Irresponsibly skewed Countryfile piece on shale gas fracking

Yesterday’s (4th December 2011) edition of BBC One’s Countryfile carried reporting on shale gas fracking, led by respected veteran presenter, John Craven.

This was an irresponsibly skewed report on an issue of serious major environmental concern.

The process

Shales are porous rocks which, in containing the gas, methane, also hold onto it. Releasing the gas means literally shaking up the rock – fracturing it (fracking) to release the gas.

Fracking – or hydrofracking -is about forcing a liquid mud (fracking mud) composed of around 90% water with sand, chemicals and sometimes diesel, into fissures in the shale to extend them and keep them open to allow the methane to escape back up the drill shaft.

Drilling goes one or two miles deep below the surface, then turns horizontally into the shale, drilling longditudinally for up to the same distance. Then a series of explosive charges, set at intervals, are fired, cracking fissures into the rock.

It is into these fissures that the fracking mud is pumped under high pressure, forcing them to open further and, with the sand, chemical and oil elements retained to a degree in the fissures, keeping them open to free the gas.

The use of the explosive charges and the persistent pressure exerted on rock deep below the surface are together the forces that can cause earth tremors.

The immediate interest in the UK is the Bowland Shale, the substantial area of the Trough of Bowland in Lancashire and it is here that the Cuadrilla company has been carrying out test drills.

A matter of real concern is that the Scottish government has persisted in going ahead and issuing the first licence to extract shale gas by fracking in Scotland -and is prepared to licence more.

In early November 2011, Greenpark Energy was given permission to test drill for gas at a site at Canonbie in Dumfries and Galloway.

Greenpark, based in Berwick Upon Tweed, is also looking for permission for a second test site, two miles north of the Scottish Border.

The programme

Craven’s reporting in this issue in yesterday’s Countryfile trivialised, oversold, underinvestigated and failed to provide key information.

There was clear editorial skew within an overall approach focusing on the sensational – the possible link between fracking and earthquakes; and heavily underplaying the real issue – which is the highly probably pollution of water supplies through water tables, aquifers and water courses.


The report was keen to push the value to the UK of shale gas reserves.

Professor Mike Stevenson of the British Geological Survey told Craven that experts estimate that the UK has 150 billion cubic metres of shale gas – but that only 5-10% of this is likely to be extractable.

Craven then said that Quadrilla, the company that has been test drilling in Lancashire, claims that there are 50 trillion cubic metres of shale gas under Lancashire alone.

Cut to the second programme section on fracking. Craven introduced it, referring to: ‘Trillions of cubic metres of gas below Lancashire’.

Earthquakes: trivialising in sensationalising

The main public interest in fracking is the possible link between the process and earth tremors. It is the main public interest only because that’s all the public gets and ‘earthquakes’make headlines.

One would have expected more from countryfile but this was indeed the high profile part of the focus.

Craven began by saying, sympathetically, that fracking ‘gets blamed for’ a lot, even earthquakes – moving seamlessly on to saying that the company, Quadrilla, had ‘put its hands up to it’.

The general understanding of ‘blame’ is that it is not necessarily earned. The general understanding of ‘putting your hands up’ to something is that it is an admission of responsibility.

So the Craven procedure here was the dismissive introduction followed by the trivialising of the reality.

Quadrilla’s own investigation showed a link between their test drilling and the tremors felt in an area near Blackpool; and, as a result, Cuadrilla suspended operations for further research.

Water pollution: the side swerve, the underinvestigation and the failure in honesty

Focusing on the ‘pop’ subject of earthquakes allowed the programme to avoid saying too much or looking too far at the real issue – water pollution.

In describing what is pumped into the fractured rock fissures, Craven mentioned only water, sand and ‘a specific chemical’ – which was never identified or discussed in any way. Nor did he mention the industry’s fairly frequent addition of diesel, nor did he call this admixture by its industrial name of ‘fracking mud’. All of this necessary information would have frightened the natives and this was far from the purpose of the programme item.

Fracking mud contains benzene, a powerful carcinogen. Surely that is information that one would expect to have been mentioned in a programme that purports to inform and to be independent?

While the programme, through contributor Councillor Nigel Taylor from the Mendips, mentionnd the concern about ‘the backwash’ from fracking entering aquifers and getting into the water supply, it did not do three important things:

  • describe the chemical content of ‘the backwash’
  • describe the reason for the term ‘backwash’
  • focus on overground polluting as opposed to structural polluting below the surface.

To date there have been no recorded instances of below surface invasion of aquifers by drilling mud but there have been many of overground pollution, some very serious.

Companies try to recover as much as possible of the fluid mud pressured into the rock fissures – which is then highly toxic. But the question is one of storage. This usually employs ‘holding tanks’ – some of which are open artificial ponds with plastic liners no different from a suburban garden’s rock pool.

This can happen in three common ways.

  • spillage direct from holding tanks with toxic waste infiltrating river basins – a direct route taking contaminants into the water supply and the food chain
  • spillages from swamped treatment plants not equipped to handle such high levels of contaminants
  • blowouts

Fracking, like any process of drilling for oil of gas, can suffer blowouts. One blowout in June 2010 in Clearwater County in the USA  threw a 75ft high combustible rocket of gas and toxic wastewater into the air. It took the gas company concerned a full 16 hours to bring this under control and the authorities had to evacuate the area. Water wells and springs supplying local forest cabins were contaminated.

An insight into just what volumes of toxic waste we are talking about here is the sheer volume of water usage involved in fracking – up to 3 million gallons per treatment.

In the context of the UK already talking of severe water shortages from spring 2012, requiring a ban on garden hoses introduced from the outset, the volumes of water needed in fracking and rendered toxic in its processes, could not be a more serious consideration.

Countryfile mentioned not one of the matters in this section of this article.

The represenattive of Cuaadrilla interviewd by John Craven said happily that the process is just drill and go – that the drilling machinery is simply moved on to another site, leaving behind only the well head that os approximately two metres high.

All hunky dory. He did not mention, nor did Craven ask, what storage method was to be employed for the recovered toxic fracking mud; how it would be processed; or what of that would be left locally when the drilling moved on elsewhere.

This is the industrial equivalent of ‘wham, bam, thank you mam’ without a condom.

A Countryfile nadir

On 25th September 2011 we published a research piece: Fracking facts: pros, cons and issues. That ought to be read or re-read against the impression created by Countryfile.

This was a very low point in this enjoyable and well made programme’s history of integrity and environmental concern. It sold the environment seriously short. It avoided any informed investigation of the serious endangering of clean water supplies.

Craven indeed,. But to what end?

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9 Responses to Irresponsibly skewed Countryfile piece on shale gas fracking

  1. Much as I like watching Countryfile, the section where John Craven investigates is always the same format, following the BBC/Green agenda and ignoring any anti-climate change view. How the mighty have fallen since the grand old days of Newsround

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  2. Pingback: No Fracking UK – BBC’s Countryfile investigation on fracking, criticized

  3. You may have seen BBC 1s Countryfile last night – usual negativity but the content was good. If not, I can recommend using iplayer to watch 5 – 11mins and 19 – 26 mins of the programme. Never thought I would ever agree with a Liberal but at the end Chris Huhne appeared to be on our side ! ! ! Helps with the whole argument against turbines. Incidentally,
    14% of all the gas used in the USA is from fracking and costs one third the price of ours !

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. The US are actually selling 30% of their shale gas so its a big business that tramples on local communities. Here, we would have to find around 4 times that which is reported by Cuadrilla in lancs to offset the losses in North Sea Gas which is in decline year on year. This would mean drilling about 6,000 wells and this is not without environmental costs. The US is already seeing orphaned wells after a short a time as 5 years. This really is a flash in the pan that will not serve to help the situation in the uk for more than around 5-10 years at best. See DECC’s own data on this – we are all using too much energy full stop and shale will not contribute anything like a long term solution. The worse thing about shale is that its diversion from renewables. Good Energy are a 100% renewables supplier and have 30,000 customers 20% of whom are generators. They re-invest 7% back into renewable projects and are proof that renewable sources are working and are viable right now if only people and governments would invest. Not investing in new technology is condeming future generations to the problems and flawed thinking of the past. We dont need another short term fix. Fossil fuels belong in the ground and in the past. REAF [powered by 100% clean & green energy]

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  5. We did over an hour of interview with Craven. Then on the Friday we got a phone call to say that the footage would not be used? I personally offered contact with people who had felt the quakes and reported cracks in their houses but these where ignored. I then offered contact with a local farmer who had been offered a bung and refused only for his neighbour to accept and a pad site to appear in a field next to his polarising the previous long term friendship. This was also ignored. In our group the resident closest is kept awake by vibration / noises. God knows whats going to happen to air quality shoud they produce electricity onsite (one of the options they say!) or if they decide to pipeline the gas…

    In our BBC North West News interview we where also mis-represented and the short section of film portayed us as a few nimbys sitting around watching BBC reports and moaning.

    This is going to affect local communities and potentially could be anywhere in the UK apart from next to the houses of the MP’s – nor is the money made from it going to be seen by the communities who are affected by it. Everyone would have a different opinion if they lived by a pad site.

    The Beeb have done us, the local people affected a dis-service by not showing our side of the story.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  6. I just hate when people are accused of being nimbys,it really demeans a debate. But it is useful for certain people when they’re losing an argument.

    Webmin is correct that community benefit is unlikely and that politicians don’t live near these sites!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  7. I found this site following a search to see if anyone else had any complaints about Countryfile’s programme last weekend in which they trivialised and demeaned the arguments against fracking, as well as pushing the govt agenda of drilling in the North (conveniently forgetting that there are also shale gas supplies in the South). How surprising for me to read that they have given this matter similar treatment already. I was disgusted by their blatantly biased and misleading coverage.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

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