Farming News - Water companies warn against shale gas fracking

Water companies warn against shale gas fracking

30 Jul 2014


Water companies have issued stark warnings over the government's plans to allow shale gas exploration across half of the UK mainland.


Devil's Dyke in the South Downs Natonal Park On Monday, the government opened the fourteenth licensing round, which will enable gas and oil companies to bid for exploration rights and drill for shale gas across vast areas of the British mainland.  


Although the Department for Energy and Climate Change has said that fracking will not go ahead in sensitive areas such as national parks and SSSIs, unless there are "exceptional circumstances [when this is] in the public interest," environment groups have said that this caveat and a number of "giant loopholes" mean that in reality these areas will be afforded little protection.


Opponents of fracking warn that the process (shooting a high pressure mix of water, sand and a proprietary chemical mix into shale rock formations below ground to blast them apart and release trapped gas) has serious implications for water and air pollution, public health and, in agricultural areas, soil quality.  


Water UK, which represents the country's major water companies, warned ahead of the new licensing round that shale gas extraction would pose a threat unless it is "carefully planned and carried out". The group also warned that the incredibly thirsty fracking process could aggravate water shortages in some areas, such as the South East, a sentiment that was echoed by NGOs and quangoes responding to the government's consultation on the latest round of licensing.  


Water UK's policy adviser Dr Jim Marshall last week told the BBC that water companies are demanding to be consulted before fracking becomes widespread in Britain. Marshall said water UK did not come down on either side of the fracking debate, but warned that cut corners and compromises in safety standards could leave the country "counting the cost for years to come."


It has also emerged that submissions to the government consultation on its plans to expand fracking across the country included objections from quangoes such as Natural England and Public Health England. The DECC noted that a "substantial majority" of groups consulted did not support its licensing plan, and expressed concerns over environmental or public health risks.


Speaking to Farming Online on Tuesday, Cathy Swingland, who runs a mixed farm in the South East, where Celtique Energie have proposed to frack within the South Downs National Park, expressed her concerns over the controversial extraction method, which she said "Represents the industrialisation of the rural landscape, which is not helpful if you’re producing food."


Cathy said, "We have free range poultry here, laying hens and turkeys, and we produce Sussex beef, as well as lamb and pork. We are a traditional mixed grassland farm with smaller fields, as is best suited to this area. I'm concerned about the unknown factors – the potential for pollution of ground and surface waters from accidents or spills. We have seen evidence of this from the United States and Australia. We need to look abroad and say that we don't want the problems we're seeing [in areas where fracking is widespread], and acknowledge that there are alternatives."


She continued, "There is a need to gather baseline data about water and air quality, human and animal health in these areas, so that if fracking does come here we can identify any changes. Even so, it is very wrong to place the burden of proof on individuals and local groups." She added that it should be down to the companies seeking to extract gas to demonstrate that their activities are relatively benign.


The Sussex farmer said that the looming threat of peak oil is now making unconventional fossil fuel extraction more necessary, and that "There are problems in that the easier-to-access, cheaper deposits have already been extracted and extraction of harder to reach gas is becoming more viable as peak oil nears. Proposed changes to our ancient Trespass law, taking away important rights as landowners, are being pushed through simply to help ease time and financial pressures on the exploiters. Not for our common infrastructure… but for shareholder profit."


"There needs to be long term liability for well pads and companies involved," said Cathy. "As farmers we are used to working to very long time frames – many farms have been in the same family for generations – the land is something that we care for, and it feeds us. The idea of simply exploiting it and then leaving is unthinkable to a farmer. This exploitation and industrialisation would be irresponsible, deeply sad and it must not happen."