Some years ago I watched the award winning documentary Gasland (2010), a film which focuses on communities in the United States affected by fracking. At the time I found it hard to believe that the gas companies had, and still were, getting away with such damage to the environment and people’s health. I also felt, sitting happily in my home in WA, that even though it was an environmental catastrophe, it was a long way away and I couldn’t do much about it.
In the UK at the end of 2012 the government lifted the restrictions on fracking. By 2013 fracking was to impose on my life in a more personal way. My ‘homeland’ North Yorkshire was about to be fracked – even under the National Parks and in designated areas of outstanding natural beauty! A concerned family member realised there was a total lack of awareness in the local community and saw the need to inform as exploratory licences to frack were being given out across the country. A small action group, Frack Free Ryedale was formed, as were other such groups across the UK.
Kirby Misperton Protection Camp was set up just before Christmas 2016 following North Yorkshire County Council’s decision to approve the application by Third Energy, against massive local opposition, to frack close to the village. Kirby Misperton became the ‘test case’ for the UK fracking industry. Peaceful protesters laydown in front of the gates, slow walked or surfed on lorries, and did whatever was within their power without getting arrested, although due to the massive police presence arrests were to become part of the protests. The hundreds of police far outnumbered the protestors on most occasions. On 3 October 2017, Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley visited the site and called it the “front line of the fight against fracking” in the UK. Last month, fracking permission was suspended at Kirby Misperton until Third Energy can prove its financial standing – a small, yet possibly temporary win.
So what is fracking?
Fracking is an intensive, industrial process for extracting methane gas, which is trapped inside shale and rock that lie hundreds of metres underground. The process requires a large number of drilling sites and this could mean thousands of well sites in a large area. The procedure is to drill down to the shale rock at a depth of about 300 metres and to then drill horizontally. To get the gas or oil out, the rock has to be fractured – this is known as ‘hydraulic fracturing’ or fracking for short. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals, is pumped down the well at very high pressure. This fractures the rock and, when the pressure is released, the gas or oil flows back up the well.
Depending on the stage of the fracking process different risks are involved. These include destruction of habitats and the contamination of drinking water due to spills, well leaks and drilling sludge stored on site, the depletion of freshwater supplies, leaks of volatile organic compounds, ozone and methane from well heads and machinery, toxic chemicals in the fracturing mixture, increased seismic activity, and contamination of both groundwater and surface water. In the longer term, there is also the threat to human health and the environment from prolonged exposure to contaminants and finally reduced property values close to the sites.
Fracking can be a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. When the methane gas is burnt, carbon dioxide results. In the fracking process there a fugitive emissions of methane itself, methane being a potent greenhouse gas – 86 times more so than carbon dioxide over a 20 year time scale.
Governments around the world have ignored the risk in favour of extracting more fossil fuel from the ground as supplies of conventional oil and gas are depleted. In some countries and states within countries, fracking has been banned, while in others the existing laws and governments, thirsty for new energy sources, have made it extremely difficult to stop the industry. Anti-fracking groups, normally run by volunteers with limited resources, are faced with governments lobbied by the powerful oil and gas industry, leaving the general public with scant information on the potential risks of what is happening on their doorstep, or as is the case in many places, including North Yorkshire, under their very own houses.
In Australia, fracking has been carried out mainly in Queensland and northern NSW where coal seam gas is tapped. This has spawned local protests lead by ‘Lock the Gate’. Fracking has however been banned in Victoria by the Labor state government. In WA, in September 2017 the incoming Labor Government banned fracking in the existing and future petroleum titles in WA’s southwest, Peel and Perth metropolitan regions, and placed a moratorium on the use of fracking throughout the rest of the state. The moratorium will last about a year while an enquiry into safety of the process is conducted, so the prospect of fracking is still on the horizon in WA. For more information on Fracking in Australia see:
Header photo: Scarecrows deployed to ward off frackers in North Yorkshire. Julie Scanlon
Text photos: Diagram of the fracking process and an advertising flyer for the community meetings around North Yorkshire, February 2018