Ian Rotherham: Calculating the real costs of fracking

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THE announcement that drilling for shale oil would only be allowed in national parks if there were exceptional circumstances begs the question of what circumstances exactly?

Who thought that we might allow it? Who amongst the politicians was considering that national parks might be up for grabs for gas fracking? Surely these areas of specially protected countryside should be so far off-screen in this debate that the assurance is unnecessary?

This sort of announcement demonstrates how far down the slippery slope of “anything for a price” we have come in recent years.

Ever since the serious discussion began on the shale gas issue, I have felt an ominous foreboding that any government, of whatever hue, would be sorely tempted to go down this route for reasons of energy security and also the possibility that Russia might close the gas pipelines to Western Europe. The problem with that sort of situation is that other precautions and logic go out of the window due to the pressures of the moment.

However, the situation is not simple, and current political thinking on the environment is not reassuring. When central government views environmental and conservation laws as unnecessary red tape, and seems to have lost touch with sound and sensible countryside management and associated values, then we have cause for concern.

This is not to say that fracking could or should never go ahead anywhere, but presently I have many questions about safety and impacts and none has been answered. Perhaps interestingly, my main concerns are not necessarily things like minor earth tremors.

No, my own fears are rather more fundamental and concern matters such as visual impact on the landscape and loss of both productive farmland and wildlife habitats. Unlike some forms of energy extraction, fracking appears to involve widely dispersed, relatively small, and as far as I can see, rather inefficient extraction points dotted across a wide landscape.

Therefore, I ask, exactly what impact will these industrial structures have? How much “land-take” do they involve for the machinery and plant, for the access roads and cabling and for the pumping operations (for water) and the storage and decontamination of used water? How long do they operate for and what happens when the units are decommissioned? How is the gas transported away, and where is it stored? Indeed, how safe is all this? There are even basic questions of what this will look like in our region.

I grew up in the shadow of the coal mines and the dereliction which they brought to the Yorkshire landscape. However, at least they were localised to a specific place. This seems as if it might blight wide tracts of beautiful countryside. Each unit appears to involve a lot of land for operations, for access and storage and other uses; and presumably, there are services, drains, and pipelines constructed around and between sites.

So let us imagine these fracking operations scattered across maybe Holderness, the Pennine fringe, or around North Yorkshire, maybe Pickering for example.

Clearly, the operations make money or else nobody would be interested and the industry would not be offering cash sweeteners to local communities.

However, in assessing the economic benefits, (to us the community rather than to individual operators), we have 
to subtract the “dead weight” and 
the “displacement” effects of the operations.

In simple terms, we have to take into account what would happen in that landscape without fracking, and any financial losses due to the operations displacing or compromising other industries. In open countryside, local farming might be affected, and furthermore, impacts on groundwater might affect crops and even summer irrigation, important in many arable areas. More significant though would be a likely adverse impact on the region’s hugely important tourism industries.

These are significant questions and important issues, to be answered and tested before we rush in.

The shale gas has been there for a long time and it is not about to go away.

In which case there is no need for haste beyond the political expediency of central government, so really, we can wait and make sure that we make the right decisions for the right reasons.

Professor Ian D. Rotherham is a lecturer at the Department of the Natural & Built Environment at Sheffield Hallam University.