Background to Objections

General Objections to Fracking

  1. Need for shale gas
  • The UK is currently heavily dependent on supplies of natural gas needed for heating, cooking, and electricity generation.
  • Gas burning generates 43% of our electricity, renewables (wind, bio, solar and hydro) 30%, nuclear 20%, and coal 7%. Tidal/wave power is currently minimal.
  • Most of the UK’s gas comes from offshore, mainly from the North Sea – directly or imported from Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands – with a small amount of LNG from Qatar.
  • Two new North Sea fields were discovered in January 2018 and the government opened up new offshore areas for gas and oil exploration in May 2018.
  • Trillions of cubic metres of natural gas (methane) may be locked into the layer of carboniferous shale which is located deep underground much of northern UK.
  • Recovery of this gas will though require hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of the shale by high pressure injection of a mixture of water, acids, lubricants, and proppants.
  • As fracking can only extend a short distance from well shafts, this can only be achieved by constructing thousands of well pads and tens of thousands of wells.
  1. Climate Change Impact
  • Harvesting gas by fracking has enabled the USA and Australia to become self-sufficient in terms of energy supplies and temporarily improved their economies.
  • Applying this method in the UK while phasing out coal fired power stations is claimed to help ‘keep the lights on’ and achieve our climate change targets.
  • Yet all onshore fracking wells leak methane into the surrounding air. This factor and burning the harvested gas are as harmful to the Earth’s climate as using coal.
  • Furthermore, the gas recovery is a mixture of methane, butane, propane and ethane, and the elements need separating before use in domestic supplies.
  • Ethane is commercially attractive for use in producing plastic products – disposal of which poses a growing range of environmental concerns.
  • Renewable energy already provides 30% of the UK’s electricity, and technological advances in storing and sharing mean it has much greater potential.
  1. Harvesting the gas
  • In any event the UK’s geology is vastly different to that of the USA. The UK shale is in thicker layers, at deeper depths, and contains 400 times as many fault lines.
  • To harvest gas using fracking in the UK would therefore be far more expensive than in the USA and the extra cost will be passed on to consumers buying the fuel.
  • The first well to be fracked in the UK (in 2012 at Preece Hall near Blackpool) caused two earthquakes and had to be abandoned as the shaft became distorted.
  • Official reports ruled that the fracking fluid penetrated and lubricated the plates of an undetected fault line and caused them to slip.
  • Similar seismic events have occurred regularly at the PNR site and fugitive migration could occur at any site where fault lines are nearby.
  • The Regulators aim is to mitigate (not eliminate) risks to local residents, property, and environment, as far as is ‘reasonably practicable’ (whatever that means).
  • Regulatory controls are claimed to be the best possible but are largely untested and suspected to prove ineffective in practice.
  1. Water wastage and contamination
  • Ministers are warning that the UK faces a severe water shortage in years to come. Despite wet winters, hosepipe bans are threatened in summer months.
  • Yet each well uses about 5 million gallons of clean water which is rendered toxic, carcinogenic, flammable, and radioactive by the chemical elements in the shale.
  • The 40% which flows back to the surface needs to be transported for specialist cleaning before disposal, at one of only 3 sites in the UK dealing with this problem.
  • The remaining 60% of the water used in fracking is claimed to remain deep underground – again contaminated and wasted.
  • There is a potential though for the fluid to migrate through fault lines and other conduits up into the rock storing local groundwater sources.
  • Groundwater is a source of domestic supply for nearly a third of the UK and is extensively used for irrigation by farmers.
  1. Public Health
  • Residents near fracking sites face unavoidable disruption, inevitable damage, probable danger, and possible destruction both to their health and property.
  • These prospects are known to have arisen in other countries during the construction and operation of fracking sites but have not been assessed in the UK.
  • Studies in the USA cite noise and light pollution as causing sleep disturbance and released chemicals and fine silica sand as impairing surrounding air quality.
  • The social cohesion of communities can be disrupted over fracking issues, and together with fears of blowbacks and gas discharges can raise mental health issues.
  • Baseline environmental monitoring of local public health prior to fracking is essential, particularly in areas containing an ageing population.
  • The fracking industry invariably though resorts to the behaviour of tobacco companies, denying public health risks caused by their products and activities.
  1. Community Compensation
  • The Community Engagement Charter of UKOOG requires fracking operators to share the financial ‘benefits’ of shale development with local communities.
  • The scheme requires operators to pay £100,000 per well pad during the exploration/appraisal stage, and 1% of revenues at the production stage.
  • The government also consulted (but has not enacted) on a proposed introduction and distribution of a shale wealth tax on fracking profits.
  • There is no guarantee though that fracking companies will be able to extract gas for sale, make a profit and pay tax and that shale wealth will ever materialise.
  • Division of the well pad payment is likely to reflect higher values to residents living closest to the site (the main risks), and lower values to those further away.
  • Residents accepting the payments may though find they have invalidated any future claim for compensation in the event of damage to their health or property

Site Objections

  1. Site Development
  • The company has admitted that it expects to spend £10m on the initial development at Great Altcar but may not recover any gas for sale.
  • In responding to Aurora’s scoping request the Environment Agency urged the company to extend its proposed well pad from 1 hectare to 1.5 hectares.
  • Aurora contend that the pad is large enough to accommodate 2 extra wells if necessary i.e. making 4 in total, but its lease enables the pad to be extended.
  • An extended well pad and extra wells at the Great Altcar site could easily reach 3km (2 miles) under Formby, making it the first urban area in the UK to be fracked.
  • Aurora is obligated under the terms of its Licence to conclude seismic surveys over the rest of the PEDL area by 2020 and drill a well there by 2023.
  • The company plans to spend a further £30m over the next few years constructing extra well pads and drilling extra wells across the Moss.
  • The Great Altcar development therefore clearly comprises the first step towards wholesale industrialisation of the local countryside.
  1. Local Geology
  • The government agencies which regulate fracking have developed a control regime which is designed to mitigate the risk of induced seismicity and fugitive emissions.
  • These risks arise because the 60% of fracking fluid which is unrecovered may migrate through pathways and conduits running through the shale to the surface.
  • There are three potential routes i.e. the fracking well shafts themselves, fault lines in the local rock structure, and any disused boreholes in the locality.
  • The steel tubing of the shafts will inevitably corrode over time, and the concrete casing will crack and shrink in response to formation pressures.
  • The rock structure of the Moss is known to contain a proliferation of inter-connecting fault lines running up to or near to the land surface.
  • The proposed well pad at Great Altcar is sited only a few hundred metres from the old Formby oilfield, in which 80 boreholes were sunk, at least one down to 2km.

[N.B. About 1,000 of the older properties in Formby were built on sand rafts which are susceptible to settlement and heave in the event of underground vibration or excess water.]

  1. Ecology
  • The well pad site and surrounding area predominantly comprises arable cropland and grazed pasture but are within a number of protection and conservation areas.
  • These protection areas are concerned with special scientific interest, biological heritage, wildlife habitats, brooks, heath etc.
  • The area surrounding the proposed well pad is a nesting site for native birds i.e. corn bunting, curlews, lapwing, and grey partridge – all threatened species.
  • The proposed well pad is located in a field which backs on to New Cut Drain – which is a nesting site for mallard ducks.
  • The pad is only 12 km from Martin Mere which has a large and diverse wintering, passage and breeding bird community and houses a number of geese and swans.
  • There is considerable movement of wintering birds between Martin Mere and the nearby River Alt estuary, and the wildfowl forage on the surrounding farm lands.
  1. Traffic
  • The main access route proposed is along the A565 Formby by-pass turning off onto the B5195 and running between a busy supermarket and an industrial estate.
  • The by-pass already carries heavy traffic at peak times which will be intensified due to the plans for extensive house building on green belt land in Formby.
  • The site access then runs from Great Altcar village 900m along and alongside Sutton’s Lane, a narrow track which was designated a public highway in the 1800s.
  • The track is in poor condition and is primarily used by farm vehicles for field access at present. Its surface is unsuitable for most vehicles due to the risk of grounding.
  • Using the track as access to the well pad will impede farm activity and could cause traffic to back up on the B5195, the main route from Formby to Ormskirk hospital and the Children’s A&E Department for the area.
  • The vehicles (e.g. tankers) serving the operation of the well pad may well contain toxic loads, adding to the potential risk and consequences of road traffic accidents.
  1. Lack of emergency plans
  • Experience in other countries has demonstrated that fracking wells can cause fires and explosions, blowbacks, and unintended gas discharges into their vicinity.
  • These dangers may require immediate action by local emergency services, all of which have suffered severe funding cuts in recent years and face further cutbacks.
  • The nearest fire station to the proposed well pad is in Formby (retained-only basis) and full cover would need to come from Southport, Ormskirk, or Buckley Hill.
  • Neither the Merseyside or Lancashire Fire and Rescue Services has yet developed plans to deal with the risks posed by fracking well operation at Great Altcar.
  • Nor are there plans by the Police or the local authorities for a public evacuation of Formby or Great Altcar in the event of an unintended gas discharge.
  • Similarly, the government’s environmental agencies have no detailed plans or procedures yet to remedy contamination of groundwater sources.
  1. Hydrogeology
  • Groundwater originates from rain and from melting snow and ice and is held in pervious rocks providing the source of water for aquifers, springs, and wells.
  • Nearly 30% of UK public water supply is recovered from aquifers, and they are a crucial source of private supplies for domestic, agricultural, and industrial use.
  • Due to its wet climate, NW England reliance on direct groundwater supplies is low, but central and southeast England is heavily dependent on the resource.
  • About 45% of Aurora’s PEDL 164 is though covered by groundwater protection legislation and monitored through boreholes for both level and quality, but ….
  • The nearest groundwater monitoring boreholes are about 5km away from the proposed well pad at Great Altcar, and incapable of judging the impact of fracking.
  1. Flood defence
  • Great Altcar village is built on land reclaimed from the sea which lies alongside the meandering river Alt. It is surrounded by low-lying agricultural land on a peat bed.
  • The area is categorised by the Environment Agency as Flood zone 2 and 3, potentially at risk of flooding from rivers or sea and needing adequate defences.
  • Like much of the Lancashire Plain the land is crossed by numerous field drains, with reliance on floodgates and dredging to manage flood defence.
  • The government’s funding cuts in local flood defence (in the face of extreme weather conditions due to climate change) are a source of concern.
  • Fracking at Great Altcar adds to the risk because if the local river and drains overflow, they could flood the well pad and potentially spread toxic chemicals.
  1. Landscape and visual impact
  • The village of Great Altcar is a designated Conservation Area containing structures of special architectural or historic interest with statutory (Listing) protection.
  • West Lancs. BC has issued a direction restricting the permitted development rights of property owners, trying to reduce uncontrolled development within the Area.
  • Views are far reaching all around the village extending out over open fields to the slightly raised ground in the far distance, emphasising its rural and isolated nature.
  • The construction of a well pad for fracking is alien to the local landscape. Its need to operate using night time working under floodlights is an intolerable intrusion.
  • The additional traffic of heavy goods vehicles needed to serve the construction and operation of the site is quite out of character with the village.
  1. Local economy
  • The local economic benefits claimed to accrue from fracking stem from increased employment and additional spending brought into the surrounding area.
  • Any extra local jobs are though likely to be either temporary and of a menial nature and have to be set against losses in local agriculture, services, and tourism.
  • The market for agricultural (organic) produce grown locally may shrink if customers believe it might be (or become) contaminated by fracking activity.
  • Similarly, the area’s attractiveness as a buoyant tourism spot may be undermined (and jobs lost as a result) if potential visitors fear they may face health hazards.
  • Most of the extra spending claimed by a fracking scheme is unlikely to be spent in the immediate area, other than temporarily on service industries like hotels.

16. Aurora’s viability

  • Fracking operators must satisfy government regulators of their financial ability to construct and operate their sites and restore them back to original condition.
  • Aurora took over PEDL 164 in 2010 intending to re-activate the old Formby oilfield. It is only in recent years that it has changed direction in favour of shale gas.
  • The company has incurred significant losses since then (partially abortive) which have been largely covered by offshore benefactors’ funding of its activities.
  • Rich overseas investors with corporations based in known tax havens suggests that they would not be prepared to pay UK taxes on profits earned from fracking.
  • There is little evidence that Aurora currently has the viability to conclude its PEDL licence conditions or compensate residents in the event of environmental damage.