Someone needs to nudge Gideon Osborne’s father-in-law: it is not only in the “desolate” north where fracking is about to take place. Exploratory drilling using the controversial method to unleash underground gas and oil reserves could be about to come to … Croydon, CHARLOTTE JOHNSON writes
Fracking, the process of extracting oil and gas from the ground, has made the national television news in the past fortnight through a protest camp at a site in Balcombe, Sussex. The controversy is about to come a lot closer to home – London Mayor Boris Johnson has given his seal of approval for fracking to take place in the capital, and a Petroleum Exploration and Development Licence, or PEDL, has been granted to drill in Croydon.
Hydraulic fracturing, to give the process its full title, involves drilling a hole and forcing a mixture of chemicals and water into the ground at high pressures, causing the surrounding rock to break and release the oil or gas trapped in strata. Fracking for oil differs from fracking for gas in that hydrochloric acid is also used.
In 2008, PEDL licence 245 was issued. The area encompasses Croydon as well as Bromley, Sutton, Mitcham and Epsom. The licence is majority owned by Northdown Energy Limited. The Wimbledon-based company was incorporated in September 2011 and employs fewer than five people. It is not a major player in the oil and gas industry.
Alexander MacDonald, the company director, previously worked in the North Sea for both Conoco and Chevron. The company has formed partnership with Alamo Energy – a United States-based company that has several large-scale fracking projects across the America.
At present, Northdown Energy is focusing on the villages of Otford, Dunton Green, Shoreham, Eynsford and Knockholt for exploration. Knockholt, located within the M25, is the closest site to Croydon. Northdown’s exploration licence expires in July 2014, so they may need to take a look at sites closer to Croydon very soon.
The company is currently using more conventional techniques to find oil under the North Downs, particularly in Kent – where there was a significant coal field until 30 years ago. But there is no regulation to stop them from deciding to frack for oil if they so choose.
Seismic tests were carried out by the company in the spring and will provide an estimation as to the amount of oil present in the area. It will also determine whether or not there is an abundance of “unconventional” oil, which could lead them to use fracking.
While fracking is typically used in more rural areas, it is not unheard of for the process to take place in more suburban areas. In the United States, fracking is taking place within the city limits of Dallas in Texas.
This led to a myriad of problems. Since 2010, 3.0 level earthquakes have become commonplace. Experts argue that this coincides with the disposal of fracking waste, which has been re-injected in the area. It is unclear if such practices will be replicated in the United Kingdom.
Air pollution is a little cited consequence of unconventional fossil fuel extraction. Specifically with unconventional oil extraction, many companies have said that they will use gas flaring on site.
Gas flaring involves the burning off the excess methane that is found when drilling for oil. As the volume of methane found is rarely large enough to justify the price of producing it, companies opt to burn the gas. This has led to increased levels in the atmosphere of methane – a greenhouse gas 20 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.
An increase of greenhouse gases is only one of the air pollution concerns associated with fracking. Dangerously high levels of cancer-causing benzene has been found in the air of towns in Dallas near drilling wells, which has led the US Environmental Protection Agency to call for new air quality controls near oil and gas wells.
Along with environmental risks, fracking leads to an increase in industrial activity. During the production phase, millions of gallons of water are needed to frack just a single well. It is estimated that this requires nearly 1,000 lorries. Not only does this lead to increase in traffic delays but also causes a lot of damage to local roads.
In the United States, house prices in fracking areas have fallen significantly, in some cases by as much as 24 per cent. In West Sussex, where Celtique Energie has a licence to drill for oil and shale gas, several residents have reported that their house sale has fallen through due to the drilling scheduled to take place there.
There are steps that local communities can take to resist the fracking industry. In Australia, local communities adopted the “Lock the Gate” strategy. This involves local communities getting together and deciding to declare that their area is “frack free”.
They then set up a neighbourhood watch. But instead of looking out for criminals, they watched for oil and gas companies that are trying to move in the area. They then worked together to fight planning permission and if necessary form a community blockade as has been done in Balcombe to keep the drillers out.
The purpose of the Lock the Gate strategy is to show that there is no social licence for the industry in the community. And once one community declares themselves frack free, neighbouring communities soon follow suit. In Australia, Metgasco and Dart Energy – who have now moved in to Scotland – were forced to move their operations elsewhere.
Along with the Lock the Gate strategy, an important first step for everyone to do is to write to the council with your concerns, and to look out for any potential planning applications that are being submitted for approval. Of course, planning law has been changed recently so that not all affected residents in an area need to be directly advised of an application, and to speed the planning process generally.
With a suggestion that Happy Valley might offer Northdown Energy the sort of fracking site it is seeking, the residents of Coulsdon might soon have something else to concern them in addition to the consequences of the Cane Hill development or the traffic on Lion Green Road.
- Charlotte Johnson is a volunteer activist with Frack Off London. For more on fracking in London and the south-east, visit the Frack Off website here
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