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Fracking our countryside – it’s time for a moratorium

Extracting shale gas. Extracting shale gas. Graphic: © Shutterstock

Fracking (or hydraulic fracturing) refers to the method used to extract gas or oil from shale rock by injecting large volumes of water containing a number of additives. This includes sand and lubricating fluids into the rock under high pressure.

Shale gas or oil is trapped within impermeable shale rock, as opposed to conventional natural gas deposits such as those under the North Sea, which are trapped below impermeable rock. Therefore simply drilling down to it is not enough. The rock has to be fractured at high pressure or to get the gas or oil out.

Fracking techniques have for some years been used in the UK in conventional deposits, but mainly offshore. However, the Government is now backing a big push to extract gas and oil from the shale rock onshore to increase UK production of gas and oil. The Government says that this would reduce reliance on imports and generate economic benefits. The largest expanses of shale rock are situated in the countryside, and this is where the majority of economically viable sites are likely to be. Little exploratory drilling has occurred to date in the UK’s shale deposits and it is not yet known how much gas or oil will be commercially recoverable. The USA has been developing shale gas rapidly over the past 10 years now has several hundred thousand shale gas wells. Experience from the USA shows fracking can be a substantial environmental hazard. The robustness of the safeguards put in place through regulation of shale gas and oil development is critical if environmental harm is to be prevented.

Fracking involves drilling down to over 2km vertically, then laterally outwards for as much as 3km. The gap between the lining of the borehole that has been drilled and the surrounding rock is then sealed up with concrete. The well casing is perforated to allow fracking fluid to get into the rock, and gas to get out. Then, on a typical well, up to 10 million litres of water containing sand, lubricating fluids and other additives are pumped into the borehole under extremely high pressures. This opens up cracks in the shale for up to 50 metres. The cracks are kept open by the sand particles when the pressure is released, so the shale gas can escape. A well head is then installed to capture the released gas. The drilling and fracking equipment is then taken away.

Our view

We all have a role to play in making our energy system more sustainable. From reducing consumer energy demand, to greater energy efficiency measures from government. However, CPRE is clear that there are no easy solutions to determining our future energy mix. Given the grave threat posed by climate change to the future of the English countryside, we rapidly need to move away from fossil fuels towards low carbon energy.

The Government’s Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) process highlighted significant uncertainties associated with the impacts of shale gas. The impacts of shale oil are even more uncertain – the SEA did not adequately cover shale oil. We believe that the Government needs to do more to tighten the safeguards to adequately protect the countryside and climate, and reassure the public.

The Conservative Manifesto of 2017 pledged a radical shake up of the way applications for fracking are dealt with, potentially dealing a huge blow to communities hoping to have their say on local applications. The Manifesto also promised changes to the regulatory regime, with a commitment to a new environmental regulator. However, at this stage it is not clear if this amounts to anything more than a consolidation of existing regulations within the purview of one single government agency.

We also believe the shale gas and oil operators themselves need to do more to demonstrate that they are following the very best practice. We would like to see a more precautionary approach given the major uncertainties, and the potential cumulative impact on the landscape and climate change.

In June 2017, CPRE called for a moratorium on fracking unless it can be clearly demonstrated that fracking would:

  • help secure the radical reductions in carbon emissions required to comply with planning policy and meet legally binding climate change targets;
  • not lead to unacceptable cumulative harm, whether for particular landscapes or on the English countryside as a whole, and
  • be carefully controlled by effective systems of regulation and democratic planning, which are adequately resourced at both local and national levels.

This position is set out in more detail in CPRE’s Policy Guidance Note (PGN).

The Government argues that shale gas is consistent with the transition to a low carbon energy system, but this is only the case if it replaces a higher carbon energy source. An example of a relatively higher carbon option is coal power without measures to capture and store greenhouse gases, which are not yet available anyway. The carbon benefits of shale gas are not certain, but it is even more unclear how shale oil exploitation can fit with an overall reduction in carbon given that it is a relatively high carbon fuel.

A significant gap is due to open up between predicted emissions and the UK’s binding targets in the 2020s, which the Government’s Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP) is required to address. Pressure from the Treasury to reduce energy costs for businesses has led to the ERP being seriously delayed. It is becoming almost inconceivable that fracking would help rather than hinder the challenge of meeting these vital targets, hence the need for a moratorium until the ERP is published and can be independently assessed.

What can you do if you are concerned about fracking in your area?

The first point of call should be your local Minerals Planning Authority (MPA). This would be either your local County Council, Unitary Council or National Park Authority. All stages of the fracking process require planning applications to be submitted with the exception of some initial investigation and monitoring boreholes and ground radar surveys. Applications can be found on the planning pages of your local MPA’s website, as in this example from Lancashire.

There a range of helpful guides to fracking and the planning process available on the internet. One of the most recent, published by the RTPI and Planning Aid England in March 2017 provides a comprehensive run-down of how shale gas is extracted, the application process and the role of regulatory bodies.

The Scottish Government, which itself currently has a moratorium on fracking, has been consulting on future policy north of the border with the publication of a series of research documents. Many of the issues covered are relatable to England and provide a useful context.

Find out more

Earth tremors, fracking licenses and the Infrastructure Bill

CPRE response to the Government's consultation on the Strategic Environmental Assessment for Further Onshore Oil and Gas Licensing: Environmental Report

CPRE Policy guidance note on shale gas

Fracking explained

CPRE Lancashire's fracking engagement 'top tips'

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