Fracking is just a symptom of a much wider problem. As easier to extract energy resources are exhausted by the unsustainable energy consumption of the present system, we are resorting to ever more extreme methods of energy extraction. Over the last century the exploitation of fossil fuels has moved from tunnel mining for coal and drilling shallow oil wells to tearing apart whole mountains and drilling in a mile or more deep of ocean.
As existing energy resources deplete the default response has just been to try harder; dig or drill deeper; go after lower quality resources or move on to more remote locations. This increasing effort has consequences: increasing pollution, more dangerous working conditions, greater greenhouse gas emissions, more land use and less resources available to other sectors of society.
At present we are on a course which leads towards a world dominated by energy extraction, one where most of the energy produced is used to run the extraction processes while people live and die in its toxic shadow. The present system’s addiction to massive amounts of energy is driving this headlong rush towards oblivion and unless something is done to stop it we will all be dragged down into hell with it.
The UK unconventional gas (and to a lesser extent oil) extraction is the main new threat, in the form of three different processes; Shale Gas, Coal Bed Methane (CBM) and Underground Coal Gasification (UCG). While there are a lot of differing technical details these processes all involve drilling large numbers of directional wells at regular intervals, coating the landscape.
The scale of these new more intense methods are like nothing we have seen before. Up until now the largest onshore gas field in the UK, Saltfleetby in Lincolnshire, had only 8 wells. To produce the same amount of unconventional gas would require hundreds of wells to be drilled. To temporarily replace just one offshore North Sea gas field would require thousands of unconventional wells.
As well as requiring many more wells these methods also involve much more. Shale Gas and Oil require massive, slickwater hydraulic fracturing, to be carried out on every well. Millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are injected under massive pressure. CBM wells are also often fracked. UCG which involves setting fire to coal seams underground is even more extreme.
These unconventional wells also have much shorter lifespans, with production from a typical shale well declining by 70 to 80 percent in the first year alone. This means that large numbers of new wells need to be constantly drilled to maintain production, even for short periods. In many areas of the US unconventional gas is already peaking after less than a decade of exploitation.
Impacts of Unconventional Gas (and Oil)
For all these processes water contamination is a major issue. All wells will eventually leak, as steel casings rust and cement rots, and unconventional gas (and oil) means many, many more wells. Contamination of groundwater has been a consistent feature of unconventional gas extraction, in the US, Canada and Australia.
The amount of water used in these processes and the amount of waste produced are also major issues. In Colorado farmers are losing access to water as fracking companies buy up supplies. Meanwhile the vast streams of toxic and radioactive waste are a nightmare to dispose of, and attempts to get rid of this waste by injecting it into the ground are causing large numbers of earthquakes.
Air pollution is also an under appreciated threat from unconventional gas. In previously pristine wilderness areas of the US ozone levels now routinely exceed those in the centre of Los Angeles, while leaking toxic and carcinogenic hydrocarbon vapours are also common. Such pollution can be blown hundreds of miles from its source. Breathing difficulties are common complaints for those living in the shadow of these industries.
While targeted health studies of the effects of these developments have just not been done, what evidence there is shows major impacts. Cancer clusters, neurological and reproductive problems in humans and animals have all been reported and should be expected given the chemicals that are being emitted. In the vicinity of unconventional gas extraction communities are getting sick and the response has been make people prove that the industry is the cause, or shut up.
At a global level, there are already far more conventional fossil fuel reserves than we can afford to burn without causing catastrophic climate change. As with all unconventional fossil fuels unconventional gas (and oil) simply adds to this store of unburnable carbon. Widespread exploitation of unconventional fossil fuels could produce enough carbon dioxide to make the planet literally uninhabitable.
In the shorter term methane emissions from these processes amplify the effects of the carbon dioxide emitted. Studies have shown that Shale Gas and CBM are worse than burning coal in the short term, and it is the short term that matters when considering potential tipping points in the climate system like melting arctic permafrost and the fate of the Amazon rainforest. UCG is even worse, with its direct carbon emission far higher than from the conventional exploitation of coal. More…
What can be done?
While all this may seem very bleak, there are rays of hope within this dark cloud. Unconventional fossil fuels are much more dispersed than conventional ones, meaning that in order to get them many more communities are affected but must at least passively consent to their extraction. If these communities get organised to resist this invasion then it can be stopped. This is already happening is many places across the globe (for instance in Australia) but everyone need to do their bit if this juggernaut is to be stopped.
Want to get organised? Want to take action? Get stuck in…
Fracking company Celtique Energie has two applications to drill in and around the South Downs National Park Fortunately the local community have won this battle in keeping their locality frack-free as the local council turned down a shale gas exploration bid as reported by the Guardian:
An application by a shale company to explore for oil and gas in a picturesque part of West Sussex has been turned down.
West Sussex County Council’s planning committee refused the application by Celtique Energy for oil and gas exploration near Wisborough Green, a conservation area just outside the South Downs National Park.
The refusal, thought to be the first time a council has rejected a planning application by a shale company, was welcomed by local campaigners and environmentalists who feared that the exploration would lead to controversial fracking for oil or gas.
The county council said it turned down the application because Celtique did not demonstrate the site represented the best option compared with other sites, it had unsafe highways access and would have had an adverse impact on the area.
Heidi Brunsdon, chairman of the council’s planning committee, said: “There were simply too many highways issues and other issues of concern for any decision other than refusal in this instance. We have noted the objections of the local community and I felt that the debate today was a full and robust one.”(1)
Under UK law companies required landowners permission before exploring however under new measures imposed by the government companies now have free-reign to explore without the express will of the landowners. The Guardian states:
The government faces widespread opposition to plans to change trespass laws to allow shale gas companies to drill under homes without the owner’s permission, a poll has revealed.
The YouGov survey of 1,898 people found that 74% opposed the controversial move, which ministers are thought to be considering as part of efforts to drive a “shale gas revolution” that could see fracking across swathes of the UK.
More than 45,000 people around the country have joined legal moves to block energy companies from fracking under their properties, but a change to the trespass laws could allow companies to explore for shale gas without needing their permission.
The survey found that 73% of Conservative voters and 70% of Liberal Democrat supporters did not agree with changing the law to make it easier to drill under people’s homes.
The poll carried out for Greenpeace also revealed 80% of Labour voters and 77% of those planning to vote Ukip opposed the move.(2)
A New Statesman article entitled ‘Get the frack off my land’ states;
The government gave fracking companies the green light in the Queen’s speech this week, crucially removing the requirement for firms to gain permission from home-owners to drill under their land.
Although ministers claimed a final decision would depend on the outcome of a recently-launched public consultation, they signalled their firm intention to smooth the path for firms to exploit Britain’s shale gas reserve.
Much has been made of this permission waiver, which was first floated by the government in January, and which is likely to be included in an Infrastructure Bill during this Parliament.
The trespass exemption for fracking firms sits uncomfortably with most people’s intuitive interpretation of land ownership, but also their legal understanding of the matter too.
After all, the most common definition of land rights and a central principle of property law, states: “cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos”.
Or, for non-Latinists, this translates roughly* as: “he who owns soil does so up to the heavens and down to the centre of the earth”.
Well, up to a point. Admittedly, the legal principle, which entered common law during the reign of Edward I, is still accepted in limited form today in modern law.
But there are many exceptions, including airspace, water, trees, plants and flowers, wild animals, and, crucially, mines and minerals.
So the implication, frequently appealed to in the current furore over fracking, that horizontal drilling under a private owner’s land is a unique exception to, or transgression against, the owner’s legal land rights is misleading.
That said, it is true that up until now, current laws of trespass have required fracking firms to gain permission from land owners to drill under their land. Drilling can extend up to 3km horizontally underground from a central well pad.
This has held true for all historical landward oil and gas exploration in the UK. Companies seeking conventional energy sources on land require a license from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, which grants exclusive rights to explore for and exploit onshore oil and gas.
The license has never included any rights of access, however, nor does it waive the need for the company to gain planning permission and any other consent needed under current legislation.
Further complications arise if a company wants to drill through a coal seam in search of gas – they need the permission of the Coal Authority, which has been the rights holder of all British coal since the valuable sedimentary rock was nationalised in 1994.
Which brings us to the other question of ownership of minerals in the UK. Firstly, to define minerals. According to the Town and Country Planning legislation, minerals are “all substances in or under land of a kind ordinarily worked for removal by underground or surface working, except that it does not include peat cut for purposes other than for sale.”
Essentially, a home- or land-owner holds the rights (which should be registered in the Land Registry along with details of surface land rights) to all the minerals in their land, with the important exceptions of gold, silver, coal, oil and gas.
Land-owners would still require planning permission, however, from a mineral planning authority to extract any of these minerals that they technically own from their land.
As for the ownership of oil and gas, the Petroleum (Production) Act 1934 granted all onshore rights to the Crown. A different act presides over rights in the UK Continental Shelf outside UK territorial waters, but again these are vested in the Crown.
So, the fact that the state owns any shale gas that might under your land is not out of keeping with rights to conventional fuels. And while the proposed reform of trespass laws charts new territory for land-owners’ legal rights, there are many other exemptions to these rights as they stand.
The nub of it is that fracking firms can already drill under your land without your permission. The new legislation will only make the process easier.
As Energy Minister Michael Fallon pointed out this week: “At the moment, a developer can apply to the courts for permission to drill a horizontal pipe a mile down underneath your house and needs to go to the Secretary of State to get that permission. We’ve got a solution that we think simplifies that.”(3)