Shale gas in Sussex: The battle of Balcombe

Materials World magazine
7 May 2012
A sight the residents of Balcombe are keen to avoid – a Cuadrilla rig at Preese Hall, Lancashire

As shale gas exploration turns its attention to the riches beneath the Home Counties, Tim Probert asks will the growing environmental opposition to hydraulic fracturing cause shale gas to go the way of GM foods?

The times they are a-changing. Since September 2011, when shale gas exploration company Cuadrilla Resources announced a 500 square-metre area of the Bowland sedimentary rock basin in West Lancashire held 10 times the existing UK natural gas reserves (see Drilling through the spin, Materials World, December 2011), the Lichfield-based outfit has met with increasingly well-organised opposition from environmentalists. And none more so than in the prosperous, naturally conservative areas of the Home Counties, where dozens of exploration licenses have been granted for onshore oil and gas drilling in recent years. Cuadrilla has two Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences (PEDL) in the UK. One is PEDL 165 for the Bowland shale in Lancashire. The other is PEDL 244 in the Weald, covering areas of Kent, Sussex and Surrey.

In 2009, Cuadrilla took on the latter license from energy project developer Warwick Energy, along with two other sites that already had some conventional oil drilling activity, including Cowden in Kent and Lingfield in Surrey. At Lower Stumble in Sussex, two kilometres south of the picturesque village of Balcombe, Cuadrilla intends to drill for oil and gas at the same site on the 3,000-acre Balcombe Estate where oil major Conoco drilled, and later abandoned, an exploratory well in 1986.

Cuadrilla believes there could be a sizeable quantity of unconventional oil and gas in the Weald Basin at a depth of around 762 metres beneath Balcombe. Conventional oil and gas exploratory drilling requires a vertical drill well. As shale oil and gas is stored within the shale rather than sitting on top of permeable rock, exploratory drilling requires hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, in order to make the hydrocarbons flow to the surface.

Therein lies the rub. Fracking is highly controversial. There are moratoria on fracking in France, Bulgaria, and in some regions of Germany, the USA, Australia, South Africa and Canada. Most of the opposition centres on the use of water. Shale gas requires approximately five million gallons of water per well in a typical six-well drilling pad. Approximately one-third of this water is returned to the surface, and this ‘flowback’ fluid typically contains the released gases – naturally occurring radioactive substances, metals, and volatile organic compounds such as benzene.

Numerous scare stories emanating from the USA of inflammable water supplies, polluted ponds and exploding houses, have added fuel to the environmentalists’ fire. Closer to home, an independent study found that two small earthquakes near Blackpool on 1 April and 27 May last year were directly attributable to Cuadrilla’s fracking activities.

To some, the US shale gas industry has been reminiscent of the Wild West, a free-for-all where developers frack first and ask questions later. This is partly due to slack regulation – fracking is exempted from Federal Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts – and there is growing, robust evidence of polluted rivers and other water sources.

Cuadrilla says it will use 10 fracking methods in the UK that are all ‘fundamentally different’ from those used in the United States. These include the use of steel tanks to store flowback water rather than in a bare pit dug out of the earth, an impermeable plastic sheath 45 centimetres below the top gravel layer onsite to prevent leakage of flowback water and facilitate easy capture of spills, and monitoring wells to detect methane leaks in shallow water supplies used by farmers.

The company says it will also use surface and intermediate cement casing of boreholes to a depth of 305 metres to protect contamination of aquifers. Regulations in New York State, for example, require casing to a depth of just 15 metres to prevent contamination of gas in water supplies.

A seismic shift?

Following the seismic events near Blackpool, Cuadrilla has agreed to follow recommendations set out in a study by German geophysical consultancy Q-con and Dutch consultancy StrataGen Delft, including seismic monitoring during fracking to spot anomalies before they trigger earthquakes. Cuadrilla will also reduce the volume of water used and reduce the pressure of fluid injection to avoid induced seismicity.

Other safety methods include the use of gas-sealed pipeline section threads, as required by EU regulations to prevent leakages, and an automated sub-surface (61 metres) safety shut-off valve to immediately halt production. The authorities are confi dent UK and EU regulations are strict enough. The Environment Agency has concluded there is no risk to groundwater if regulations are adhered to, while the British Geological Survey (BGS) says groundwater pollution is extremely unlikely.

The BGS is concerned, however, about the lack of data regarding methane levels in groundwater. Dr Robert Ward, Head of Groundwater Science at the BGS, said in December 2011 that it started conducting a year-long national baseline data study for methane in groundwater, focusing on seven regions where exploration licenses have been issued, including the Wessex-Weald Basin. ‘Establishing a baseline for methane in groundwater in different aquifers before shale gas production gets underway means future environmental impacts can be assessed, and appropriate management decisions by the Environment Agency can be taken,’ said Ward.

Meanwhile, South East Water has also expressed concern over fracking and is working with Water UK for water companies to be included as statutory consultees on planning applications. A spokesperson said, ‘We accept the risks to water supplies exist. In particular, the risks to drinking water supplies need to be addressed to ensure the safety of our customers’ water quality is maintained.’

Lucy Field, of energy consultants Pöyry, and author of a shale gas report for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, says water usage and disposal is the single biggest prohibitive factor in UK shale gas development. ‘We are in the middle of a drought and supplying water to fracking sites could be difficult in certain regions. We have enough trouble supplying water for our everyday needs. But the main issue is water disposal – the flowback water can only be recycled at most three times before it has to be disposed. In USA they truck the water in and out, but in the UK they may have to build pipelines, which costs.’

Cuadrilla says United Utilities has laid a pipeline that feeds water into Cuadrilla’s water tanks to avoid truck traffic at its exploration wells near Blackpool. The wastewater is sent by truck to the water utility’s Davyhulme Wastewater Treatment Works, while fracking mud is dealt with by a local waste facility.

Field says the environmental opposition to shale gas is overblown. ‘Quite a lot of the scare stories are inaccurate. There clearly have been instances of pollution that can’t be ignored, but these are mostly due to poor practice. If best practice is followed, such as proper cementing of wells, fracking can be done safely.’

Following the UK’s strict water regulations correctly will be expensive, Field notes. ‘Due to the population density and relative shortage of land, plus the cost of meeting more stringent regulations, we expect the costs of production will be at the very least 50% higher than in the United States,’ she says.

Public perceptions

Whatever the realities, the negative publicity and perceived ‘evils’ of fracking have galvanised increasing numbers of people to protest against shale gas development. Vanessa Vine, coordinator of the No Fracking in Sussex protest group believes fracking could irreversibly pollute the region’s drinking water supplies.

Vine notes that the Balcombe borehole is located 90 metres from the London to Brighton mainline, and less than a mile from Ardingly Reservoir and 170-year old Balcombe Viaduct. ‘There are too many unknowns Cuadrilla won’t answer, like whether or not the fracking water would come from the Ardingly Reservoir, which is already at very low levels due to drought. And can we be sure that even a small earthquake would not cause damage to an ancient Grade II-listed viaduct?’

In response to a statement released by Cuadrilla last December signalling its intention to explore for oil and gas in Balcombe, No Fracking in Sussex organised a meeting at the village hall on 11 January, inviting Mark Miller, CEO of Cuadrilla, and his right-hand man, COO Eric Vaughan, to speak. Miller agreed to make a presentation and answer residents’ questions with the express intention of winning over the local population with arguments based on fact, not emotion.

He failed miserably. It was obvious from the start that most of the 250 attendees at the packed hall were not overly enamoured with the prospect of their village becoming a fracking site, and it did not take long before the meeting descended into a verbal melée. Such was the anger from the audience, some of whom thought their pretty village was about to be taken over by American oilmen, representatives from Balcombe Parish Council and West Sussex County Council felt obliged to offer platitudes.

Rodney Saunders, Vice-Chairman of Balcombe Parish Council, said, ‘We received a one-page letter from West Sussex County Council in January 2010 stating that Cuadrilla wished to upgrade the existing site at Lower Stumble and to drill another exploratory well. The letter referred to a document on a website where we could have studied the application in detail.

‘We did not read the document, but had we done so we would have found, in the Appendix, a short reference to “stimulating the fractures”. I doubt it would have meant anything to us two years ago. We thought the application was a repeat of something done 24 years previously.’

Jane Moseley, Principal Planner at West Sussex County Council, sensed approving a shale oil and gas production license would be unpopular in the extreme and reassured the audience it had powers to halt development. ‘Unlike the previous planning application for an exploration license, we now know the potential signifi cant environmental impact of fracking,’ she says.

So as a public relations exercise, the meeting was an utter disaster for Cuadrilla. It was covered by BBC radio and independent television news, while prominent features appeared in The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph. Public awareness of fracking in Sussex – and opposition – is growing.

In February, a nationwide protest group, Frack Off, unveiled a 22 square-metre anti-fracking banner, for which a local property developer has given permission to display for four months in full view of trains from London and the south east, on a billboard at Brighton station. Does Vine think the protest movement can put a stop to shale oil and gas fracking in the UK? ‘I do not see it as a foregone conclusion that there will be fracking all over the place. We will not lie down and believe whatever the oilmen say.

‘An MP said that my letter was the only one he had received protesting about fracking. Well, believe me, his post bags, and the post bags of all the other MPs where fracking is planned, will be full of letters. This movement is growing every day.’

Lucy Field says shale gas development may be challenging in the UK. ‘Our high population density is likely to result in greater public opposition and more restrictions in built-up areas. There has been plenty of opposition in Blackpool. I’m not sure that the Home Counties will be even more averse to shale gas, but Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty have extra planning restrictions and the Environment Agency would have issues with any fracking activities near aquifers.’

Whether the Balcombe site will ever be developed is yet to be decided, says Cuadrilla’s Miller. ‘We have no immediate plans in Balcombe but we have a deadline of 2014 to decide whether to drill or lose the licence,’ he says. ‘Exploration is a high risk venture and the percentage of exploration wells that go into production is very small. We have a number of these licence areas that we may never go forward with. Lower Stumble is one on our list that we’re debating.’

Whether shale gas goes into production in Sussex remains to be seen, but the industry is in a fight and it will require strong stomachs and deep pockets to win.