LETTER: Information need

I HAVE been following with interest the correspondence in the Observer letters pages about fracking for shale gas.

I would like to echo Terry Richter’s call for unbiased factual information. This would enable us all to come to well-informed opinions on the pros and cons of extracting gas and oil by hydraulic fracturing or fracking here in the UK.

In his article in The Guardian on August 4, Terry Macalister quotes Tom Crotty, a director of Ineos, as saying: “It can take only three weeks to drill a well in the US and then everything is taken off site, leaving a wellhead as small as a desktop. Visual impact is extremely small.”

Yet the Sussex Wildlife Trust states on its website: “A commercial scale shale gas operation will require a number of well-pads, each around two hectares in size, where the pipes are brought to the surface. Each well-pad can contain up to ten wells and well-pads may be spaced about 1km apart. Estimates of the likely number of wells in Sussex vary widely. The typical lifespan of a well is 20 years, but fracking may need to be repeated at intervals to maintain production levels.”

This hardly sounds like minimal visual impact! So what are we to believe?

There are significant amounts of shale rock in the UK. Major bands occur in other areas of the country. If the UK goes ahead with fracking on a commercial scale we can expect to see thousands of drill rigs across many of the most beautiful parts of the country. Yet some experts say that the cost of extracting shale gas here in the UK makes fracking uneconomic.

Others argue that it will not address our long-term energy needs, nor will it have a significant impact on consumer gas prices. Energy companies sell their gas on the open market where prices are governed by international political events and fluctuations in supply.

An independent UK research group found that more than six per cent of wells in a major shale gas exploration area in Pennsylvania have been reported as having some sort of leak. In the South Downs, leakage would be catastrophic for the supply of fresh water, much of which is obtained from underground aquifers in the chalk. These aquifers often lie close to the gas-bearing shale layers. Once the water supply is contaminated the damage cannot be repaired.

In his letter Peter Arundale rightly points out that fracking has been taking place in the US since the 1940s, but my understanding is that the method of fracking that is proposed, using liquids injected under massive pressure, is untried on a commercial scale in an area such as the South Downs. Here, the geologists say, there are many underground cracks and fissures that make the movement of liquids and gases hard to predict or to control.

So why would the residents of West Sussex wish to be the guinea pigs for the use of this technology?

Michael Harbour

Forestside