Jim Pickard Lord Browne versus Ed Davey – fracking row hots up

The debate over shale fracking is warming up ahead of the government giving an expected go-ahead to the industry later this year.

Into the fray this morning came Lord Browne, former chief executive of BP, who – according to the Lords register of interests – is also a director of Cuadrilla, the only company currently fracking in Britain.

1: Directorships

Partner & Managing Director, Riverstone LLC (private equity; energy & power)

Director, CODA Automotive Inc (automotive; battery)

Director, Cuadrilla Resources Holdings Ltd (oil and gas)

Director, Fairfield Energy Ltd (oil and gas)

(Cuadrilla is not without controversy: it was reported recently that the company breached the conditions of its licence at its sites in Lancashire.)

Lord Browne writes this morning that the UK has “promising onshore shale resources” which can provide a “critical role” in future energy supply.

In an FT editorial, he writes:

“The hydraulic fracturing process – or fracking – used to extract natural gas from shale is on the political agenda across Europe and has raised important environmental questions. But good practice and the UK’s tough safety regulations mean it can be performed safely and without endangering water supplies. If that can be achieved, the prize is substantial…”

Ed Davey, the energy secretary, has responded to the Lord Browne editorial in a letter to this newspaper in which he accuses the oil executive of “regrettably partial” analysis. The peer was wrong to accuse the coalition of the “unthinking abandonment” of fossil fuels, he said.

“Our Carbon Plan implies a very significant role for unabated gas throughout the 2020s, and as back-up or with carbon capture and storage through the 2030s and 2040s. We expect new gas capacity of up to 20GW to be built between now and 2030. Shale gas may well play a part in our energy mix too, but until we have more certainty about the potential scale and costs of shale gas production in the UK it is unwise to assume it will be some kind of silver bullet,” he responded.

It does seem as if Browne has skirted over the point that fracking is hugely controversial, as my colleague Pilita Clark explained back in the spring. The new technique has opened up the potential for vast untapped reserves of oil and gas and has already transformed the US energy market; but not without any cost.

“As fracking spread in the US, however, so did complaints. Some people with private water wells near fracked gas wells claimed their water had turned brown or contained methane, the main component of shale gas. A house near one fracked well exploded in Ohio in 2007, catapulting an elderly couple from their bed, according to a subsequent lawsuit…… Or as Nick Grealy, a UK shale gas lobbyist, says: “Ninety per cent of people hadn’t heard of fracking – and the 9 per cent who had, heard something wrong or bad or both.”

Here is another analysis, this time by our former energy editor Sylvia Pfeifer:

Just as nuclear power has its drawbacks, however, there are also uncertainties around shale. Chief of these is the potential environmental toll. The industry is dogged by ccusations that the technique used to extract the gas from the rock – hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” – will pollute ground water, plunder water supplies and trigger earthquakes. Further questions surround methane leakage.

So far there is little evidence that fracking automatically causes such damage – but more than enough to suggest poorly constructed wells are a threat and that a clear need exists for more research to establish the practice’s impact more precisely. As one review by Massachusetts Institute for Technology researchers concluded last year: “With over 20,000 shale wells drilled in the last 10 years, the environmental record of shale gas development has for the most part been a good one – but it is important to recognise the inherent risks and the damage that can be caused by just one poor operation.”

A debate took place today in Westminster hall where some northern Tory MPs expressed concerns about how shale extraction will proceed in the UK in the coming years.

Eric Ollerenshaw, MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, said he was not against the development of shale gas:

“However, local people—particularly people living in Bleasdale—are concerned because they get their water not from the mains, but from bore holes. One can see why they are concerned about the protection of watercourses if the process is pursued. They will need reassurance about tight regulations and controls where underground watercourses may be affected…Fracking also has an impact on the scenery. If, in addition to the pylons and wind turbines, storage wells are to be built all over that part of Lancashire, the natural scenery will be destroyed. I am also concerned about the new substations and pylons needed for the transportation of the gas…. They (people) are concerned about who will regulate it and who will provide assurances about safety”

Mark Menzies, Tory MP for Fylde, also chipped in:

“Mny people in Fylde are concerned about fracking. I call on the Minister to recognise that what I am pushing for is tight, robust regulation that is fit for purpose. We also have to take into account population densities, because as my hon. Friend mentioned, our area is not like Wyoming or South Dakota. Lancashire is a densely populated place, which must be a major factor.”

For now such concerns are local, naturally, because fracking has only occurred at a very localised level. If it does become more widespread – and the government is expected soon to give it the go-ahead, albeit at a controlled level – those concerns are only likely to grow.

These were the scenes when Cuadrilla tried to explain itself to residents of a leafy Sussex village earlier in the year:

By this point some in the audience wanted to hear no more. There were shouts of “you’ve gone on long enough” and “you’re talking rubbish”. Anti-fracking campaigner Will Cottrell, chairman of the Brighton Energy Co-operative, claimed a 10-well fracking facility was “like setting off a 4.4 kilotonne nuclear bomb”. Cuadrilla said this was untrue, but the hall was in foment.

“You are in Sussex now and we will not be drove [pushed around],” shouted Alan Gold, 67. “If you put fracking fluid down there at 10,000 pounds per square inch it is going to disturb our drinking water,” yelled another man. “Go away!” “Frack ‘em and forget ‘em, isn’t it?” said a voice from the back. “It’s all about the money.”

“This is how they burn witches I guess,” Paul Kelly, a director of PPS, Cuadrilla’s public relations and lobbying firm told the Guardian. “I can think of dozens of oil companies who wouldn’t put themselves through this in a million years and maybe they have it right.”