Public Pressure Puts U.K. Fracking On The Defensive

Protests against a Cuadrilla fracking site in Balcombe drew public attention to the practice. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
Protests against a Cuadrilla fracking site in Balcombe drew public attention to the practice. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Fracking is on the defensive in the United Kingdom. Regulation of its dangerous byproducts and sustained public attention to its ill effects have led major driller Cuadrilla to withdraw several drilling permit applications, and public opposition continues to grow, with the environment secretary saying proponents have “failed to convince the public.”

Hydraulic fracturing uses huge amounts of water mixed with other chemicals to blast open underground fissures and find new deposits of gas and oil. Cuadrilla was initially able to dump wastewater from test wells legally, and it did, treating and releasing two million gallons into the Manchester Ship Canal.

But new European regulations in 2011 classified fracking water as radioactive waste, subjecting it to new safeguards. And indeed, a test of wastewater at a Cuadrilla site was found to contain radium levels 90 times higher than those of drinking water. Contaminants like metals, large amounts of salt, other chemicals, and high radium levels have been found even in treated wastewater. So for now, drilling is on hold in Lancashire as Cuadrilla attempts to develop new technology able to sufficiently clean wastewater. As radiation waste adviser Dr. Trevor Jones told the BBC, it’s unclear when drilling could restart as “suitable treatment technologies are not available off the shelf and that will inevitably delay fracking operations.”

Now that Cuadrilla is being forced to deal with the the dangers of its wastewater, the future of fracking in the UK is uncertain. Contrast that with the experience in the U.S. where wastewater is buried, at great risk of leaking into drinking water, or is even spread on roads.

Cuadrilla recently pulled out of drilling in Preese Hall, England after it was found to be “highly probable” that fracking had caused two small earthquakes. Again for comparison, one Texas town experienced 30 earthquakes in three months, likely caused by fracking, and residents’ concerns were met only with denials from industry and public officials.

Public protests have undoubtedly contributed to the UK’s careful approach. Despite a government push in support of shale gas, including financial incentives announced by Prime Minister David Cameron for localities that allow drilling, public support has been falling steadily. High-profile protests against a Cuadrilla drilling site in Balcombe drew thousands and resulted in dozens of arrests, including one of a member of Parliament. Meanwhile, an IGas drilling site in Barton Moss has been the target of ongoing protests for over two months, and others are taking action across the UK.

Even environment secretary Owen Paterson, a shale gas supporter, admitted as much before a Lords committee, saying “there is a large problem with public opinion, where those who are opposed have made all the running… frankly, we are behind the curve.” It’s the activists that are forcing companies to take fracking’s impacts seriously, and driving public debate on what should be allowed. As Paterson said, “we have failed so far to win the argument.”