Hello dear readers (hi mum). Firstly, an apology. Blog number four as this has been inspirationally titled on my laptop, hand and brain for the past few weeks, has been a long time coming. I’ve been performing (favourite) auntie duties over the Easter holidays and when I haven’t been living to regret teaching the eldest three about April fools or trying to get the littlest one off to sleep with patchy renditions of Bob Dylan I have been freaking out, to put it politely, about my impending exams. (I’ll be eased in gently with a four-hour one on sport this week, on my birthday to be precise. Humph.) But anyway, panic over/blocked out for the moment, and back to the important business of blogging.
Looking back over these posts I’ve realised I make fairly frequent reference to popular culture: Speed, Dawson’s Creek, I’m nothing if not high brow. In the last few weeks though, my life has begun to mirror a film more than ever. That’s right, I’ve been in Erin Brockovich. Don’t get confused, I haven’t been Erin Brockovich, no no, I could never rock a leather mini like Julia Roberts. My role’s been more that of the nosey extra, sceptical yet secretly intrigued. One of Albert Finney’s grumpy secretaries realising that lairy Jules is onto something perhaps.
A few weeks ago I found myself in Balcombe, a pretty (and pretty posh) little village in East Sussex about twenty minutes away from Brighton. Balcombe didn’t seem particularly remarkable as little villages go, aside from its total lack of signage or street lighting. Lovely, I’m sure, but I was more than a little grouchy after stumbling into a pitch-black muddy field and wrecking my trainers. Did I mention this was a Friday night? What has happened to me?
Balcombe’s residents would no doubt like their village to remain unremarkable but that may be about to change. The village has been licensed by the government, alongside nine other areas, as an ideal site for a controversial method of energy extraction fairly new to Britain, hydraulic fracturing.
“Fracking”, as it’s commonly known, is a process used to extract shale gas from deep under the earth’s surface by drilling down until a layer of shale rock is reached and then turning the drill 90 degrees and drilling across into the rock. A large volume of water, also containing small volumes of potentially hazardous chemicals and sand is then forced down at high pressure, causing the rock to fracture and releasing the shale gas. The license for all ten UK sites is held exclusively by energy company Cuadrilla.
Concern about the impact of fracking peaked when it was found to be the cause of two earth tremors near a site in Lancashire where exploratory drilling began in 2011. As a result of this, and government concern, the company has now suspended drilling at the site until 2014.
I’d gone to Balcombe to hear a talk by Jessica Ernst, a Canadian who is currently suing the Alberta government in a $33 million lawsuit in which she alleges that the ground water supply in her town of Rosebud, Alberta was contaminated with toxic chemicals through fracking.
Her claims were terrifying and it was clear her audience was left reeling. Ernst’s argument, put simply, is that the Alberta government and its two main regulatory bodies, Alberta Environment and the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), allowed the process of fracking to take place without adequate regulation and that their actions, or oversights, have breached her civil rights.
Ernst came across as incredibly motivated and knowledgeable, and gave a highly detailed account of her battle against the authorities and energy company EnCana. She had a wealth of scientific evidence to support her claims but the speed at which it flashed up on screen behind her made it hard to process, let alone scrutinise.
Easily her most alarming point was ERCB’s own admission that they have “no duty of care” to Alberta residents.
Ernst’s cautionary tale seemed to have the desired effect on her audience, mainly of local residents, who appeared to be experiencing a cold sweat epidemic. There were gasps of horror and lots of talk about where to go from here, namely bombarding local MPs with letters of opposition.
In this week’s 15-year-old episode of Dawson’s Creek, Dawson’s mum Gail, a local TV news anchor, told him that: “The best journalists just ask the right questions”.
(I knew my love for Dawson’s would pay dividends eventually. It’s just a shame it’s not in the very literal form of Joshua Jackson being my husband. Bloody Diane Kruger, what has she got that I haven’t? Oh, right.)
Anyway, questions. Ernst’s talk had focused almost entirely on the failings of the regulatory bodies and perceived corruption that she believes has resulted in the hazardous pollution of Rosebud’s water source.
Her appearance came after a tense meeting between Balcome residents and representatives from Cuadrilla in January after which the company were keen to stress that fracking in Britain would face much tighter regulation than in the U.S. and Canada.
So it was only logical that she would leave herself open to the question of whether or not fracking in itself is dangerous and without merit, or if the poor regulation and subsequent cover-ups are to blame for what has happened in her town.
One Balcombe resident asked this question at the end of Ernst’s presentation, a valid one in my eyes, and was called an idiot for his trouble.
I found it infuriating. I’ve spoken before about protests preaching to the converted and this was an occasion where someone asking a valid question based on the content of the argument he’d heard was verbally attacked by those who assumed they knew better than him.
Ernst herself was quick to jump to his defence and used the incident to impart what she said was the most important lesson in her tale, that in order to succeed, the residents of Balcombe must unite and listen to each other. Questions shouldn’t be shot down or the inquisitive belittled. As she put it: “I really believe that a healthy community cannot be fracked.”
And the question remains a valid one: Can fracking ever be a good thing if it’s carried out with proper regulation?
Well, I can’t answer that. I have a Google alert on the subject that throws up enough articles to change my mind on a daily basis. Knowing which of those articles to trust is an even harder question.
Articles on fracking are never objective but there are good ones out there and by consulting a wide range of sources and opinions it’s possible to at least grasp the different sides of the debate.
For clear scientific information on shale gas formation and extraction, National Geographic offers a detailed but digestible description.
For a simple graphic demonstration of the drilling process see here.
For a by no means unbiased summary of Ernst’s lawsuit and the corruption she alleges see here.
For a picture of the UK’s position in the development of fracking globally see here.
Dr. Bill Chameides, academic and Dean of Duke University’s School of Environment, raises some good questions about the long-term productivity of drilled wells here.
But by far the clearest information I’ve found is in Balcombe’s own report on fracking, conducted by a working group set up by the village’s parish council.
The report is restrained and factual and helpfully puts the issues raised by the prospect of fracking in the village into the context of the process’s consequences so far and the fears they have stirred. It also points out that Cuadrilla’s current license runs out in September 2013, when all drilling would have to cease unless the license is renewed.
The principle risks, of seismic activity (earthquakes) and contamination, are detailed, but the report also highlights the concerns of those living in close proximity to drill sites, which should not be ignored. Locals polled were worried about the increase in traffic, noise and light pollution that the process of drilling would bring.
The impact of these, it concludes, would be minimal. The risk of contamination from the toxic chemicals which make up a very small percentage of the fracking fluid would also minimal, given the stringent safety measures that would be in place.
But there are other questions to ask.
Should enormous volumes of water be committed to energy extraction in a county frequently categorised as being in drought? How accurate are the projected gains of fracking? Dr. Chameides states that the productivity of fracked wells decreases up to 90% in the first two years, in stark contrast to industry claims that one fracked well can provide energy for up to 40 years.
And perhaps the biggest issue that fracking raises is that of our country’s commitment to green energy. Some see all actions to develop fracking as undermining Britain’s development of renewable technologies.
Others argue that, while we are still far from able to cater for the nation’s energy needs with green technologies, fracking is environmentally sounder than traditional fossil fuels and an ideal transitional method that could reduce our dependence on other countries.
While Ernst’s talk was insightful and terrifying, Cuadrilla are keen to point out that Balcombe is not Canada and that regulatory bodies here are stronger.
I learned a lot from my trip to Balcombe. I learned that Wivelsfield is a funny name for a place and that I am not yet mature enough to adequately stifle a giggle when it’s announced by a train conductor. I learned that postcodes and Google maps are a crap combination. (Before Google or the Post Office sue me for libel that’s a review firmly grounded in fact – the fact being that the postcode I entered into Google maps led me to the middle of a very large, very muddy field in possibly the worst-lit village in England.)
I learned that people power shouldn’t be underestimated. Maria van der Hoeven, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in May last year:
“There is a very real possibility that public opposition to drilling for shale gas and other types of unconventional gas will halt the unconventional gas revolution in its tracks. The industry must win public confidence by demonstrating exemplary performance.”
Indeed a lady I spoke to at the talk encouraged Balcombe residents to speak up about their concerns, stating that her hometown in Ireland had successfully been declared a “frack-free zone” after immense pressure from locals.
Whether you should be pro or anti-fracking I can’t tell you. But I can tell you that your voice is important. The impending Growth and Infrastructure Bill means that soon power may be out of people’s hands. Fracturing the earth is an unpredictable business, and one that won’t be reversed, so while there is time, and you have power, if you don’t want fracking – make your voice heard.