Just outside a leafy village, not far from Preston, the horizon is broken by a chunk of towering white plastic – a façade for one of Europe’s first shale gas drills.Advertisement
With the decline of natural gas reserves, shale has become big business across the Atlantic. It now accounts for nearly 15 per cent of the United States’ annual gas supply.
The West Bowland shale basin, stretching from Clitheroe to the Blackpool coast, lies 4,000ft below ground and is around 500m thick.
Cuadrilla Resources, a company largely owned bytwo major American and Australian investors, has a license to explore 1130 square km across the county.
The Department of Energy and Climate change believes there could be 4,700 billion cubic ft of gas in the whole Pennine basin – enough to meet all the US’s needs for more than seven years.
Yet recently pressure has mounted on Cuadrilla because of high-profile opposition to its shale exploration.
Philip Mitchell, Chairman of the Blackpool and Fylde Green Party, accused Cuadrilla of “being very secretive,” adding: “They haven’t spoken to us at all.”
Huw Irranca-Davies, Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change, also wrote a letter calling for a halt to the drilling, so the government could guarantee environmental problems in America were not repeated in the UK.
This followed a statement from Neville Richardson, chief executive of The Co-operative Financial Services, “for a moratorium on any further exploitation of shale gas, which will allow the wider environmental concerns to be fully exposed and addressed.”
The Co-op’s verdict was based on a report it commissioned from Manchester’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.
The report raised the fears of climate change and water-supply poisoning from “toxic, carcinogenic or other hazardous” chemicals used in the controversial drilling technique known as “fracing”, which involves pumping down high volumes of mainly water and sand to crack the rocks so gas can then be extracted.
Cuadrilla has been robust in the defence of its methods, saying there is “No grounds whatsoever for a moratorium policy”, before chief executive Mark Miller separately invited the Shadow Energy Minister and the Co-op to come and visit the sites.
The controversy has been piqued because of Gasland, an Oscar-nominated American documentary, in which scenes show water from taps in homes close to US drilling sites being set alight in balls of fire.
Conservative MP Mark Menzies said he “certainly had a number of concerns” about the shale drilling at the outset, yet saw no reason to call a halt.
He added that the Tyndall report had looked at US drilling operations which, as he understood it, “bear no resemblance” to those in Fylde.
Cuadrilla has been quick to detail the benefits of their drilling, saying there is “the potential for an emerging shale gas industry to create new jobs and inject investment into communities.”
Though much of the work would be specialised, a Cuadrilla spokesperson pointed to the need for “local contractors for site maintenance” and that “hotels, restaurants and retailers have benefited from Cuadrilla’s presence in the Fylde.”
The company cited previous experience showing 10 per cent of project costs would go into the local economy, so that’s £1million already.
Much of the support for drilling is based on the belief that the UK could benefit from a new natural resource.
Cuadrilla says shale gas could account for 5 to 10 per cent of the UK’s gas requirements, and according to Mr Menzies: “The primary potential benefit is to the country’senergy security.”
However, Mr Mitchell of the Green Party explained some of the more local concerns: “How will it affect house prices, farming, and the tourist industry? It’s not as simple as saying it will benefit the economy.”
“When people were aware of the problems they were having in the US they were unhappy about it – and unhappy about having this monstrosity in their back garden.”
John Wood, 75, who lives half a mile from the site, said: “It’s an eyesore. I am not used to seeing things like that. I’m more used to seeing cattle and sheep and greenery.”
Yet one man next door, who asked to remain unnamed, was quite positive about the drillsite: “It doesn’t really affect me. I can’t see it.”
Close to the Weeton drilling site, Michael Greaves, owner of Primrose Bank Caravan Park,said: “I’m not bothered by it at all. We have derived business from it.”
“We have had two or three staying with us, but the local hotel has had lots. It has given me an income for a few weeks. They are very open and we have been speaking to them.”
But shale gas won’t be with us for good. Cuadrilla estimates a typical gas well will lose between 30 and 40 per cent of its production after the first year and subsequently have a steady annual decline of 5 to 7 per cent – leaving it drained after just 50 years.