The lowdown on fracking

Visitors to Goodwood’s summer racing and motorsport festivals cannot have missed the blizzard of ‘frack off’ posters on the A286 Fernhurst-Chichester road. This was no mere gesture towards Balcombe, now the most famous place in England, let alone West Sussex, as the antifracking protest there enters a third, headlining week. Fracking is coming to a picture-postcard village near you, according to a map produced by the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) (below) of sites already licensed or under review for oil and shale-gas exploration. Fernhurst, near Balcombe, is next on the list, and planning applications are either expected or due for renewal in the next few weeks at Rhondda Cynon Taf in South Wales, Westby, Weeton and Singleton (Lancashire), and Long Eaton (Nottinghamshire). Scotland faces multiple proposals for coal-bed methane, the lesser-known sibling of shale gas.

The speed with which the Government has flipped its attention from renewables back to fossil fuels, when knowledge is still in the embryo stage, alarms campaigners as much as the potential blot on the landscape or fears that water will be contaminated with carcinogens. ‘With a lack of information that anyone trusts, you can only go on what has happened in the USA- contamination, tremors and road accidents involving lorries carrying pollutants,’ explains campaigner Marcus Adams of Frack Free Fernhurst.

He hopes an imminent planning application will be rejected by the South Downs National Park Authority; the Fernhurst rig would be visible from Blackdown Hill, which inspired Lord Tennyson. Mr Adams, who has high profile support from the South Downs Society and the area’s biggest landowner, Lord Cowdray, says cheaper utility bills and a promised community payment of £100,000 can’t compensate for a possible 20% drop in property values in a desirable village. Hamptons International reports that a local sale has already fallen through because of fracking. The process also uses copious amounts of water-about 40,000 gallons per frack, with added lead, ethylene glycol, methanol, hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde. In 2011, the CPRE cautioned the DECC shale-gas inquiry that six reservoirs were already needed in the South to meet domestic demand. Some observers claim that rigs are necessary every couple of miles to be viable.

Since early 2010, NoFiBS (the No Fracking in Balcombe Society) has fought Simon Greenwood, who is a cousin of Lord Cowdray, but apparently doesn’t share his views. Mr Greenwood leased land on his Balcombe estate to Cuadrilla, operators of the Lancashire site where drilling was suspended for 18 months after being blamed for tremors. A different corporation abandoned exploratory drilling in Balcombe in 1986, using earlier technologies. Local objectors are now outnumbered by visitors and ‘professional’ protestors. NoFiBS coordinator Kathryn McWhirter admits to feeling uneasy about joining the media spotlight beside full-time eco-warriors and a daily complement of 40 policemen. She says: ‘Most villagers aren’t keen to take a midsummer holiday in a police cell, but this isn’t just a Sussex issue-it’s an international one.’

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She’s received letters of support from Sardinia and Colombia, but remains sad about the attrition on her doorstep. ‘Balcombe is a very conservative and Conservative-voting village. The majority of residents are against the presence of the oil and gas industry, but others don’t like people who make a fuss. Those who work for or live in the many tied houses on the Balcombe estate are, naturally, reluctant to comment.’

Local government is mounting a rearguard action to restore public confidence. Planning consent for drilling at Balcombe was granted by West Sussex County Council in April 2010 without an open committee debate because it said there were no objections-Miss McWhirter claims there was no publicity about the planning application until after it was approved. Public opinion has now ensured that any recent amendments, including raising the rig-height by 10m (about 33ft), will go to committee in October. The CPRE has criticised the Government’s cursory planning guidance. A recent ministerial statement candidly referred to measures to accelerate shale-gas development, which suggests that local councils may have an even lesser role.

Greenpeace has highlighted potential conflicts of interest, saying that 38 MPs in the South own land and 13 Cabinet Ministers represent constituencies with oil and gas licences. Shale-gas corporations don’t always seem to bother with courting public trust: last week, American campaigners asked what exactly frackers have to hide when a Pennsylvania farmer received $750,000 compensation- on condition that his young children are ‘gagged’ for life from discussing fracking. Rodney Jago, who’s retired and lives in Balcombe, is in favour of the exploration. He says there is indifference rather than opposition in the village: ‘People remember there were no problems when they drilled here years ago.’

However, Mr Jago believes authoritative information on energy costs, security, safety and environmental impact is ‘sorely needed’. He points out: ‘Although 4.5 million households suffer fuel poverty, “Nimbys” are encouraging professional protesters to halt exploratory drilling, which isn’t even fracking. Those of us attempting to reason with rabid environmentalists get no support from either Government or the industry. If Ministers lose votes to the Green Party, they have only themselves to blame. We may find fracking isn’t viable, but we should all hope it is, because the alternative is coal-fired power stations, which are far more damaging.’ The Prime Minister may think that the public will support fracking once the benefits are explained, but will we?

Facts about fracking: what we do know

* Hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ involves drilling up to two miles down into the earth and injecting fluid to fracture shale rocks up to a mile in radius, releasing natural gas

* UK shale gas could be in domestic use by 2016, according to Cuadrilla’s chief executive, Francis Egan

* There are significant reserves in the north Peak District, Lancashire, Yorkshire (including the Dales National Park), Lincolnshire and from the north of London into Hampshire, Sussex, and Kent

* 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas-70 years’ UK domestic use-is estimated in the Bowland Shale area beneath Lancashire and Yorkshire, the world’s largest shale-gas field, alone

* In the USA, shale gas produces 23% of natural gas, predicted to be 49% by 2035; about 35 new rigs are erected daily

* Initial rigs average 30m (nearly 100ft) in height

* 5% of wells leak immediately and 60% will fail over the next 30 years, according to the industry’s own figures

* There are 1,000 documented cases of water contamination in the USA

* Fracking is banned in France, Switzerland, Austria, Romania and Bulgaria and either banned or suspended in the American states of New York, Maryland and Vermont

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