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Could 'fracking' come to a gas well near Nottingham?

The former coalfield of North Nottinghamshire looks set to be a testbed for the new technology of 'fracking'. A number of companies have been investigating the potential for recovering methane from coal seams, and from deeper shale layers using hydraulic fracturing. (See also our previous news page: Will they frack Nottinghamshire?)

In early 2014, an Australian company Dart Energy drilled an exploratory borehole at Daneshill Energy Forest, near Retford, to test for methane in deep coal seams (see Sutton cum Lound parish council website for technical details). That provoked widespread local opposition and disruption from a community protection camp.

From 2014, IGas is leading a consortium exploring for shale gas on the Notts-Yorks border between Bawtry and Gainsborough, funded partly by French oil company Total which will take over at the production stage. (Further details on the Frack-Off website.) Seismic testing has been carried out across North East Bassetlaw.

A Notts-based company Alkane was also planning to drill for coal bed methane, possibly around the former colliery site at Bevercotes. Alkane already caps old coal mines in Notts to recover methane. It was also considering the potential for shale gas fracking. (A 2011 report by Envoi has some details.)

Local campaign groups against 'unconventional hydrocarbons' include Frack Free Notts, Bassetlaw Against Fracking, and the Daneshill Community Protection Camp.

Nottinghamshire

Nottinghamshire County Council had a consultation on the Minerals Plan in 2012, including a background paper on hydrocarbons. This suggests the whole Eastern side of the county could be explored for coal bed methane. And there are significant areas with shale gas potential in the South (Widmerpool Trough) and North (Gainsborough Trough) of the county.This section is taken from a British Geological Survey report (June 2013, p24). It runs across Nottinghamshire from Long Eaton in the SW towards Scunthorpe to the NE. The light green layer contains coal measures - deeper in the East of Notts. The darker blue-green layers are part of the 'Bowland-Hodder unit basin shales' which are being fracked by Cuadrilla in Lancashire.

In August 2013, the County Council produced a factsheet on fracking. There had been no applications to explore for shale gas, but four planning applications had been approved to explore for coal bed methane in North Notts.

Companies in the East Midlands

In 2009, Composite Energy was granted planning permission to drill for coal samples at three sites around Retford, and at another site near North Carlton (NW of Lincoln), to assess the potential for recovering coal bed methane. Some of these sites can be found on a location map on the 'Frack-Off' campaign website. In 2011, Composite Energy was taken over by Dart Energy which renewed planning permission at two sites - 1km East of Eaton (S of Retford) and 1km East of Daneshill Lakes (N of Retford). Dart specialises in 'coal bed methane' (or 'coal seam gas') with campaigns against it already in Falkirk as well as Australia. (For background information on Dart, see a project synopsis by Envoi which includes a page on the East Midlands, and a presentation (Feb2013).) In 2013, a French company GDF Suez agreed to invest in Dart's exploration for shale gas and coal bed methane.

In January 2014, French oil firm Total announced investment in a consortium with licences covering parts of North Notts and South Yorks (see map on Frack-Off website). As well as Dart, the consortium includes two companies already involved in conventional oil and gas in the Notts area - IGas and Egdon Resources - as well as eCORP, a US company with shale gas experience. Egdon's news report includes a link to a 2012 assessment. IGas will be operator for exploration in North East Bassetlaw and around Bawtry. Egdon will be operator for an area North of Gainsborough around Laughton. In May 2014, IGas bought Dart to become the biggest shale gas explorer in the UK.

IGas Energy plc already owns companies which have been producing oil and gas in the Gainsborough area since 1959, and operates a number of small conventional oil wells in Notts, including Beckingham, Bothamsall and Rempstone, as well as Long Clawson in Leicestershire (see Wikipedia: East Midlands Oil). IGas has already provoked protests against coal bed methane exploration at Barton Moss near Manchester.

Egdon's main interests have been in conventional oil and gas, including a small oilfield at Eakring but more recently in exploring the potential for shale gas. Egdon also has an interest in the Widmerpool Trough with a potential site at Burton on the Wolds (between Loughborough and Keyworth) - see news items for 2012 and 2013.

Meanwhile, in May 2011, a Nottinghamshire-based company Alkane announced that it had been investigating the possibility of recovering methane from coal seams and shale (see Nottingham Post, 5 May 2011). Alkane already recovers methane from abandoned mines - which performs a useful service in preventing methane escaping to atmosphere. Alkane refused to release any details about intended fracking, claiming it had only got as far as background research.

In February 2012, Alkane moved further towards exploring the potential for coal bed methane in North Notts. It has a licence for an area of 67 square km between Ollerton and Lincoln. See a briefing from an advisor Envoi. In July 2013, Alkane's Chief Executive Neil O'Brien suggested that former coalfield areas of Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire could be fracked with little local opposition (see press reports). Alkane was also seeking potential partners to develop its shale gas interests. However, in May 2014 Alkane sold its shale gas exploration interests to Egdon in return for Egdon shares. Alkane retained all its coal gas interests.

Background

Fracking involves hydraulic fracturing of rocks by pumping water and chemicals at high pressure to release gas. Fracking uses large amounts of water which has to be taken from local supplies – and then the contaminated waste water disposed of. Fracking may also release methane to the atmosphere causing more global warming. (See Frack-Off: 20 Impacts of Shale Oil & Gas.) We should, of course, be using less fossil fuels, not going after ever more risky sources.

To recover methane from unmined coal layers, the initial stage is 'dewatering'. Coal is often sufficiently fractured naturally to then allow methane to flow. But fracking may also be required to stimulate further flow. In any case, large amounts of contaminated water are returned to the surface. Dewatering may cause aquifers above the coal layers to be drained. (See Frack-Off: 20 Impacts of Coal Bed Methane.)

A national Anti-Fracking Network for Britain and Ireland was launched at a conference in Manchester in March 2012. Latest developments are tracked on the Frack-Off website. A campaign guide and technical briefing are on the Free Range Activism website, and there is a YouTube video of a presentation to the conference. There is also a diagram showing links between government ministers and fracking companies.

The first example of exploratory fracking for shale gas in the UK was by Cuadrilla in Lancashire, near Blackpool. This was halted during 2012 due to a couple of small earthquakes - which indicate that fracking water is probably moving along fault lines underground. Also, frack water returned to the surface has caused concern because of radioactive contamination. Cuadrilla is also pursuing shale gas elsewhere in the UK, including Balcombe, West Sussex. Other companies are interested in shale gas or coal bed methane in Scotland, Wales, Ireland (South and North) and Cheshire. See: frack-off.org.uk/locations. Protest groups include: Fylde, Ribble Estuary, Ireland, Balcombe, Falkirk (against Dart), and many others - see the Frack-off website and a Britain and Ireland Frack Free (BIFF) list.

As of August 2013, Cuadrilla was the only company to have used 'high volume hydraulic fracturing' in the UK (see letter from DECC) - contrary to misleading claims that 'fracking' is a proven technology in the UK.

Some background information:

In 2010 the Cooperative funded research by the Tyndall Centre which recommends a moratorium until more is known about fracking. However, in 2011 the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee recommended fracking should go ahead but be monitored "extremely closely", even though it might divert investment from renewable energy (23 May 2011). An updated assessment by the Tyndall Centre in November 2011 concluded that 'shale gas expansion could jeopardise climate commitments'.

In March 2011, an award-winning film Gasland was shown at Broadway Cinema. It explores experience of fracking in the US which has polluted drinking water with claims that people can ignite gas coming out of their taps.

There have been continuing problems in the US with contamination of groundwater used for drinking by methane and heavy metals. The US Environmental Protection Agency has been accused of suppressing evidence and delaying a promised research report. There are also emerging problems in parts of the US with water scarcity. (See a summary of research on water issues.)

In the UK, water companies issued a warning in 2012 about the potential impact on water supplies and groundwater contamination. It has emerged that the Environment Agency briefed Government Ministers that fracking should not be permitted near aquifers used for drinking water - but has been accused of concealing this information from the public.

 Although fracking companies claim that burning gas has lower climate change emissions than coal, that is true only if leakage of methane is below around 3% - as methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. Evidence suggests leakage is greater than this - so shale gas is worse than coal. (See a summary of research on methane leakage.)

As well as the likelihood that radioactive material from the shale layers will be brought to the surface with returned fracking water, there is also a risk that radon gas will be distributed through the gas supply causing a radioactive hazard in people's homes and workplaces. In May 2013, Broxtowe MP Anna Soubry gave a written answer, as Health Minister, promising a report from Public Health England on the health issues of fracking, including radon (Official Report, 20 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 570W: Radon Gas: Health Hazards).

As far as public health in general is concerned, some of the key issues were summarised by the Lancet (1 March 2014) following a workshop in London in November 2013: "In the USA, where more than 52 000 shale gas wells have been drilled, data suggest that risks of environmental contamination occur at all stages in the development of shale gas extraction. Failure of the structural integrity of the well cement and casing, surface spills and leakage from above-ground storage, emissions from gasprocessing equipment, and the large numbers of heavy transport vehicles involved are the most important factors that contribute to environmental contamination and exposures in the USA. Environmental exposures include outdoor air pollutants (ie, volatile organic compounds, tropospheric ozone, and diesel particulate matter) and pollutants (ie, benzene, hydrocarbons, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and heavy metals) in both ground and surface water. Known occupational hazards include airborne silica exposure at the well pad. Toxicological data for the chemicals injected into wells (so-called frac fluid) indicate that many of them have known adverse effects on health, with no toxicological data available for some."

In October 2013, Public Health England produced a 'draft for comment' reviewing potential public health impacts.It can be summarised as saying that if regulatory practices are effective there shouldn't be any significant health problems from fracking in the UK. This was criticised in an editorial in the British Medical Journal (17 April 2014) as "Mistaking best practices for actual practices". Longer critiques have been produced by Green MEPs Keith Taylor and Jean Lambert, and by Mobbs' Environmental Investigations.

Some press reports: 

Frackonomics

There is an interesting debate about how long the low price of gas in the US will last. When the easiest gas to frack runs out there is an industry expectation that prices will have to rise - to make it economic to develop more difficult sources. See, for example: * Shalebubble: diminishing returns, unsustainable prices * Bloomberg: US shale bubble inflates * People, planet, profit: Shale bubble threatens economic collapse * EU summit: bubble will burst within 2-4 years * Desmogblog: Shale Gas Bubble Looms, aided by Wall Street * Club of Rome: Shale Gas Revolution: is it already over?Some comments on fracking economics: * New Economics Foundation: Why I'm against fracking * Friends of the Earth Europe:  Shale gas: debunking economic mythsAnd if you want a seminar on frackonomics (in four half hour sessions):Pt 1: Deborah Rogers; Pt 2: Jannette Barth, Pt 3: Al Appleton, Pt 4: Q&A.