buy—you can’t turn on the TV, except for perhaps this show, where you’re not going to see ads from the natural gas industry. And we’re seeing also editorials and these kinds of things on blog posts seeded to do things to try to discredit the very clear science, and in most cases the science that the industry themselves did. This is following the tobacco industry’s playbook. The tobacco industry for decades sponsored bogus science, went out to try to create doubt in the media as to whether or not the cigarettes were harmful to people. And that strategy was developed by a PR firm called Hill & Knowlton. The America’s Natural Gas Alliance hired the same PR firm in 2009, and we’re seeing that same kind of strategy of creating doubt and of creating a false debate in the media over whether or not this drilling contaminates water.

Click here to read a full transcript or to watch the interview on the Democracy Now! website.

Not that any of this is what the guys at Cuadrilla Resources have in mind for us apparently. Fracking in Britain will be entirely different the chief executive of Cuadrilla, Francis Egan, told Andrew Neil, offering his solemn pledge as a certain guarantee that our groundwater will very definitely never be contaminated, whilst insisting that in the eccentrically British variety of fracking only “one single chemical” is ever pumped into the ground.

It is worth noting, however, that when it came to fracking in Poland (which happens to be the European frontier for shale gas extraction), residents were also given clear reassurance from industry officials that the fluids injected into the earth would only include such harmless food additives as salt and lemon juice… lemon juice!!! Yes, sadly I’m not joking – it seems that these industry guys will tell the public absolutely anything just so long as it helps them to get their way. Indeed you can see these claims for yourself if you decide to watch an alternative investigative documentary made by Polish-American filmmaker Lech Kowalski and entitled Drill Baby Drill (the reason for the title becoming quickly apparent). A trailer for the film is available here:

Drill Baby Drill Trailer 1 by Lech Kowalski from revolt cinema on Vimeo.

And if our own rush to fracking truly represents such an unmitigated good for the people of Britain then precisely what’s all this about…

Local communities are set to lose control over key environmental decisions affecting whether fracking can go ahead within their midst, it is claimed.

Campaigners opposing the industrial-scale exploitation of shale gas reserves in the British countryside said the Government has removed key democratic controls in its dash to bring unconventional energy resources on stream.

Under planning guidelines published last week, councils will no longer be able to investigate issues such as seismic activity, flaring and venting as well as the potential impact on ground water supplies before granting planning permission for new wells.

Which is taken from an article published in Monday’s Independent. A report that goes on to add:

Whilst campaigners argue that there are still many environmental and economic questions yet to be answered over the impact of fracking, the Government is determined to go press ahead. Last week Chancellor George Osborne, whose own Tatton constituency is home to major reserves, announced that onshore shale gas producers will pay a 30 per cent tax rate compared to 62 per cent paid by on North Sea oil operations. 4

Special exemptions and deregulation plus the bonus of tax incentives all serving to underline how extremely keen our government now is to give fracking the go-ahead; bending over backwards to get the acres of rigs set up as soon as is humanly possible. And why such a mad dash in the first place? Is it really that our national gas stocks are set to run out next March (all over again)…?

Undoubtedly this is what they would have us believe. Though crying wolf over shortages appears to be merely the latest corporate-government ruse, and a trick that played rather well over in Poland, with many Poles easily blinded by offers of energy independence from their overbearing neighbour Russia and so quite happy to be fracked all over (and, as Lech Kowalski’s documentary reveals, in Poland tests alone were enough to contaminate some local water supplies).

But then this great urgency to get cracking with the fracking suits both the industry and governments for another reason of course, with speed being of the utmost essence whenever anyone is attempting to sell a pig in a poke. On top of which, when it comes to the instigation and operation of every kind of a filthy scheme, the schemers are certainly best advised to make significant and, if possible, irreversible headway before the real filth behind their scheme comes to major public attention… bankers being the real trailblazers when it comes to “pulling a fast one” on an unsuspecting public.

And the damage caused by fracking, as with the damage caused by smoking, is damage in the making and thus very conveniently delayed. So fast-forward some five to ten years and in the aftermath of this proposed policy of furious and widespread fracking, and with a vast proportion of our countryside potentially unfit for human habitation, the environmental devastation having become almost as inescapable as it is undeniable, well the industry will no doubt turn to their teams of lawyers to help them fight against every claim made for damages. They’ll be alright Jack just as the tobacco industry is quite alright: very much alive and well (unlike some of its most unlucky customers) and still highly profitable – just ask Ken Clarke.

With Britain already fracked to the eyeballs, there will be plenty of other as then less benighted corners of the world being made ready for a jolly good fracking (even if, rather curiously, Bulgaria is one place unlikely to join us in the queue – plucky little Bulgaria, eighteen months ago, becoming only the second European country after France to ban exploratory drilling for shale gas 5).

For those who prefer to trust the executives of the oil companies and the well-paid teams who work on public relations and advertising, I’m not quite sure what more can be said. Do please take a little time to read my earlier (informative and more restrained) posts on the subject. But far more importantly, watch Josh Fox’s excellent original Gasland documentary and his still finer Gasland II. Following which, and supposing that you still wish to see fracking drills burrowing under your neighbourhood like so many parasitic ticks, then I have to presume that you dismiss the many expert contributors as unreliable witnesses whilst disregarding the testimony of so many victims as deluded idiots or out and out liars. The gloopy water being just a theatrical prop and the incendiary taps clever special effects.

On the other hand, for those like myself who feel frankly outraged by the cavalier manner in which our government is behaving, so to eager to sell off our precious land and mineral rights to these nefarious energy giants, then my advice is simple – stop talking so much about the weather and begin talk about fracking instead.

We need to reclaim our land before its too late and if that means being a nimby* then here’s to it! Because when it comes to opposing fracking, which although a widespread menace is necessarily carried out on an extremely local scale, our best hope seems to be that nimbys of the world (and according to another cliché the British are exemplary nimbys) can somehow unite. I’m very much a fracking nimby – and please don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m hoping that you’re a fracking nimby too!

* nimby: not in my backyard (generally a pejorative and used to refer to persons or groups that oppose the introduction into their neighborhood of a new development they consider objectionable)

*

Additional:

Gasland Part II was released on HBO on July 8th. It was premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last Sunday [July 21st]:

The film argues that the gas industry’s portrayal of natural gas as a clean and safe alternative to oil is a myth and that fracked wells inevitably leak over time, contaminating water and air, hurting families, and endangering the earth’s climate with the potent greenhouse gas, methane. In addition the film looks at how the powerful oil and gas industries are in Fox’s words “contaminating our democracy”.

You can watch the official trailer below:

*

Update:

For anyone who missed it – here’s Lord Howell, Tory gasbag and father-in-law of Chancellor George Osborne, outlining to his ‘noble Lords’ how fracking might better be restricted, at least for the more immediate term, to “large and uninhabited desolate areas” of the North East.

Lord Howell of Guildford (which, incidentally, happens to be far away from the desolate North) arguing that:

“there’s plenty of room for fracking, well away from anybody’s residence, where it could be conducted without any kind of threat to the rural environment…”

And after all, the North doesn’t actually have rural environment in any case, but only back-to-back terraces, factories, chip shops, men with flat caps and whippets and all sorts of other frightful nastiness…

*

Here is a full version of Gasland Part II from Vimeo:

*

1 From an article entitled “As experts say ‘the lights could go out in Britain’, what has caused UK’s looming gas crisis?” written by Chris Parsons, published on Yahoo News on March 22, 2013. http://uk.news.yahoo.com/britain-gas-shortage–lights-going-out-energy-supplies-march-cold-snap-160212133.html#aadBz8x

2 From an article entitled “UK shale gas bonanza ‘not assured’” written by Roger Harrabin, published by BBC news on April 26, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22300050

3 From an article entitled “UK shale gas reserves may be ‘bigger than first thought’” written by John Moylan, published by BBC news on June 3, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-22748915

4 From an article entitled “Fracking controls ‘removed in dash for unconventional energy resources” written by Jonathan Brown, published in The Independent on July 22, 2013. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/fracking-controls-removed-in-dash-for-unconventional-energy-resources-8726869.html

5 “Bulgaria has become the second European country after France to ban exploratory drilling for shale gas using the extraction method called “fracking”.

“Bulgarian MPs voted overwhelmingly for a ban on Wednesday, following big street protests by environmentalists.”

From a BBC news report entitled “Bulgaria bans shale gas drilling with ‘fracking method’” published on January 19, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16626580

 

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1 Comment

Filed under analysis & opinion, Britain, fracking (shale & coal seam gas), Poland, USA

One response to “notes from a small island… about to be fracked

  1. darren

    Excellent article.
    Apparently, 5% of all concrete pipes, whether deep sea oil drilling, land drilling or fracking fail upon immediate insertion according to leaked industry documents. With the yearly failure rate of these pipes being a similar percentage. You only need to think about that a little to understand the implications. Concerning fracking, and in consideration of the addition hundreds of chemicals used (that enter the water supply and poison anyone/anything consuming it) and the melted rock that opens spaces within the initially dense rock that cause collapses felt in the form of earthquakes (my assumption), pipe failure leads to the released methane rising, finally finding freedom on the surface whatever may be there. Some people in the US with pipes under their houses have been warned not to turn on devices in their homes by the government environmental agency for fear of an explosion. They have to leave their homes as they stand, empty shells, unable to be sold and leaving the owner homeless if they lack the money or right friends.
    It is rather remarkable how dark and sordid this subject really is. Politicians and corporations, oh how the future will once again judge this a toxic blend to the billions of this planets inhabitants. Worse still, almost every one knows it and does little to change it as a majority…i guess we have it coming if we cant overcome the barriers they place in front of us.

    Like

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