Anti-fracking lobby point to lessons of the US nightmare as drilling begins in Balcombe (From The Argus)
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Anti-fracking lobby point to lessons of the US nightmare as drilling begins in Balcombe
When fracking came to Hanover, Pennsylvania, the synthetic mud, used in the drilling process, came unnervingly close to the town.
Between 3,000 and 6,000 gallons of it erupted to the surface.
Some of it reached the nearby stream – prompting the US Government to accuse the energy company of violating the Clean Water Act.
On July 22, the Pennsylvania Record reported that a settlement had been reached in the case and XTO Energy was forced to pay a civil penalty of $100,000 to the federal government and spend an estimated $20 million on a comprehensive plan to improve wastewater management practices.
The mud, which included chlorides and barium, overflowed into the nearby Susquehanna River basin.
In the same state, 10m flares emanating from a fracking site had been mistaken for everything from forest fires to gas well explosions and even alien spacecraft.
The site in Washington County threw up flames described as huge Roman candles high atop the horizon of mostly rural landscapes – which could be seen from as far as 10 miles away.
A reported gas lead from a site in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania caused nearby homes to shake and two further incidents in Washington County left cattle dead and water contaminated.
Further south in Pavillion, Wyoming, Environmental Protection Agency officials in urged residents not to use private well water for drinking or cooking because of chemical contamination in September 2010.
Tests found 17 of 19 wells tested contained petroleum hydrocarbons as well as naphthalene, phenols and benzene.
The tales from America prompted fear when the process was suggested in Australia.
The director of the Conservation Council of Western Australia, Piers Verstegen, claimed gas fracking cannot occur without causing “massive and irreversible environmental damage”.
Mr Verstegen said it has devastated large areas and poisoned communities in the United States. He said: “Recently I had an opportunity to visit shale gas fracking areas in the USA and I was horrified.
“I met sick families who could not move off their land.
I saw gas bubbling out of natural groundwater springs that could be set alight.
“I was told stories of sick and dying livestock. I met regulators who were turning a blind eye and I saw the gas industry’s armed security guards preventing farmers access to their own land. After seeing this I vowed I would do whatever I could to stop this happening in Western Australia, I have no doubt that gas fracking is one of the most serious environmental challenges facing Western Australia.”
Protesters there used Lock the Gate to keep energy companies away – encouraging landholders all over the nation to lock their gates to coal seam gas and coal mining by simply putting a sign on their gates stating their position.
Taking inspiration from their actions, in Balcombe protesters, seasoned activists and furious local residents have spent a week trying to stop lorries accessing a drilling site.
The business behind the tests in Sussex, Cuadrilla, was also the company in charge of test drilling for fracking in Blackpool – which is believed to have caused an earthquake.
A report commissioned by the energy firm revealed it was “highly probable” the shale gas drilling triggered the tremors in Lancashire.
Given the bad publicity surrounding the issue, Balcombe residents and protesters at the site feel worried about what the sleepy village could become.
Despite their efforts to stop the rig getting to the drill site – blocking the entrance with tree stumps, a fire truck yesterday and human barricades – protesters have resigned themselves to the fact that exploratory drilling is imminent, but will change tack when that day arrives.
The protest camp has been set up since last Thursday, resulting in 25 arrests and a number of elaborate demonstrations including two campaigners – daughter of The Kinks’ Ray Davies and The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, Natalie, and boyfriend and renowned protester Simon ‘Sitting Bull’ Medhurst - supergluing themselves to the site gate.
David Lee, 28, who has been leading meetings with protesters, said: “When the drilling starts, you’ll hear it – we’re only about 100 yards from the drill. There’s a drill strategy here and there’s obviously been an element of obstruction and there was direct action, but that’s not all of it.
“There has been a massive media spectacle created around this protest, so I think what’s coming across slowly is that the tone of the debate is changing.
“Whereas once the media was very reluctant to concede that there were fundamental issues with this process, despite there being lots of evidence out there proving this is extremely dangerous, now because of this protest, things are changing.
“Some of our protests have been quite aggressive and quite upsetting for people, and I guess what we’re trying to get across is that we are not the enemy here.”
High profile support
BIANCA Jagger, who visited the site in support of protesters, said: “I support the residents of Balcombe not just in my capacity as a founder and chair of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation and a committed environmentalist, but also because I love this country and would be devastated to witness the industrialisation of our beautiful countryside.
“As a mother and a grandmother I am deeply concerned about the serious impact that fracking will have on our environment, the contamination and misuse of our water sources, air safety and way of life.
“There is plenty of disturbing scientific evidence available about the contamination of local water supplies.
“We know that fracking can cause methane leaks from inadequately encased wellbores leading to the contamination of groundwater sources and aquifers.
“Hydraulic fracturing is not a panacea as the proponents of fracking are trying to make us believe.
“Their claims that fracking is going to be good for the country, achieve energy independence, create jobs, and bring down the price of fossil fuels are false.
“In April 2011 George Osborne’s plan to deliver cheap energy to the country was dealt a severe blow when an important cross-party group of experts chaired by former energy minister Charles Hendry, released a nine-month inquiry report which stated that any boom in shale gas production would be ‘unlikely to give the UK cheap gas’.”
View from Balcombe
KATHRYN McWhirter, village resident and member of the No Fracking in Balcombe Society (NoFiBS) said: “We thank those who have come from outside the village to help defend our countryside, our air and water quality, and our right to a peaceful existence.
“We stand united with friends similarly besieged elsewhere in the country, especially in the North West, on that other front line of the fracking fight.
“We in Balcombe feel bullied. Bullied by the oil and gas industry. Bullied by our government.
“We stand strong in the fight against this dangerous and misguided government policy.”
Louisa Delpy, Balcombe mother, added: “Villagers have been at the site in the last few days and have supported the protesters with gifts of food and other practical items.
“We are not all able to lie in front of the lorries but we are inspired by these selfless people helping us fight off fracking."
View from Pittsburgh
ANYA Litvak, energy reporter at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, said: “I have been covering these stories since 2008.
“Over the years I have written a lot of business stories about companies moving their headquarters into the area, which have regularly been met by local protest groups.
“Depending on who owns the rights to the land, you might get a situation where two opposing groups get embroiled in disputes.
“I’ve reported on neighbours disputing with each other because they don’t feel they got a fair share as well as neighbours that are not happy with the state of their land after the drilling was done.
“It has caused environmental damage in some cases.
“There was fracking in Dimock, Pennsylvania, and the well that was constructed leaked gas into the ground and a house exploded as a result.
“Not everything is done perfectly and problems arise when it happens in people’s back yards.
“There have been lots of cases that have impacted communities and there is a strong local protest movement here, but on the whole, the government and the state support it because it is seen as an economic force.
“The question of ‘should residents be worried’ is asked over here too and the response is that if it’s going to be causing stress and worry to the residents it should be the company that consults with them to dispel these fears before work gets underway.”
GEERT Decock, policy officer for Food and Water Europe, which works to protect local food and water from corporate control, said: “The protesters in Balcombe are doing the right thing in my opinion.
“When these companies say they are only going to be there for a few weeks, it’s very rarely the case.
“If the exploratory drilling is successful, it could lead to thousands of wells being drilled in the countryside of Sussex.
“There is no such thing as small-scale shale gas drilling. For example, in the US there’s an estimated 2 million miles of pipeline that goes with it so it’s not just the drilling.
“You’re left with all these pipelines that rarely get inspected and in San Francisco it led to a massive explosion.
Although these incidents are rare, they do happen.
“It’s not a case of offshore drilling where you see all the benefits but don’t have to deal with the environmental issues, this is going on right on your doorstep.
“I fear that the UK will see this as a goldrush to drop energy prices and balance the economy, but it’s not as simple as that.
“It will take the UK at least a decade to get up to speed with exploratory drilling.
“The reason prices dropped in the US was because of a recession and a major slump in the need for gas – this isn’t the case in the UK.
“If anything, it’ll make it more expensive.
“There is no legislation in place to deal with this sort of thing and I fear that the UK government is rushing this through.”
View from Cuadrilla
CUADRILLA chief executive Francis Egan said: “Cuadrilla is currently undertaking exploratory drilling to assess if oil is present at the site in Balcombe.
“It is Cuadrilla’s intention that if oil is indeed present and we can recover enough oil without hydraulically fracturing, then we will do that.
“If the oil cannot be recovered by conventional means then we will consider using the hydraulic fracturing technique.
“In order to do that Cuadrilla would need to come back with a separate planning application and a full consultation with the local community would be undertaken.
"At present approximately 95% of total UK energy supply comes from fossil fuels and nuclear.
“Whilst the share of renewables will undoubtedly continue to rise we are going to need gas and oil for many decades to come.
“We now know that there are huge quantities of shale gas and potentially of shale oil in the UK. These can only be recovered by fracturing.
“Provided this is done safely and sensibly in a regulated manner (which will happen in the UK) it makes economic and environmental sense to produce our own gas and oil and stop using coal and importing gas and oil."
HYDRAULIC fracturing, or “fracking”, is the process of injecting fluid into a wellbore at high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks to release gas or oil trapped inside.
Cuadrilla has not got permission to frack at the Balcombe site – but is drilling an exploratory borehole to take samples to examine.
A spokeswoman for the company said: “Cuadrilla has no intentions to hydraulically fracture this well as part of this exploration drilling activity.
“One of the objectives of the work is to test if oil production is feasible or commercially viable.”
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