Both fracking bosses and protesters believe everything is about to change as crucial tests start in North Yorkshire - but for very different reasons. Chris Burn reports.
To reach the small hole in the ground in the North Yorkshire countryside which is about to play a pivotal role in the country’s future, you must pass by protesters living in caravans and tents – along with massed ranks of police officers and riot vans – before being allowed through a set of locked gates by a team of security guards.
A few hundred metres further along, through another set of locked gates, is a fenced-off well a couple of metres wide at the very surface but quickly narrowing as it descends almost two miles deep underground. This is the location on the outskirts of the village of Kirby Misperton where in the next few weeks, gas firm Third Energy will undertake the first frack for shale gas in the UK.
The stakes could not be much higher as final preparations take place. Third Energy is to conduct a series of underground test fracks to produce gas for its nearby power station. If the eight weeks of preliminary work is a success, it will pave the way for the site to operate permanently. More importantly, it is likely to lead to the rollout of the controversial gas extraction technique across the local area while helping to accelerate it in other parts of the country.
Fracking is designed to recover gas and oil from shale rock using high-pressure water mixture and the upcoming tests will see the company attempt the process at five different depths to see whether it is commercially viable. While there are no other current applications, the company has six existing well sites in Kirby Misperton, Malton and Pickering where it has said it may consider “further appraisal activity”.
For its supporters, including the Government, fracking represents a huge opportunity to reduce the UK’s reliance on overseas imports, which has grown in recent years as a result of the decline in North Sea oil and gas production. But detractors, including dozens of activists who have been besieging the site for the past few weeks, highlight environmental and safety concerns. Those fighting against fracking have been buoyed by Scotland’s recent decision to extend its moratorium on the process into a permanent ban.
More than 20 people have been arrested at anti-fracking protests in Kirby Misperton designed to delay Third Energy’s work, including women who locked themselves to a concrete-filled tube, and another person who protested on top of a lorry. But when The Yorkshire Post arrives there is a good-natured atmosphere at the gates, with activists selling cakes and badges and one man singing, while those in attendance move aside at the request of police when two lorries leave the site.
Both the company and the activists firmly believe there is a strong moral case for what they are doing - and both are fully aware of the importance of what the next few weeks will bring. The Kirby Misperton frack would the first in the UK as the only other ongoing project in Lancashire involves drilling a new well. Around £17m is being spent by Third Energy on drilling the well and exploring it, with contractors currently involved in creating a 9m-tall sound barrier surrounding the well site.
John Dewar, Third Energy’s operations director, insists that despite the dozens of arrests so far and the daily presence of protesters at the gates, the impact has been minor. “They are not stopping us operating, they are hardly even slowing it down,” he says. “This is much less than I anticipated. It is 20 to 30 protesters in a population of 600,000 across North Yorkshire. It is the same people every day – I don’t see it as 99 per cent of the population against us.”
He said that he hopes the Scottish Government will change its mind on fracking – and believes Kirby Misperton may be pivotal in doing so. “Being Scottish myself, I find it very disappointing. Whenever a decision is made for the wrong reasons and ignores the science, it can’t be good for people. Once we have done this job and showed to the people we can do this successfully, I’m hoping and I’m even a tad confident that the Scottish Government will reverse its decision.”
Dewar says the company has been involved with conventional gas drilling for the past 20 years at the same site with “minimal disruption” and can promise local residents this work will be done safely.
“It has had years of planning. All the agencies have been crawling all over us and doing a very good job of making sure that every ‘i’ was dotted and ‘t’ crossed. I would say to the local people, bear with us, judge us after the job, don’t come out and protest because it is fashionable or you have heard lots of bad stories. I can assure you they are all false and we will prove it in the next few months. If it is a great success and it is rolled out, it can only be to the benefit of the people of North Yorkshire and to the UK.”
He says the potential benefits include major job creation, as well as stopping the UK being so reliant on shipping in gas supplies from America. “Using the gas underneath our feet - in terms of environmental footprint that must surely be good. It saves shipping it in from the States, it saves cooling gas to a liquid, transporting it across the ocean, then turning the liquid into a gas. Yorkshire could become a leading exporter of skills throughout the world by having a homegrown shale-based industry.”
Alan Linn, technical director of Third Energy, says he also believes the Kirby Misperton site can change public perceptions of fracking, which a recent Government study found is only backed by 16 per cent of the population, with 51 per cent neutral on the issue. “It will take time for people in the UK to understand the benefits fully of shale gas development assuming we can demonstrate it can be done commercially. We are investing for the future. I firmly believe that gas has a really important role to play as we move to sustainable development.”
Linn says his message to protesters is a simple one: “Allow us to do this and we will be able to demonstrate to you that you don’t have anything to worry about.”
He adds: “There’s not been an onshore hydro-carbon frack done in the UK, this is the first time. The conversation about fracking in this country will be informed by an actual frack.
“For me that will change everything. So there will be no speculation. We will be able to demonstrate and show people the figures. And we will see whether, technically, it works or doesn’t work and how the work was undertaken safely.”
The work in Kirby Misperton is set to be first test fracking since an investigation in 2011 found that it was “highly probable” shale gas test drilling by firm Cuadrilla had triggered earth tremors in Lancashire.
But that report also found the quakes were also the result of an “unusual combination of geology at the well site” and Linn said he is certain no such event will occur at Third Energy’s site.
“It is not going to happen here for a number of reasons,” he said, adding that careful monitoring will be taking place.
“The area is extremely benign seismically. We don’t think anybody is going to see anything and we don’t think anybody is going to be measuring anything but a lot of work is going in to making sure we measure the data at the most sensitive level we possibly can.”
Linn says he “genuinely believes” Kirby Misperton can play a part in changing minds about the process both in England and Scotland.
“We are a business but we have a moral responsibility to demonstrate to people this can work. We need to be open and show actually what we are doing is safe, doesn’t impact the environment and is beneficial to the UK and North Yorkshire. If we are allowed to get on with it and do it successfully, I think a lot of the scaremongering will stop and we can start to get on with this nascent industry.”
But outside the gates, protesters are determined to continue their efforts to stop the fracking industry taking hold. Eddie Thornton, who describes himself as a “protector not a protester”, says: “We’re determined as a community to stop this well and the 10,000 wells that will follow.
“We’re doing our utmost to disrupt them economically. This is just the thin edge of a very frightening wedge. We know this is a pivotal well. It all starts with one well and were determined to stop this one. Basically, the community is prepared to do anything within the realms of non-violent direct action.”
More fracking on the cards across Yorkshire
Preliminary tests which could eventually pave the way for fracking are being planned across Yorkshire.
Energy firm Ineos wishes to conduct exploratory drilling in two areas of Rotherham, as well as just across the South Yorkshire border with Derbyshire.
Public Health England officials said last month they had been to 30 public information events around England in the past 18 months in areas where fracking is on the cards.
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”. The Government is “encouraging safe and environmentally sound exploration” into the potential of shale gas.