A Fracking Bad Move: The False Economics of Hydraulic Fracturing in Northern England

How fracking could have a ruinous affect on Northern England’s economy

“If we ruin the Earth, there is no place else to go. This is not a disposable world, and we are not yet able to engineer other planets. The coolest desert on Earth is far more hospitable than any place on Mars. The bright sandy surface and dusty atmosphere of Mars reflect enough sunlight back to space to cool the planet, freezing out all its water, locking it in a perpetual Ice Age. Human activity is blighting our landscape and our atmosphere, like this ultimately like an Ice Age here.

“At the same time, we are releasing vast quantities of carbon dioxide, increasing the Greenhouse Effect. The Earth need not resemble Venus very closely, for it to become barren and lifeless. It may not take much to destabilise the Earth’s climate, to convert this Heaven – our only home in the cosmos – into a kind of Hell”.

Professor Carl Sagan, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980)

The North of England is an already deprived part of the world apart from some pockets of affluence in Greater Manchester, rural parts of Lancashire and Cheshire and North Yorkshire. It has seen its fair share of job losses, been at the sharpest end of the government’s public sector cuts, and in many cases, not seeing the fruits of Britain’s recovery.

Northern England’s economy was built on carbon intensive industries such as coal and steel, as well as textiles and shipbuilding. With the recent concern over environmental issues, it would have been the done thing to focus on windmills, solar panels and tidal energy. Among the North’s post-industrial economic drivers is tourism, particularly its National Parks, seashores and historical attractions. Millions flock to see the beauty of the North Yorkshire Moors, the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales. Plus historical houses from Castle Howard to Speke Hall. Its moors and hillside landscapes make for good walking territory.

All of the above could be under threat, in the space of two to three years if the government gets its own way. You could say they might be reversing the Right To Roam act, or charging people to sunbathe in Scarborough. They are doing neither, though the former could see less Access Land available.

The cause of this? Fracking. Fossil fuel’s last stand. A last throw of the dice for non-renewable energy sources.

Why is Fracking (or Hydraulic Fracking) so controversial on these shores? Firstly, the technology is unproven, apart from a few test drills which resulted in earthquakes on the Fylde Coast. For many people, this was the first time they could recall a man-made earthquake in the United Kingdom. Secondly, unlike the USA, the UK is smaller and more densely populated. Thirdly, the industrialisation of our countryside: our moors and valleys pockmarked by energy inefficient wells.

In the North, it is being seen as a panacea for economic growth. Much of the pro-fracking propaganda has consider hydraulic fracturing as a chance to turn The North into the new Texas. All in the hope that a few J.R. Ewings would be seen flashing the cash in Singleton’s finest hostelries.

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How Fracking Works

The Fracking Process. Source: Wiklmedia Commons
How Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking) works. Source: Wikimedia Commons
  1. Fracking demands thousands upon thousands of gallons of water per well. Supposing we use Barton Moss as an example, that’s 200 trucks along the M62 per well!
  2. Fracturing fluid (a mix of water, sand and chemicals) is pumped into the well.
  3. With the well injected, intense pressure causes the rock surrounding the pipe to crack. Natural gas flows from fissures into the well.
  4. The fracturing fluid is pumped into Flowback ponds, with a gas range from 15 – 20% to 30 – 70%.
  5. The used fracturing fluid is sent to a wastewater treatment and waste disposal plant. Sometimes it can be recycled, though this process is often time consuming and expensive. Whatever happens, another 200 lorries (per well) along the M62 from Barton Moss.

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Fracking and Northern England

So, why on Earth is hydraulic fracturing a Northern English issue?

Underneath most of Northern England is a wealth of shale gas deposits. Most of Northern England is available for licensing, and a great proportion of this includes the Lancashire Coalfield which covers Tameside and Oldham. Only yesterday, shale gas prospectors have been given carte blanche to make test drills. Suffice to say, the announcement was made whilst most of us had jetted off to Spain, Greece or Turkey.

The North of England has suffered from subsidence from extractive industries. In Lancashire and Yorkshire, the coalfields: in Cheshire, salt mining. Our often tops the tables for respiratory illnesses, heart disease and premature death rates. Besides being work related, other factors include air pollution from heavy road traffic. Northern England needs fracking as much as I need a frontal lobotomy.

Twenty Reasons Why Northern England should resist fracking

1. Reliance on produced water

Specially treated water with a heavy cocktail of benzene, touluene, ethyl-benzene and heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury, is used to get methane out of coal seams. Groundwater, which traps the methane must be continually pumped out.

2. Release of contaminated water

As millions of produced water needs to be disposed of, our rivers and canals could be contaminated with toxic materials. All the good work done by the Mersey Basin Trust and the Huddersfield Canal Society could be undone for financial gain.

3. Lowered water tables

Imagine the River Tame in Stalybridge resembling Early Bank Road, or any unmade country road one cares to mention. The lowering of the water table, caused by continuous removal of water from coal seams will lower natural water flows.

4. Air pollution and flaring

The North of England already has its fair share of air pollution from incumbent heavy industries and its roads. Fracking adds to the caustic cocktail with methane, hydrogen sulphide, nitrogen oxides and other aromatic hydrocarbons from each site. Flaring (already seen at Stanlow, Cheshire and Wilton, Cleveland) burns off unwanted gases, causing more noise and light pollution.

5. Methane migration into aquifers

Though much of Northern England’s water supply comes from ground level reservoirs, the Coal Bed Methane process could lead to inflammable drinking. Particularly so in parts of Lincolnshire where water towers are present. Over a 20 year period, methane is 100 times than carbon dioxide.

6. Leaking wells

It has been said that 6% of wells leak on impact, with 1 in 2 leaking within 15 years. In the longer term, this makes for a ticking time bomb under our houses, public buildings and industrial premises. With the UK’s more complex geology, the leakage rate could be higher.

7. Sites and enclosure

Fracking sites could see ramblers at the receiving end of a mass trespass in reverse. Fracking wells will undermine Right to Roam legislation, see your land back in the hands of greedy landowners, ruin rights of way, and the natural beauty of the area. Imagine Laddow Rocks being obliterated by floodlights and wells; imagine Crowden’s campers having their peaceful night’s sleep disrupted by lorries, floodlighting and busier approach roads. Ultimately, a fracking site will create the same amount of ruination amassed by several years of deep level coal mining, with the subsidence problems and earthquakes to follow.

8. Dangerous work environments

With the J.R. Ewing myth perpetuated, the number of jobs created and the cost to benefit ratio is negligible. Work is often short term, unskilled and in high risk areas/occupations (not least the scope for prospectors to consider Workfare placement candidates over paid staff – or Zero Hour Frackers). Furthermore, the high incidence of silicosis (lung disease) is the last thing Northern England needs. Not least the burden on our NHS further to existing cases of respiratory diseases.

9. Pipelines, compressor stations and flaring

Pipelines for transferring waste and gas poses additional dangers for explosions. They will scar our landscapes and disrupt habitats. Our moorlands and hills could be pockmarked by several wells – so much so that you will be yearning for the windmills or the solar panels.

10. Industrialised countryside

The rural idyll you once enjoyed in your formative years could be urbanised. Wildlife corridors and livestock could be disrupted, biodiversity will be compromised. The distribution of toxic compounds will add to the impact.

11. Corporate profits given greater preference over community needs

The presence of a gas field will result in falling house prices, depopulation, and public services being decimated. Northern England has suffered from more than its fair share of cutbacks. More money being hoovered up from the public to the prospectors could see more modern day Category D Villages.

12. Damage to existing industries

The post-industrial North is dependent on tourism and service industries. The lowering of groundwater could see a loss of livestock in the UK’s dairy county [Cheshire], pushing up locally sourced food and drink prices. Real ale, brewed using well water may be similarly tainted. Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty tainted by nearby gas fields could lose footfall, as would historical attractions, local shops and art galleries. Residents may dread a quick trip to the shops for fear of breathing in carcinogenic fumes.

13. Continued dependence on coal extraction

Fracking will increase our use of coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels. There will be greater use of open cast mining, scarring our landscape for years to come. Though 70% of the UK’s coal deposits is un-mineable, de-watered and de-gassed coal seams could allow for extraction by other means.

14. Human and animal health impacts

The already miserable health prospects of northern people, caused by inequality of opportunity will be exacerbated. Where fracking has taken place in Texas, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Queensland, there has been more headaches and breathing difficulties thanks to neurological impairments and cancers. Crops have been destroyed in Alberta, North Dakota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and California.

15. Boom and bust

Short term wealth, closely followed by a long term bust once the drilling is over. The scars of which will last for decades, with Northern English citizens living in fear of earthquakes, subsidence and malnutrition.

16. More congestion

Denton Island and the Woodhead Pass is already busy enough. Fracking would see even slower journey times thanks to the flotilla of plant machinery, tankers and trucks to each site.

17. Road damage, subsidence and earthquakes

More road damage would also increase congestion. That, coupled with increased subsidence and earthquakes would reduce productivity. Not only that, Greater Manchester’s Metrolink system could be subject to even more engineering works thanks to tremors damaging parts of the network.

18. Permanent negative equity

Fracking would not only take a hit on homeowners, it would also affect the rateable value of retail and commercial businesses, reducing the amount of monies available to local authorities. This in turn could damage our public services. Homeowners will be unable to remortgage, sell, insure or add a conservatory.

19. Fracking continues our fixation with dirty fuels

In the UK, there hasn’t been a coherent integrated energy policy since the late 1970s. We have had the Dash For Gas, and an era of nuclear energy being ‘too cheap to meter’. Fracking offers a very short term energy fix with long term repercussions. The focus should be switched towards renewable sources, more energy efficient housing estates whether existing or new-build, energy efficient white goods.

20. Climate change

Hydraulic fracturing fails to address the issue of alternative fuels to the present mix of oil, gas and coal energy source. Instead, it is being used as another energy extraction – all to the cost of our atmosphere, causing drought, premature deaths and starvation.

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Conclusion

First and foremost, the plan to permit hydraulic fracturing throughout the UK is all about profit. Not one jot of environmental thought nor regard for the citizen’s wellbeing is taken into account. Instead, Her Majesty’s Government has given prospectors carte blanche to grope around our shale reserves.

Imagine the possible doomsday scenarios:

  • Your home town is ravaged by an earthquake and you try to apply for compensation? No chance;
  • You wish to refer yourself to your nearest surgery for a respiratory illness? The waiting list could be weeks or months;
  • You try to apply for health insurance because either: 1) the waiting list is hideous; or that: 2) the National Health Service is no longer free at the point of delivery? No chance;
  • You wish to move to a country that jails instead of rewards its bankers and sell your house: absolutely no chance;
  • You need to nip to the local shop for some milk: gas masks at the ready;
  • You need to brush your teeth and your locality happens to use aquifers instead of reservoirs: no chance – unless you nip to the shop for some bottled water.

The effects detailed above are not only environmental, but also societal. Our already beautiful scenery could be undermined, as would the way we go about our daily business. Making a cup of tea or getting ready for work could be greatly affected; our milk could be tainted unless imported. Our allotments could be ravaged by air pollution.

Our government’s determination to get rid of the ‘green crap’ brazenly disregards our public health and opinion of all its citizens. Especially those where large shale gas deposits can be sought. In the words of the late great Professor Carl Sagan, they are trying ‘to convert this Heaven – our only home in the cosmos – into a kind of Hell’. A Hell of birth defects, carcinogenic atmospheres, decimated public services and spiralling inequality.

It isn’t only the North of England which doesn’t need fracking, nor the rest of the United Kingdom. Spaceship Earth doesn’t need any more, though it is already happening in some parts of mainland Europe as well as America and Australasia!

It is unnecessary. It is dangerous. At this moment in time, in the United Kingdom, with our present government, dangerous several times over.

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References:

  • Earthworks Action: Hydraulic Fracturing 101;
  • Friends of the Earth: UK Fracking Map;
  • Frack Off: Twenty Impacts of Coal Bed Methane;
  • Cosmos: A Personal Voyage: Professor Carl Sagan, introductory quote (episode four: ‘Heaven and Hell’.

S.V., 29 July 2014.

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