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.
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.
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
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?