Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Can You Frack Responsibly?

13 January 2014 was an interesting morning at Barton Moss.

The weather was great, with stars when I arrived and clear blue skies when I left. I guess that comes of having Druids in the camp; they have friends amongst the elementals. I expect it will piss it down for the Igas summer barbecue.

The previous day there had been an amazing turn out for the Barton Moss Solidarity Day; 1000 people according to ITV, 250 according to the BBC and somewhere between 600 and 800 according to those of us who were there.

There weren't that many the next morning for the regular Monday convoy, but when the lorries arrived and they were still met by a wall of Protectors across Barton Moss Lane. The police pushed most of us back up the road, but three lorries were immobilized by climbers. Then Tristan nearly got flatten by a fourth.

I had been listening to Seize the Day in the car on the way over (sorry planet, but there's not a lot of sustainable transport at 6AM) and now there was Theo Simon on top of a lorry. Next time I'll listen to Elvis, that would get the press down to the Moss.

Not that we had a problem that morning. We had Daybreak TV, Channel 4, local BBC, a freelance snapper and others. People were interviewed and I got my mug on the telly, however the main story wasn't us for once. Instead the real news that day was that the opposition, AWOL for the last three months, had finally showed up.

Igas's PR machine has been sounding like a stuck record since the camp began, telling us they respect the right to protest as long as it doesn't disrupt the locals, whilst the press continued to show a lot of obstructive locals holding up Igas vehicles.

Igas certainly had a bit of a problem up in Manchester, and their backers were getting twitchy. The Investors Chronicle said "we suspect environmental resistance will greatly intensify once IGas actually applies to frack a shale gas well". They note Igas has enough conventional oil to ride out any problems, but the warning was there.

However that doesn't mean that the fracking industry as a whole was intending to take all this lying down. Various groups put up strategies on how to deal with us, some of which were public, and the best of these was by Control Risks.

In an excellent report that summarises the international anti-fracking movements they also explained how the opposition worked, with experienced Climate Change activists seeding local groups. That is indeed what was happening near Barton Moss, with meetings organised by Climate Camp veterans leading to the formation of Irlam and Cadishead Frack Free.

The report ends with three recommendations for overcoming the anti-frackers. Firstly acknowledge past grievances, second engage with communities, thirdly reduce impacts, and fourthly create more winners.

Interesting then what happened that Monday morning.

We had Lord Browne on the TV telling us how "it's not all been perfect in the USA" and that regulations here are much tougher. We had the Prime Minister at a fracking site in Lincolnshire announcing that councils could keep twice the usual amount of business rates from frackers. Not much community engagement, but Igas had been doing a bit of that, although they would throw in the towel some time in February.

So they were certainly reading from the Control Risks book.The question is, did it work? Judging by the opinion polls, and the turnout for the rally in Manchester, no.

So can you frack responsibly?

The recent report Are we fit to frack? by the National Trust, RSPB and other wildlife groups set out a list of ten recommendations ranging from better regulation to frack free zones. The report is quite clear this is not what we have at the moment.

Indeed, Freedom of Information requests from the Environment Agency about what they have been doing at Barton Moss show how far away from this ideal the reality is. Agency staff have been checking workers have been wearing their hard hats and all the paperwork is in order, but there has been no measurement of baseline methane contamination in the water table or anything else in the way of measuring the current state of the environment, let alone the effect of the drilling.

With the EA facing more cuts it is also questionable whether even this cursory level of supervision could be maintained when there are multiple fracking sites in the country.

What's more there are reasons to be extremely cynical about the appetite for better regulation. Cameron and Browne may talk the talk, but they are not backing it up with actions. We know they all meet up in secret to plan how to deal with the likes of us, and whilst we can't be a fly on the wall of those discussions, we can see what emerges.

Indeed, the drive for 'world class regulation' appears to be going in reverse, with lobbying from the UK resulting in the EU opting out of regulations that would apply to conventional wells and leaving it up to national governments.

Then there is the particularly tricky issue of whether or not you can actually regulate an industry like fracking. Regulation can stop companies dumping their waste water in the canal, and can reduce the risk of some idiot spilling his load where he should, but fracking is intrinsically dangerous, especially in a place like England.

Stopping well linings from cracking is ultimately not about law, but engineering. A report for the European Commission noted that whilst good practice could reduce the risks, we don't yet know how well casing will wear in the long term. It also points out the effects of geology.

We are not the USA for lots of different reasons. Here the rock beneath our feet is heavily faulted, which is a problem. So far only one well in the UK has actually been fracked - the one near Blackpool that caused the earth tremor. The quake certainly worried people, but the earth moving for you may not be the main problem when you frack. Faults mean there is a path that fracking fluid can use to get from where it was put to where we don't want it to be. Already Chevron, no wimps when it comes to trashing the environment, have pulled out of Poland on the grounds of "too complex" geology.

So even with the best will, and the best regulations, in the world, fracking may not be safe. And we clearly have neither at the moment.

Opposition to unconventional gas started with concerns about Climate Change, and they are not going to go away, but neither are the risks to the local environment from this unwanted and unnecessary fossil fuel.

So who wants a wind turbine instead?

No comments: