On Monday, the North Yorkshire County Council approved the permit application for a test well in Kirby Misperton by a vote of 7–4.
NORTH YORKSHIRE, ENGLAND — Through the decades, the English countryside has been known to American audiences as the background for classic, beloved shows: Brideshead Revisited, All Creatures Great and Small, Downton Abbey. The casual Netflix viewer today is familiar with Britain’s brick villages, hedgerows, and quaint, narrow streets. Kirby Misperton (pop. 370) is such a village. It has been perched in the gently rolling hills of northeast England for, literally, a thousand years. “New” houses here were built before the United States fought a civil war.
But over a stone-edged bridge, on the other side of a narrow roundabout, and across from a picturesque dairy farm, sits a cement pad that could forever alter the future of the village.
It’s here that Third Energy, a Cayman Island-registered oil and gas company, has submitted an application to perform tests for some of the first high-volume hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as fracking) in the country. Under Kirby Misperton and the surrounding area is a bed of shale, mottled with pockets of natural gas. England’s leadership is hoping to frack that gas to transition the country to energy independence.
Third Energy’s application, set to be voted on by the North Yorkshire County Council on Monday, has divided the district of Ryedale — and the nation.
“They try to say, ‘Oh, well, you’ll get some kind of woolly community payment’ — benefit payment — but some of us say, ‘We don’t want the money. We want the environment and our lives and our quality of lives,’” Joanne White, a Ryedale resident and outspoken critic of natural gas development, told ThinkProgress. White and her husband even traveled to Pennsylvania last fall, recreating a trip their local member of parliament took, to see with their own eyes what fracking does to a community and a landscape.
We don’t want the money. We want the environment and our lives and our quality of lives
“There is a huge smoke and mirrors going on,” White said. “The truth isn’t out there.”
According to White, most of the community is against the idea.
“My view is that we don’t know enough about the science of fracking to say that it’s safe,” Tim Thornton, a retired physician in Ryedale, told ThinkProgress. “If we can’t say that it’s safe we shouldn’t do it.”
For Thornton, whose educational background is in medical science at Cambridge, this is an issue of what kind of Ryedale his grandchildren, aged 2 and 4, will get to enjoy. He points to studies from U.S. scientists showing that areas where oil and gas is fracked are seeing pre-term births and other neonatal health issues, as well as air quality reductions and respiratory problems.
“If they stay in Ryedale, they will be in an industrial area with poor air quality,” Thornton said. “People say the first thing you lose is your democracy, the second thing is your air.”
The Ryedale community is pushing hard for its democracy. Several local parish councils — including Kirby Misperton’s — have already voted against the application, but it still needs to be formally considered at the North Yorkshire County Council. The council was originally scheduled to vote on Friday, but that vote has been pushed back to a second meeting, scheduled for Monday, to accommodate the number of people who want to speak on the issue.
In some ways, the debate has unified the region, just as it did in Lancaster last year, where another permit application was denied. It’s not just farmers, doctors, and parents in this agricultural center that are opposed to the development. A group of high-profile Ryedale residents have already spoken out about fracking in a letter to the Yorkshire Post in December.
“This brutally invasive process, viciously disturbing countries worldwide, has five massively serious disadvantages that would industrialize Ryedale, eliminate its serenity, and devastate residents’ quiet enjoyment,” the lords, knights, and community leaders wrote.
Heavy truck traffic, noise, flaring, methane emissions, and “ruining the countryside” were all of concern.
“The applicant seeking to frack at Kirby Misperton cannot identify friendly fracking anywhere in the world without all these damaging disadvantages,” the letter says, urging opposition to the development.
As The British Government Pushes Fracking, Locals Push BackThe British government has made no secret of its support for fracking. Last year, it opened up bidding for fracking…thinkprogress.orgBut the county council’s vote next week is unlikely to be the last word on the issue.
This is the second permit application for high-volume hydraulic fracturing in England. The first, by a Spanish company called Cuadrilla, was rejected by the Lancaster County Council in June 2015, on grounds that the local environment — specifically traffic levels — would be too negatively affected. (Localities are not allowed to hold a referendum on whether fracking itself is good for the country or the climate, according to a directive from the Department of Energy and Climate Change.)
Shortly after the local vote, the conservative government made it clear that natural gas development is not up to the locals. In a surprising move, the Secretary of State said that he would handle Cuadrilla’s appeal.
The benefits of shale gas exploration are clear
The local MP, Conservative Kevin Hollinrake, is very supportive of fracking — a position which could cost him in the next election. (In January, Hollinrake resigned as vice chair of the Committee on Unconventional Oil and Gas after pressure from a local anti-fracking group.)
“The benefits of shale gas exploration are clear,” Hollinrake told Parliament last summer.
The Conservative government is openly, aggressively bullish on natural gas development. The government has decreed that natural gas is nationally significant infrastructure, like water lines, highways, and electricity. This designation streamlines permitting, and also gives some indication of how important natural gas development is considered.
Hollinrake sees no problems with the way fracking has been developed in the United States.
He visited Pennsylvania last year on a fact-finding mission and found: “It has brought economic benefits. There are more jobs, businesses like restaurants have more customers, wages are being spent in local stores and properties are being bought and sold at rising prices,” he wrote in the Yorkshire Post. “More people seemed happy about the industry and those against were in a minority holding very specific concerns such as proximity to residential areas.”
Hollinrake has backed buffer zones and “sensitive” development, but critics say his proposals aren’t even plausible in densely populated England.
Much of England is countryside, but even that is mostly developed. Outside of Kirby Misperton stretches large swathes of farmland, dotted with houses until it reaches the moors of Yorkshire, some of the country’s only preserved land. Less than 10 percent of England, which is about the size of Pennsylvania, is preserved (compared to the much larger United States’ 14 percent). While Pennsylvania has about 12 million people, England has 60 million. That means that within an hour and a half drive from the proposed site area are several mid-sized cities, such as York, Leeds, and Newcastle.
And Hollinrake has ideas about how the economic benefits of fracking could be spent.
“Revenue from shale gas should be invested in a consistent framework of subsidies to nurture renewable energy and new technologies including carbon capture and storage,” Hollinrake wrote.
That idea seems unlikely to fly.
While the government has said that it will review Cuadrilla’s rejected permit, citing the importance of centralized planning, it has meanwhile made it more difficult to develop onshore wind, citing the importance of local control.
“This government hates renewables,” Paul Ekins, a professor of resources and environmental policy at University College London, told ThinkProgress.
He pointed out that in the recent energy bill, the government purported to be giving local communities say over whether wind farms get the go-ahead. But if you read the fine print, the bill actually effectively prohibits wind development, because planning authorities “should only grant planning permission for onshore wind farm applications if the development site is in an area identified as suitable for wind energy development in a Local or Neighbourhood Plan.”
This government hates renewables
Ekins wasn’t aware of any local plans that include wind farms — it simply wasn’t part of the process when most plans were developed.
“Fracking could take place without untoward environmental effects provided the regulatory regime was sufficiently stringent,” he said. “[But] there are reasons for doubting whether this administration has the will to be stringent.”
It’s not that the federal government should have no say over energy infrastructure. Centralized planning, like it or not, plays an important role in making sure that there is adequate infrastructure for all. You might not want a highway running past your house, but highways have to go somewhere.
“There has always been a balance to be struck between nationally significant infrastructure” and local concerns, said Ekins, who is also the author of Global Energy: Issues, Potentials, and Policy Implications.
But for locals who are fighting against fracking in Kirby Misperton and environmentalists who are fighting against fracking worldwide, there is no question that natural gas infrastructure does not fall into the “must-have” category.
Just like the rest of the world, Britain’s government has pledged to meet carbon reduction goals, but it also projects that by 2030, 75 percent of its natural gas will be imported. That’s partly because the government recognizes that the current wells (the UK has about 2,000 conventional gas wells) are running dry, but also because it predicts no decline in gas demand through 2030.
“Clearly we are going to be using quite a bit of gas between now and 2030,” Ekins told ThinkProgress. But he recognizes that at some point, gas will have to fall by the wayside, and investing in fossil fuel development might not be the best path for Britain. “The world’s climate goals can’t go on being met if everyone who discovers fossil fuels goes on to produce them.”
It was only a few months ago that the Conservative government announced it would end the practice of burning coal for electricity by 2025. That’s a big deal here, where coal-fueled industries powered the growth of the entire British Empire. By 2014, coal provided only 30 percent of the country’s electricity. (Renewables aren’t yet positioned to take over for England’s nine coal-fired power plants, and given the government’s moves on wind and solar, it doesn’t look like the country is headed that way, either.)
In essence, gas is important to Britain’s power and comfort. Natural gas accounts for 30 percent of the energy consumed in the U.K., and it is used for roughly 60 percent of the country’s heating.
Right now, 80 percent of that gas comes from the North Sea. The remaining 20 percent comes from Qatar, and politicians and energy experts alike say they are concerned about dependence on Middle East supplies. (It’s worth noting that in recent decades, England has sourced up to half of its coal from Russia, so concerns about independence are either recent or embellished.)
Britain doesn’t want that 20 percent import rate to go up, but it would take a lot to make it go down by 2030 — especially without an aggressive strategy to use less natural gas. It would take literally thousands of fracked wells across the country for the U.K. to achieve anything close to energy independence.
And it is this plan, or lack thereof, that worries activists.
To counteract their worry, one of the major talking points put forth to defend fracking in Britain is that the problems associated with it — the water concerns, the air pollution, the climate impact — will be different here. It won’t be like “the Wild West” several people said.
They are referring, of course, to the United States, where fracking has been tied to a number of significant issues. During fracking, chemical-laced water is injected at high pressure into shale rock formations far below the Earth’s surface. The water breaks up the shale, allowing deposits of oil or gas to escape.
Fracking’s Total Environmental Impact Is Staggering, Report FindsClimate by CREDIT: AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File The body of evidence is growing that fracking is not only bad for the…thinkprogress.orgAccording to the U.K. government’s official policy statement on shale gas, “Our regulatory system is robust and we are proven world leaders, with a 50 year track record, in well-regulated, safe and environmentally sound oil and gas developments.” And British shale is deeper than much of the U.S. shale, they say, so it will be less likely to leach into aquifers.
But scientists and non-partisan policymakers offer a much more guarded analysis of Britain’s regulatory landscape. For one, the rules simply aren’t in place, they say.
An analysis out of the University of Leeds found that there was a “lack of coherence” in Britain’s fracking regulations and “uncertainty” over how they are applied. In addition, there are also questions about whether the U.K.’s environmental regulators would even be able to enforce what regulation does exists. After all, a law is only as good as its enforcement.
“There are real concerns for whether the environment agency has the capacity to adequately regulate a burgeoning industry,” Ekins said.
In the United States, the industry has been blamed for explosions and flammable water. The significant amount of waste it creates has been tied to both water contamination and earthquakes. And, to add insult to injury, most climate scientists now think that any climate benefits from transitioning to natural gas are nullified by the massive amounts of methane leaked during the extraction process.
“If you’re going to talk about the benefits of having a big-scale industry, we need to talk about the costs of that, as well,” Simon Bowens, an organizer with Friends of the Earth, told ThinkProgress. The new gas-fired power plants that are being planned, for instance, are “locking [England] into a gas future,” according to Bowens.
And it’s that future that worries Joanne White, and Tim Thompson, and the 12-year-old Ryedale boy who went door to door collecting signatures against fracking last fall, and the 200 businesses that signed a letter opposing the development, and the landed gentry writing to the local newspapers.
“They won’t talk beyond this little two-year bubble,” White said. “What are they going to do, when those flow tests come through, and they are — say if they are good — and they suddenly want to roll out this industry?”
White was talking not far from the fracking site at a coffee shop above a garden center on a grey, cold, and damp April morning. As the rain fell outside, a model train made an endless loop above the room. ’90s soft rock hits played softly while downstairs a stream of mostly middle-aged customers in sensible shoes and rain jackets picked out new plants and garden gnomes for the season ahead. And everyone hoped that the future would look very much the same.
“When I listen to scientists, who know an awful lot more about this than any of us do, the fundamental principle is that you can’t support fracking and support tackling climate change,” White said. “You just can’t.”