03 March 2019

Oil and water

  • Hydraulic fracturing is a proven way of getting inaccessible fossil fuel
  • Its high-pressure methods have attracted widespread protest ranging from fear of earthquakes to water pollution
  • Its supporters argue that it is a vital new source of cheap energy and would make the UK less dependent on imported oil and gas

By Simon Barnes

Tom Goode was full of bounce that afternoon. The big skies of this very flat part of Nottinghamshire had been coloured in with a 6B pencil, but for Goode it was bright sunshine. “You could hear the bubbles!” he said, bubbling a fair bit himself. There were bubbles down that hole all right: who wouldn’t be excited?

He showed me a video: a three-and-a half-inch-wide cylinder of gloop brought up from the earth’s guts, and on it a kind of scar. And the scar was bubbling away: it looked as if we had discovered a beer mine. No wonder he was happy.

But it wasn’t the liquid that mattered: it was the bubbles themselves. The gas. Three fizzing lumps of gloop had been transferred to things like chunky thermos flasks: to warm the stuff up and see how much gas was lurking in the shale.

It didn’t mean that the whole thing was now a go. It meant that it might be. It might very well be, down there and accessible and in commercial quantities. Early days, early days: but all round this camp, a place where men live in containers to tend the chuntering drill at the heart of it all, there was a mood of wary optimism. We’re doing all right. We’re pretty damn good at this. If the stuff’s down there, we’ll find it – and we’ll get it out.

And let the fracking begin.

The rain was now falling in icy gusts. The protesters that stand daily by the gates at the Springs Road site, near the chunky old village of Misson, on the Nottinghamshire border with Yorkshire, had been reduced to one, but there would be more tomorrow. And the next day. The security guards are on cheerful first-name terms with some of them. Others not.

“Would you like to talk to me?”

“I don’t talk to people on the other side.”

“I’m not arguing. I’m listening.”

The location of IGas Energy's fracking site in Misson, Nottinghamshire

She was deeply suspicious but decided to give it a go. Not old, not young. She came from “down south”, no further details. And no name, not even a nickname. Fair enough. She wasn’t staying at the protesters’ camp a mile down the road towards Misson, she had her van. It was parked by the road: just big enough to contain her sleeping self, if she curled up.

“Why are you here?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Standing out here in rain and the cold, living in a van – that’s a pretty big commitment. I’d like to know why being here is important.”

Andrew Testa for Tortoise

Protesters at Mission Springs

It’s a look you see sometimes with people who have known, or who empathise with, terrible things. It lasts for fraction of a second, passing over the face like forked lighting. “They’re raping the earth!”

It really wasn’t an empty phrase, not the way she spoke it.

There was Goode with all the delight of a miner 49er finding a nugget, and there was the protester with no name, awash with helplessness and despair for the poor old Earth. So let us move forwards into the world of fracking, knowing that whatever side you stand on, this can never be a debate confined to rational discourse.

Hydraulic fracturing. That’s the proper name. Perhaps the harshness of the abbreviated form helps to fuel opposition to the practice. It sounds like a made-up swear-word in Porridge: Fracking ‘ell, Godber, why don’t you naff off?

Hydraulic fracturing is a very clever way of getting hold of previously inaccessible fossil fuel. When you reach a certain depth, you make the decision to stop going down and start to dig horizontally; in theory they could be drilling under your back garden a mile away and you’d know nothing about it. That’s not a thought everyone finds comfortable.

It’s not just a matter of making holes. You must use chemicals, sand and a great deal of water under very high pressure to fracture the rock and thereby release the hydrocarbons within. You read about the process and you respond: bloody hell, you must be bloody desperate for the stuff, if that’s what it takes to get it out.

We are.

“We’d all like to meet all our power needs with renewables.” I was talking to Natascha Engel, the fracking commissioner: basically she works in between the industry and the government, which is almost literally between a rock and a hard place. “Wind power currently supplies 2 per cent of national energy needs. Solar power is 0.5 per cent. So we import gas from Norway and Qatar, and that leaves a huge carbon footprint. We can reduce that considerably if we have our own gas.”

Engel is a former Labour MP. She gets cross with people who try and keep the industry out, especially where poor areas of Britain are concerned and potential local economic benefits are lost. “We could be energy self-sufficient,” she said.

So we went to visit Jamie Sutherton, a pig farmer. Cracking views of fracking from his fields. A stroll across his land to Misson Carr, designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest; a rather fabulous chunk of wet woodland, marsh and damp grazing land. Long-eared owls nest there: your answer to the question of whether or not they are still there – it’s a hard site to get on to, you need special permission – is likely to define what side of the divide you stand on.

And it’s a divide all right. Sutherton says the place is hooting with owls. Others believe that the long-eared owls have deserted the site. The people in the village, those who say property prices have dropped since the exploration began say it’s not the industry that’s the problem, it’s the protesters. “People think it’s a gypsy camp. Devaluing property – they’re doing it to themselves.”

Andrew Testa for Tortoise

The Misson Springs protection camp

Above the Carr a buzzard made a classic stall turn on one wing-tip. Turn in the other direction – and there the drill tower rises 30 metres. It’s a flat landscape here, drained by the great engineer Cornelius Vermuyden in the 17th century, but the drill tower is not the most obvious thing in the landscape. It seems that beneath it there is a Tolkien dragon, grumbling and complaining rather than howling. At the edge of the Carr there’s a noise-monitoring system. You’d prefer not to live near the noise; I’d prefer the main road to be further away from my own house in Norfolk, but this is no worse.

Ard Battye is asset manager for IGas, who are running the site. He has long gone past the urge for self-justification: don’t argue, don’t boast. Just show. Let the work speak for itself (though not too loudly). So, after a meticulous safety briefing, I climbed that 30m tower, dressed comically in one-piece overalls, hard hat, steel-tipped boots and protective goggles: there to watch the guys at the top directing the drill down, down down… at a rate of 0.4m an hour, because this was exploration and this was a particularly hard chunk of rock… through the obstruction and up to a dizzying 0.7 metres an hour. They were down 2,300m – getting on for one and half miles.

Battye gave a succinct lecture on drill string, oil-based mud, the circulation of water, the importance of viscosity and density, and the variety of mud additives that keep the thing running smoothly. There’s an oddly impermanent air to the place; also remarkably few people considering the amount of controversy it causes, usually between 25 and 30 every day, half of them local. You expect a place like this to be full of thousands of faceless enemies, in the manner of the final shoot-out in the classic Bond films.

This is life in the month-on, month-off oil-rig rhythm that seems so attractive to those who have never tried it. It’s a life of camping out, of permanent impermanence. With it comes the usual tough professionalism of the non-shouty kind. It may look like the surface of the moon to you: but it’s our world, and we know what makes the clocks work round here.

It feels slightly besieged: by the protesters, by the outside world, by the energy crisis that has no obvious solution.

Andrew Testa for Tortoise

The Misson Springs protection camp

But what happens next? “We don’t know,” Battye said. “We can’t tell anyone who lives round here what happens next, because we won’t know until we’ve reached the next stage.” They’ve got a total of nine months for the exploration process. The whole thing might be a bust, pack up your drill and go home and try again elsewhere: sometimes you spin the wheel and red comes up, but sometimes it’s black. It might just be full of rocks, and it might be a gold mine: for energy is today’s gold. And as for fossil fuel, they ain’t makin’ it any more, at least not in a way that’s much help to the next few human generations.

Fracking is banned in France, Germany and Bulgaria, so people look at that and say, well, there must be something in opposing views. “There is,” Engel said. “Votes. Or at least, they think so.”

Meanwhile the process continues with immense enthusiasm in the United States, Canada and Australia. If you live in the US and they find vast quantities of natural gas underneath your house, you’ll make a fortune. All you get in this country is a feeling of slight uneasiness: if they find gas under your house, you have no legal rights to a penny’s worth of profit.

Down goes the drill, down down, deeper and down.

And the industry feels ever so slightly victimised, ever so slightly bewildered by the fact that they are widely regarded as public enemies. When making their case, they say that it’s no worse than any other major industrial process: perhaps better than many because they’re forced to comply with so many regulations, so many areas of public concerns on a national and a local level.

We need the energy; we’re not going to get it from the sun and the wind, not in the quantities we need and not in ways we can store and use when we choose. People want to switch on the light in the morning but don’t necessarily want to see how the power got there – like chickens and battery farms. In some moods, people in the industry see the public response to fracking as a kind of mass squeamishness: they’ll eat the chicken all right, they just don’t want to see it die.

They also insist that their industry is safe – that’s why they invited me to look around – and that it’s highly responsible and it’s far more ecologically sound than importing vast quantities of fuel from overseas. If we want to continue our energy-dependent lives, then, the industry says, we should be cool and calm and logical and accept fracking as one of the answers.

Some hope.

Simon Barnes, who is a council member of the World Land Trust, a trustee of Conservation South Luangwa (based in Zambia) and honorary president of Alderney Bird Observatory will return to the subject of fracking in April

Further reading

What Nature Does for Britain by Tony Juniper (Publisher: Profile Books, 2015) The fiscal values of ecosystems services explained

Green and Prosperous Land: A Blueprint for Rescuing the British Countryside by Dieter Helm (William Collins, 2019). An economic argument for a greener economy

Letters in The Times on 9 February and 27 FebruaryArguments from academics and others on both sides of the debate, including: Nick Cowern, Emeritus Professor, School of Engineering, Newcastle University; Andrew Simms: Research Associate, Centre for Global Political Economy, University of Sussex; Dr Jeremy Leggett, social entrepreneur and writer, director at Solarcentury; Dr Peter Kalmus, Associate Project Scientist, Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science & Engineering, University of California, Los Angeles; Mark Z Jacobson, School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, Stanford University; Professor Peter Strachan, Aberdeen Business School, Robert Gordon University