A county divided: is Lancashire ready for its fracking revolution?
• Graphic: Fracking – the facts and the faults
Robert Sanderson, a strapping dairy farmer, is standing in his muddy yard. He is in tears. Sanderson’s family and his Lancashire farm have, thanks to geological chance, ended up on the frontline of fracking in the UK.
“I’ve never wanted to do anything but farm,” says Sanderson, part of the third generation of his family to farm near Kirkham. “All my young lad dreams about is farming. Last night he said to me, ‘When I grow up I want to have the biggest tractor in the world’. How can they just take away generations of work? It’s not bloody fair.”
Sanderson is intensely proud of his prize-winning cattle, but fears pollution from planned shale gas exploration nearby will harm his children and poison his 400 acres. The issue has also split his family. His mother’s sister and her husband own the land near Roseacre on which the fracking company Cuadrilla wants to drill and have agreed to allow the work to take place.
“When my uncle Harry and aunty Christine bought the farm, I was the first to congratulate them,” Sanderson says. “But I didn’t know then what they were going to do with it. I can understand farmers need more money, but this is only short-lived. It’s going to ruin the whole farming industry in Lancashire.”
The Fylde, the flat, rich pasture land and villages stretching from Preston and the M6 to the Blackpool coast, is set to host the UK’s first full-scale fracking exploration, if Lancashire county council gives planning permission at the end of January.
Robert Sanderson is worried about the impact of fracking on his 400 acre dairy farm.Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Observer
Nationally David Cameron and the government have declared they are “going all out” for fracking, hoping to emulate the shale gas revolution in the US. But on the frontline the mood is more equivocal. Fears of the effects on health and plummeting house prices compete with the promise of jobs and money for communities, accompanied by accusations of misinformation and hysteria from both sides.
The site owned by Sanderson’s uncle and aunt is near Roseacre, and as you wind down the pot-holed lanes towards it, past the huge communication masts of the Royal Navy’s Inskip site, placards of opposition appear: “Don’t frack with Fylde”, “Health not wealth” and “What price fracking? Clean air? Clean water?”
At the site, an unspectacular stretch of grassland whose only current features are a black water butt and a dull rumble from the M55, Cuadrilla’s head of well development, Eric Vaughan, explains the company’s plans for up to four wells, each of which would see dozens of fracking blasts to release gas.
“I am excited we may finally get going again,” he says. “You have to be optimistic. We have tried to answer every question. Hopefully the planning permission will go through, so we can show people what it really looks like.”
A single frack at Cuadrilla’s Preese Hall site on the Fylde in 2011 produced good flow results, says Vaughan, but it also produced two small earthquakes, a government investigation and a false start for the company. “Because we had the earthquake, we decided to abandon that well,” says Vaughan, who is originally from Kentucky and for the past 30 years has been fracking all over the world, from the US to Thailand to Turkmenistan. Fracking at Roseacre, and at a second proposed site at nearby Preston New Road, will be under way by Christmas, if all goes Cuadrilla’s way. On Friday, the Environment Agency granted the environmental permits Cuadrilla needs for Preston New Road, and has already said it is minded to grant the permits for Roseacre as well.
“We are monitoring everything – air, water, soil, seismicity, birds, all those good things – to show there is not some great bogeyman out there,” Vaughan says. He thinks talk of severe health problems are crazy: “If you really thought that, you should be chained to the door of something. If you look at the actual studies, there really are no health effects.”
Engineer Mike Hill has met with government officials over his fears for the people living near the proposed fracking sites on the Fylde coastline Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Observer
In nearby Lytham St Annes, Mike Hill, one of the most vocal opponents of fracking in Lancashire, vehemently disagrees. “The health impacts can be severe. It’s an extremely messy business and we are going to have the most intensive fracking in the world,” says Hill, an electrical engineer who has addressed dozens of public meetings and met government officials. “The reason I entered the whole debate was because of my twin boys. Now it’s taken over my life. I am worried about the safety of my family, the safety of my environment and the safety of our lifestyle here on the Fylde coast.”
Concern for her five-year-old daughter also spurred Ebony Ava Johnson, a print designer in Lytham, into protest, as part of the Residents Action on Fylde Fracking group. “We are going by the emerging, peer-reviewed evidence on health,” she says. “Other countries are pulling back on this, so why are we the guinea pigs in the UK?” Fracking bans or moratoriums have been put in place in France, Germany and, most recently, New York state, but shale gas is being exploited in Denmark and the Netherlands, as well as across the US, Canada and Australia.
Francis Egan, Cuadrilla’s chief executive, reacts strongly to the suggestion of health risks. “I have had women come up to me with children in community centres in tears, saying to me, ‘How do you live with yourself giving my children cancer?’ That makes me angry, because it is deliberate scaremongering. The conversation rarely focuses on what we are actually applying for in Lancashire, as opposed to what is alleged to have happened in America or Canada or Australia.
“We recognise that trust is important, but what builds trust? You have to demonstrate some results on the ground.”
While the fracking has yet to produce gas, fracking money has started to trickle into the Fylde, portrayed as bribes by opponents and good corporate practice by Cuadrilla. At the century-old Lowther Pavilion in Lytham, where busloads of children are cheering and booing their way through the pantomime Aladdin, a new bar was opened last February helped by £10,000 from Cuadrilla.
Barbara Naylor, on the Friends of Lowther committee that raised the £40,000 total, said she voted against the move but was outnumbered. “The rest said we don’t want fracking but we really want the money. We couldn’t have done it without it. We did get a lot of backlash and some people stopped coming, but it has died down now.”
Just down the road, Andy Hiles, chairman of Fylde rugby club, also defends accepting £19,000 from Cuadrilla and its partner Centrica for a year’s shirt sponsorship. “We are selling them advertising and we charge them exactly the same as we would charge anyone else,” he says. Hiles would happily renew the deal, “but if in three years’ time they are digging up half the area and flames are firing from the taps, we’d obviously think again,” he jokes. Cuadrilla have also given £36,000 to Blackpool and Fylde College, to sponsor its young engineers competition for schools.
Stay Blackpool president Claire Smith believes that fracking could boost the local economy.Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Observer
“I think Cuadrilla and Centrica are doing a bit of a schmooze job,” says Blackpool landlady Claire Smith. “But if they do it they are bribing people and if they don’t they are ignoring us. They can’t win.” Smith is president of Stay Blackpool, which represents 200 B&Bs and hotels and is also part of North West Energy Task Force, whose administration costs are paid by Cuadrilla and Centrica.
“With every bone in my body I believe shale gas could be a huge opportunity here,” says Smith. “The recession has been horrendous, including the loss of 2,000 quality public-sector jobs due to government cutbacks. We desperately need something else and by some miracle they discovered shale gas beneath us.
“I am a resident and I am a mother, and of course I am concerned about health risks, but the anti-frackers are absolutely blinkered. There is risk in everything you do. Going out in your car is a risk, but you have to weigh up the risks against the benefits.”
Another task force member, Mike Damms, who is chief executive of the East Lancashire Chambers of Commerce, backs fracking but says: “There has been hysteria on both sides of the argument. For example, the number of jobs people say this industry will create has fluctuated wildly.” He also says the idea of millions in shale gas revenues flowing to communities remains “nebulous” and that people living near fracking sites, who might choose to move away if compensated, were “not being treated fairly”.
“There are people who think it may boost the local economy, but it seems far more likely to damage the reputation of the area,” says Paul Harrison, sitting in the smart spa hotel at the centre of the Ribby Hall holiday village he owns in the heart of the shale gas exploration zone. “Tourism and leisure do not fit well with fracking, flares and the transportation of waste.”
Like Harrison, Paul Hayhurst has lived in Elswick all his life, where he is a long-standing independent councillor on the parish council, as well as also holding positions on Lancashire county council and Fylde borough council. “I don’t subscribe to the idea that the Fylde will become a rich place if this goes ahead,” he says. “Any money will be taken out of the area.”
Hayhurst is one of the 13 county councillors on the planning committee who will approve or reject Cuadrilla’s application and says he remains undecided. He admits leading the opposition to a small gas well drilled nearby in 1989: “At the time we didn’t know what it would do to the area. But it has had no effect at all.”
But he says what is being proposed now is different and has caused concern among his constituents. “They don’t know how many drilling sites there will be in the Fylde, whether it will industrialise the area.” It is clear to Hayhurst that his corner of Lancashire is now in the national spotlight. The county council has been inundated with 25,000 objections to the fracking plans, from the north of Scotland to the Isle of Wight, he says.
He also feels that the enthusiastic support from the government has “loaded the dice” in the planning process. “There is a concern [among local people that] the government has decided that it might damage health, might even kill people due to pollution, but has decided to take that risk.”
Pam Foster, Ebony Ava Johnson and Ian Roberts of the Residents Action on Fylde Fracking group. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Observer
Mike Hill points to the deliberately lax regulatory regime for future fracking, which will amount to a collection of existing rules spread across a number of bodies. “The government is doing all it can to deregulate for the fracking industry but won’t lift a finger to protect the public,” he says. “You need a financially and technically independent regulator, paid for by a levy on the industry, and you need frequent, random inspections. I don’t blame Cuadrilla, I blame the government.” Ministers are currently pushing through changes to allow fracking under private property without the owners’ permission.
The Fylde MP, Mark Menzies, is, like many of his Conservative colleagues, grappling with the clash between his government’s fracking fervour and constituents’ concerns. “I am not happy with the status quo, far from it,” he says. “We need an independent panel of experts, paid by the taxpayer and not in the pay of the companies, and it needs to be done quickly, before the exploitation phase starts. I want a regulatory presence in Fylde on the ground, not just stuck behind a desk in Aberdeen as in the case of the HSE. If we can’t address these concerns, this is not something I can support.”
Hill accuses Menzies of coming to the issue late, as a general election looms. “He is bloody worried about it all of a sudden. He has stolen my clothes, stolen my undies … after the election he is going to throw them back at me unwashed.”
But though the arguments over fracking in the Fylde will continue to rage, large numbers of people remain either uninterested or uninformed. A trawl of five local estate agents in Lytham finds only one who says the prospect of shale gas development has had an impact on the property market. “We have lost a couple of sales because of fracking,” she says, asking not to be named. “I wish they would just get on with the fracking and then we’d know what we are dealing with.”
Ian Roberts, a retired civil servant and member of the residents’ action group, says opposition from local communities is set to explode. “If the wagons do start rolling in, I think there will be a massive upsurge,” he says. “But we are not anarchic, professional protesters. I am the chairman of the St Annes on Sea in Bloom committee.”
Cuadrilla chief executive Francis Egan believes that people will be won over to fracking once they see the results. Photograph: PR
Egan thinks most people are waiting to see what happens and can be won over. “It’s up to us,” he says. “If we screw up or do something wrong, it will be under the most enormous scrutiny.”
Whether or not Lancashire county council grants or rejects Cuadrilla’s application, and whether or not any subsequent appeals or legal challenges succeed, fracking has already left its mark on the Fylde. Pat Davies, whose home is close to the proposed site at Preston New Road, says: “Lancashire is being used as a test ground and we are the collateral damage. Whatever happens, this is now a divided community.”
“There is so much information, lies and misinformation,” says Claire Smith. “But it’s simple. Let them get on with it and see if Cuadrilla make good on their promises. If they mess up, that’s the end of that. But surely to goodness, with the potential benefits this could bring, we have to find the truth.”
Back on his farm, Sanderson is checking on his calves. “To the government and councillors, this is just something that comes across their desk. Theirs is just a job and they can move on,” he says. “We can’t roll up all this and move it elsewhere. This is a lifetime’s work. I want a ban for ever. I want it all to just go away.”
FRACKING IN THE UK
■ Cuadrilla’s plan for fracking exploration is to build concrete drilling pads measuring 150 metres by 100m at two sites in Lancashire – Roseacre and Preston New Road. If it wins planning permission in late January, it will drill up to four wells at each pad.
■ The vertical wells will be 10,000ft (3,048m) deep, but between 6,000ft and 7,000ft horizontal drilling will extend a kilometre under the surrounding land to tap into the fat underground shale beds.
■ Every 30m or so along the horizontal wells, water, sand and a lubricant called polyacrylamide will be blasted in at high pressure to fracture the shale and release the gas it contains.
■ For the first 60 to 90 days after fracking, the gas flow will be burned off in flares that will light up the night sky while its composition is checked. After that the wells will be plugged into the National Grid.
■ The wells will then be monitored for up to three years to see how quickly the gas flow from the fractured rocks drops off. If the flow rate is high enough, Cuadrilla will make further planning applications to go into production. There would be between 40 and 60 wells on each fracking pad during production, the company says.
■ After Lancashire, the next likely British sites for drilling are in Yorkshire, Sussex and Cheshire.