The long fight over fracking in North Yorkshire is about to increase in intensity, with test drilling due to start imminently. Chris Burn meets residents fearing the worst.
It is not every day that a group of Zen monks and nuns hold a retreat for environmental activists on the outskirts of a North Yorkshire village, but people living in the picture postcard idyll of Kirby Misperton are getting well used to unusual events since being pitched onto the frontline of national battle over fracking.
For more than three years, the prospect of Ryedale becoming home to the controversial shale gas extraction process has been rumbling on - with a planned test frack at a well to the south-west of the village making it the epicentre of an often-bitter battle involving gas exploration firm Third Energy, environmental campaigners and concerned local residents.
The recent visit of the Zen monks was to a protest camp established on a field on the outskirts of the village, set up campaigners ten months ago to watch out for the arrival of lorries from Third Energy from the main road and frustrate their progress through tactics such as ‘go slow walks’ in front of the vehicles.
Dozens of activists attended the retreat at the so-called Kirby Misperton Protection Camp to “further the camp’s commitment to peaceful, non-violent resistance to Third Energy’s plans”.
But things have often been far from tranquil - in April, Third Energy condemned a blockade of its site in Kirby Misperton by protesters, which it said had resulted in contractors and staff being “effectively imprisoned for over seven hours in extremely cold conditions and with no access to food”.
Tensions have risen again recently, as Third Energy prepares to start the test fracking process later this year.
The test, due to start later this year, will see the company attempt the fracking process at five different depths using an existing two-mile deep well over an eight-week period to see whether the process is commercially viable. While there are no other current application, the company has six existing well sites in Kirby Misperton, Malton and Pickering where it has said it may consider “further appraisal activity”.
Police made a public plea for demonstrators to remain peaceful when work starts following arrests at fracking protests in other parts of the country and the level of sensitivity around the issue of fracking was reflected again at another public meeting held by regulators like the Environment Agency in the village.
Officials representing the various bodies charged with overseeing the test frack said they had been advised not to give their surnames following a “risk assessment” of the event, due to concerns of being identified and targeted on social media.
There were no sign of angry protesters when The Yorkshire Post arrived at the event - but there were plenty of concerned local residents keen to highlight their opposition to fracking, while drawing a distinction between themselves and the people living at the protest camp.
Retired civil servant and local councillor Mike Potter said he fears focus on the camp is drawing attention away both from the issue of fracking and the wider local opposition to it. He said one of his concerns relates to whether regulators will have the manpower to properly police wells should the test frack be a success and the process rolled out more widely across the local area.
Semi-retired bishop Graham Cray has been another vocal opponent of the fracking plans - a stance he says is largely reflected throughout the village. “We have people who are very clearly against it. I don’t know anyone in the village who is for it. But I do know people who are wishing it would go away and are a bit fatalistic.”
A recent Government poll found fracking is now only supported by 16 per cent of the population, down from 21 per cent last year. However, 51 per cent of those questioned said they neither support nor oppose it - something put down to a “lack of knowledge”.
Fracking is designed to recover gas and oil from shale rock using high-pressure water mixture. The Government believes, despite environmentalists’ concerns about chemicals escaping and contaminating groundwater, “shale gas has the potential to provide the UK with greater energy security, growth and jobs”. And with that backing, there has been increasing interest in starting the process in this country.
Public Health England (PHE) officials at the Kirby Misperton event said they had been to 30 similar events around the country in the past 18 months in areas where fracking is on the cards. Bar one site in Lancashire, the plans for Kirby Misperton are at the most advanced stage.
The plan by Third Energy to frack for shale gas in Kirby Misperton was approved in May 2016 by North Yorkshire County Council. The application was the first to be approved in the UK since 2011, when tests on the Fylde coast in Lancashire were found to have been the probable cause of minor earthquakes in the area.
PHE’s official position on fracking based on findings in 2014 is that “the risks to public health from exposure to emissions from shale gas extraction are low if operations are properly run and regulated”.
But Greg, from PHE, said that from travelling around the country, the concerns most commonly brought up about fracking relate to its impact on the local countryside, tourism and agriculture instead of health. Meanwhile, the Environment Agency had a simple message for local residents. Martin, from the EA, said: “If the operator sticks to the plans they have submitted, our regulations are very robust in protecting the environment.”
Bishop Cray said his own reasons for opposing fracking are linked to climate change and the further use of fossil fuels. “I have been regularly to Madagascar as the diocese is twinned with a church. I have been to South Sudan where rainfall has fallen by ten to 20 per cent. I can’t support the development of fossil fuels here when we create the problems that are appearing over there now.”
One person who can even pinpoint the exact date that the issue of fracking started to dominate his life is retired businessman Frank Colenso, who is one of the founders Frack Free Ryedale. He said that he has been spurred into action since July 11, 2014, when he attended what he calls a “disinformation” meeting by Third Energy about their plans for the area. Those opposing the plans have been heartened by recent decisions in Australia, where fracking has been halted by five states over environmental concerns.
Property developer Philip Tate said there is little sign local opposition is softening. “There are as many people as angry and opposed as there ever was. If this was the start and finish of fracking we would all go back to bed. But it is the roll-out we are all concerned about. It is about the horrible new dawn that might be following it.”
Firm’s promise to residents
Third Energy has promised local residents its work in Kirby Misperton will be conducted safely.
A spokesman for the company said: “As a company that has been operating gas exploration and production in the Vale of Pickering for over 20 years’ we are very experienced in meeting the wide ranging requirements of all our regulators.
The United Kingdom has one of the most rigorous regulatory regimes for the onshore oil and gas industry in the world. We can reassure the residents of Kirby Misperton and Ryedale that, operating within this framework, that our upcoming operations will be conducted safely and with minimal impact on the either people or the environment as they have been for over 20 years.”