Fracking Friction Plays Out in Preston, Lancs

on Jul 23, 2012

In a case unlikely to go down in legal annals, three anti-fracking protestors were last week (17 July) conditionally discharged without conviction after being found guilty in Preston Magistrates Court in Lancashire of aggravated trespass and assault. They were however ordered to pay £750 in court costs. The Lancashire Evening Post reported Judge Ward as admonishing the protestors with the words “There are democratic means for dealing with these issues.”

Fracking – it’s got a bad name literally and figuratively – is the process of force-feeding certain parts of the Earth’s surface, called shale, with liquid at sufficiently high pressure to fracture the rock and allow the escape – and of course recovery – of the natural gas trapped there. It’s big in the United States – where the technique was first used way back in 1821, so we’re not talking rocket science here – and accounted for 27 percent of US natural gas consumption in 2010, contributing over $76 billion to GDP. At least, this according to a December 2011 study commissioned by the Natural Gas Alliance, a coalition of 30 US-based drilling companies. The report further claims that, but for this extraction and supply of shale gas, the US price of natural gas would be triple its actual price.

!m[](/uploads/story/178/thumbs/pic1_inline.png)Many American inventions transplant effortlessly to other parts of the world – take fast-food – but not fracking. The above-mentioned protestors in Lancashire, who’d broken into the plant erected by shale gas explorer Cuadrilla, put up some banners and then swung – or aided and abetted in the swinging of – a duffel bag at security guards (hence the assault charges), represented a UK-based organisation called ‘Frack Off’ (pun definitely intended), whose website carries the byline ‘Extreme Energy Action Network’. The hydraulic fracturing of rock – a.k.a. fracking – is seemingly guilt of almost everything except Original Sin – earthquakes, combustible tap-water, air and ground pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and more. Though in the United States – in the more than two decades since shale gas extraction really picked up a head of steam – there seems not yet to have been any particular disaster or even accident associated with fracking.

As noted, it’s an unfortunate name, is ‘fracking’, and it seems to get people’s backs up even before, or regardless of whether, they know anything about the process. Early this year, US energy giant and would-be fracker Chevron was pretty much drummed by protestors out of Bulgaria, of all places, with the populist government seizing the low-risk opportunity to be, well, populist and announcing a henceforth ban on shale gas extraction. Chevron have been received a little more civilly in Poland but, whether or not anything comes of their prospecting in that country, the writing seems to be on the wall as regards a significant European presence. Speaking to the Financial Times in March, George Kirkland, Chevron’s head of oil and gas production, was pessimistic about reproducing the American shale gas bounty in Europe in the short term. “We had tremendous data in the US and Canada,” said Kirkland, “and we frankly just don’t have that kind of data around the world. There’s a huge catch-up in knowledge and data that’s got to happen.”

In the UK at least, where there is a certain amount of data, shale gas reserves are potentially huge, and a game changer for British energy costs and security. Cuadrilla’s license area in north-west England is thought to contain 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, though what the recovery factor would be is as yet too early to tell. However, shale formations in the area are up to 10 times as thick as those typical to the US, now the world’s largest natural gas producer on the back of their fracking endeavours. To put things in context, the largest prospected shale resource in the UK is, at 5.6 trillion cubic metres, equivalent to around three times the proven reserves of Norwegian gas. Norway is currently the UK’s primary supplier of gas and the second largest exporter to Europe. Viewed in that light, it is not difficult to see the potential value of successful extraction of Britain’s shale gas deposits.

What shale gas miners haven’t had to contend with back home in the States is people like Lauren Pepperell, 26, and Edward Lloyd-Davies, 38, or 61-year-old fellow Frack Off protestor Barbara Cookson, clambering over their prospecting sites, putting up protest banners and menacing their security guards with duffel bags. It’s a different ball-game, as the folks at Chevron might say, and perhaps European shale gas is destined to stay where it is for the foreseeable future.


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