Fracking: A dehydrated UK, watered only by capitalism

When the UK’s water infrastructure is already in severe drought, why is fracking even being considered?

UK residents worry that the water consumed in fracking is going to make a severe drought even worse [AP]

London, United Kingdom – Fracking: environmental and human destruction at its very worst. Groundwater contamination, billions of gallons of fresh water squandered, small earthquakes, toxic air emissions, reports of radiation, and not even tap water going up in flames are enough to halt the decimation of our precious countryside, in an attempt to extract copious volumes of natural gas from the unearthed, sedimentary shale rocks below.

Desperate destroyers, shielded within a self-regulating industry, think of nothing but profit as they hydraulically fracture rocks with a lethal cocktail of chemicals, sand and billions and billions of gallons of fresh water. Fracking is the latest devastating testament to how destructive capitalism has suffocated and engulfed our precious planet.

In May 2010, after entering office, Prime Minister David Cameron stood up and declared: “I want this to be the greenest government ever.” That spurious statement has not been honoured. This British government has chosen to do nothing except ignore all the toxic consequences associated with the dirtiest and most invasive extraction method of natural gas.

Only after the first attempt at fracking in the UK resulted in two minor earthquakes, did the department of energy and climate change decide to commission a panel of (government led) experts to investigate hydraulic fracturing further. Published in April, the first official British report [PDF] advises ministers to allow fracking to be extended across Britain. Quite how this decision was reached is staggering, as the report is full of confusing contradictions that only highlights the risks and consequences. Key conclusions state:

  • The minor earthquakes of magnitudes 2.3 and 1.5, in Blackpool, Lancashire, in April 2011 were caused by test fracks at the first British test plant.
  • Further fracking will result in the same outcomes: “The similarity of the seismic events suggests this is a highly repeatable source.”
  • Concerns over the integrity of the wells and warnings of potential future contamination and leakage.
  • A “traffic light” system should be adopted, with quakes measuring above 0.5 triggered by a red light and the process immediately stopped.

Where exactly are the concerns and warnings over the sources, provisions and volumes of precious fresh water that will be wasted and contaminated? Why is this not a fundamental concern for the British government, which urgently needs to be held to account over their inept failure to follow through on their promise “to be the greenest government ever”.

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Draining the UK dry

There has been a huge amount of attention and focus on the contamination process and structural damage caused by fracking. These concerns are of course, extremely valid, but attention, analysis and focus must be directed towards the sheer volume of water used in the fracking process. Water: nature’s most important and kindest gift to humanity. How ironic it is then, that humanity shows its gratitude by intentionally wasting and poisoning this precious life source. It is nothing short of stomach-churning, attempting to rationalise the gargantuan volume of water that is used in the extraction of yet another fossil fuel. And how much water exactly are we talking about?

Amount of water used: It’s estimated that between two and five million gallons of locally sourced freshwater are used for each fracking attempt, depending on the depth of the well. That’s the equivalent of using the amount of freshwater that would fill four to ten Olympic sized swimming pools each time a well is flushed.

Number of wells drilled onto each pad: As fracking evolves, the number of wells per football pitch-sized pad is predicted at 20. However, the present proposals for operations in the UK is ten per pad.

Number of times a well is fracked: Examples in the US cite 18 fracks per well, but the estimates for the UK, following the test fracking last year, are between five and ten fracks per well.

A conservative average of the sums above would be: three million gallons per frack x ten wells per pad x seven fracks per well = 210 million gallons per site.

That calculation is just for one single site in the UK. Cuadrilla Resources, which carried out the the first test fracking in the UK, have plans for between 40 and 80 sites in Lancashire alone. If we take the midpoint of this range, 60 sites, and multiply it by the above calculation of 210 million gallons per site, that is a total of 12.6 billion gallons of fresh water mixed with toxic substances. That chemical cocktail will be just one of many responsible for eroding and mutilating the foundations of the planet we live in.

If yet another reason was needed why fracking should not even be contemplated in the UK, the Environment Agency has declared that East Anglia, the South East, parts of Yorkshire, the Midlands and the South West are officially in drought. We have been banned from using hosepipes in our gardens, and the wider impact on farming, the environment and water supplies is nothing short of a dire emergency – yet companies will willingly sell our sacred water to power fracking in the UK.

This, of course, would have never been allowed to happen if water stayed as it was intended to be – a public utility. Thatcherism changed all that, and our water was placed into the grubby, profit-grabbing claws of private companies. The hypocritical private companies now stand over the British public, instructing them to be mindful and responsible with personal water consumption. Golden nuggets of advice are bombarded upon us: “Take a shower instead of a bath;” “Don’t forget to turn off the tap when brushing your teeth;” and “If you try and use a hosepipe to water your plants or vegetables, a £1,000 ($1,600) fine awaits.”

As we currently experience the driest period in the UK since 1976 (despite recent soggy conditions), a leakage table released from industry regulator Ofwat, shows water companies in England and Wales are wasting, through leaks, a staggering 3.3 billion litres every day.

Where exactly is the water coming from?

United Utilities, who lose 464 million litres of water a day through leaky pipes, and are identified by Ofwat as “cause for concern” over the maintenance of their sewer underground infrastructure, sold water to Cuadrilla Resources for the first test fracking in the UK. Cuadrilla, who were forced to suspend their attempts at hydraulic fracturing in Lancashire in June 2011 – after triggering tremors – are awaiting final recommendations from the government before they resume fracking again. The company has also obtained licenses for fracking at sites in Sussex, Surrey and Kent – areas of all three counties are officially classified as being in drought.

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Cuadrilla refused to answer my question of how much they paid United Utilities for the 2 million gallons of water (four Olympic sized swimming pools) they used for just one fracking test. A spokesperson said: “We don’t answer questions about costs for individual items deployed in operations.” United Utilities also declined to reveal the price paid.

Cuadrilla estimate the highest number of wells to be drilled and fracked is 800 wells upon 80 pads. Each pad is roughly the size of a football pitch, blighting and ripping through the beautiful countryside of north-west England.

I asked Cuadrilla how they would ensure the UK’s drinking water does not become contaminated, as in the US there are reports of highly toxic chemicals seeping into water supplies. According to Dr Paul Hetzler, a technician who was responsible for investigating and managing groundwater contamination at the New York Department for Environmental Conservation: “If you were looking for a way to poison the drinking water supply, you could not find a more chillingly effective and thorough method of doing so than with hydraulic fracturing.”

Cuadrilla responded stating: “Of the small number of recent cases in the US from over a million wells drilled, issues relate to poor well casing design or storage of waste water in open earth pits on the surface. Regulations in the UK forbid such practices and in any case we would not follow such practices.”

In the US, 65 per cent of water used for the fracking of the largest known natural gas reservoir, Marcellus Shale comes from rivers, creeks and lakes in Pennsylvania. The other 35 per cent is purchased from municipalities by drilling companies. As if it wasn’t enough to begin contemplating the bedrock of the UK being shattered and fractured beyond repair, the thought of following the US example and draining the UK’s parched reservoirs and lakes is nothing short of terrifying. As predicted in the UK report, Broderick. J., et al: 2011, Shale gas: an updated assessment of environmental and climate change impacts [PDF]: “The first and perhaps preferable option is to use water from local reservoirs, rivers or raw mains supply and either transport it by truck or pump it, depending on the specific location.”

When questioned over the source of the water needed for future operations, Cuadrilla stated: “We will work with the utility companies when and where we need supplies.” A spokesperson then added: “We do not believe that the volume of water needed will present an operational problem.” The volume of water needed is so much more than a problem. It is an environmental and operational catastrophe – water providers in the UK, wasting billions of litres a day in leaks, are prepared to drain their supplies to appease and accommodate this monstrous and invasive process. It is also identified as problematic in the Broderick research report, which states:

“Requirements for water in commercial scale shale gas extraction could put pressure on water supplies at the local level in the UK. Shale gas extraction requires high volumes of water. Given that water resources in many parts of the UK are already under pressure, this water demand could bring significant and additional problems at the local level.”

The billions of gallons of fresh water that will be flippantly flushed into the ground is the very water that passes our lips, falls on our faces and waters our living organisms. Twisted and turned into polluted, toxic fracking fluid. It will never – and can never – be returned to the freshwater it originally started out as. It is destroyed and decimated forever.

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Last month, the European Environment Agency reprimanded Europe over its “inefficient” use of water. Speaking at the Sixth World Water Forum in Marseille, the EEA said the continent’s limited water resources were being wasted, and warned things were getting worse, threatening Europe’s ecosystems, economy and productivity.

There is a growing momentum of thousands of people across the UK wising up to the consequences of fracking. In Lancashire, where the test fracking was carried out, members of RAFF (Residents Action on Fylde Fracking) are ramping up their campaign. Deputy Chairman Ian Roberts told me their top concern was the amount of clean water needed for fracking:

“Billions of gallons of a precious resource will be destroyed by an unregulated industry. Let’s not forget that parts of the UK are suffering from drought conditions and when this water has done its job underground, some of it returns to the surface, having picked up background radiation and dangerous chemicals. There are currently 10,000 gallons of radioactive water sitting in tanks at the Preese Hall site at Weeton, near Blackpool. We’re petrified and so concerned about the long term destruction of our water supplies.”

Heading South to Wales, Andy Chyba, a passionate anti-fracking campaigner, tells me squeezing the membranes from our fossil fuels must urgently end. He helps run No Fracking UK and explains how ashamed and apologetic he feels in forcing our future generation into inheriting such a toxic legacy:

“We cannot predict the consequences of our actions. We know nothing about our preserved rocks and are taking the shameful attitude of: ‘Let’s do what we want, we’ll get away with it.’ We are advocating a process which has a huge impact on already fraught water supplies – and encouraging potential disaster.”

Andy, who lives in Bridgend has researched and analysed the potential impact of fracking in South Wales. He explains he just can’t come to terms with the astronomical amounts of water usage in the fracking process – and that’s basing his calculations on realistic averages:

“Three million gallons per frack is a reasonable average. Using industry sources, there will be an average of around ten boreholes per drilling pad, with at least six fracks per borehole in its lifetime – that’s at least 180 million gallons of water used per site. With sites needing be spaced at regular intervals of just a few miles apart (they are just a few hundred metres apart in some parts of the world) we could see 1,000 and upwards across South Wales alone. 180 billion gallons of water. That’s roughly 330,000 Olympic sized pools’ worth, or nearly three Lake Windermeres.”

The UK must not follow the US on fracking. We have followed the US on university tuition fees, the privatisation of our health service, our economic policy, and the dangerous desire of a near-unregulated free market – all with disastrous consequences. Fracking is banned in France and Bulgaria. Moratoriums are in place in Australia, South Africa, Quebec, New York, New Jersey and parts of Germany – what’s stopping the UK?

Siobhan Courtney is a British freelance broadcast journalist and writer. She is a former BBC World News presenter and BBC News journalist who has reported and written for BBC Newsnight.