Fracking, which has recently made headlines, is defended by the government despite damage to the environment. Elaine Graham-Leigh explains the problems with fracking

The anti-fracking protests at Balcombe, West Sussex, got media attention, but with the protestors simultaneously criticised as non-local ‘rent-a-mobs’ and as local Nimbys it hasn’t all been positive. With the company involved, Cuadrilla, denying that it is even planning to frack anything at Balcombe and the government throwing its support behind fracking operations with the most generous tax breaks in the world, the official message is that the protestors are either selfish or deluded, or both. In fact, they are right to be angry.

In Balcombe, it’s true that Cuadrilla is primarily looking for oil. There have been exploratory drills at Balcombe before so it is known that there is oil there, although it is interesting that it is worth Cuadrilla drilling for it now, when the previous exploration concluded that it wasn’t profitable enough to extract.

However, the protestors are right to point out that Cuadrilla is a fracking company and that if the oil turns out to be too expensive to tap, it is likely that fracking will be the next option. After all, according to the Energy Minister, Michael Fallon, studies for fracking are about to start across a large swathe of southern England, from Dorset to Kent, so why would Balcombe be excluded?

What’s wrong with fracking

Proponents of fracking would have us believe that it is the answer to all the ills of the UK economy; a way of releasing natural gas from our extensive shale deposits to replace the dwindling North Sea supplies, creating cheap energy and jobs. According to some it’s even green, as natural gas-fired power stations emit less greenhouse gas than coal-fired ones do.

It is, however, not so simple. Fracking – hydraulic fracturing, to give it its proper name – works by blasting large amounts of water through shale to release shale gas. In the process it can destabilise the ground in the area: last year, Cuadrilla had to stop fracking temporarily in the Blackpool area after it was implicated in two earthquakes.

It also creates large volumes of heavily polluted water, as the fracking process releases much more than shale gas, including radioactive elements. This then has to be disposed of safely and not allowed to contaminate ground water or water supplies. The line from fracking companies and from the government is that ‘there is no evidence of fracking causing any groundwater contamination’, as Michael Fallon said recently, but in this, as they say in parliament, the minister is mistaken in his mind.

There are extensive fracking operations in the US, particularly in Pennsylvania where the Marcellus Shale is one of the most extensive potential sources of shale gas. Companies there certainly have managed to contaminate groundwater and water supplies. In May 2011, for example, Chesapeake Energy Corporation was fined $900,000 for allowing methane to get into the water supply for 16 homes, resulting in the startling phenomenon of flammable tap water. Fracking supporters may argue that the methane got into the water supply as a result of the drilling which precedes fracking, rather than because of the fracking itself, but that would be splitting hairs.

Hiding the truth

One reason why these reports are not more common is that the fracking companies pay those affected not to talk about it. One family who were relocated earlier this year after their home was polluted by fracking was given a gagging clause forbidding them to discuss, not only why they had had to move, but fracking in general or even the existence of the Marcellus Shale. The ban also applied to their two small children.

If fracking were as benign a process as the government maintains it is, it would be unlikely that US companies would have to pay people to keep quiet about it. The official position that fracking does not cause pollution is dollar-based, not evidence-based.

As Michael Fallon made clear in his recent talk about ‘southern Nimbys’, if the government is determined to roll out an extensive fracking programme, they will be taking on their own heartland, the people who own million-pound rectories in Sussex or Dorset. If they are really prepared to do so it will be because assuring a continued supply of domestic fossil fuel is essential for capital reproduction, centred on the City of London, not the shires.

Renewable sources of energy could keep our lights on, but they would not do the same job for capital, hence the government’s stipulation to local authorities that they are not allowed to consider renewable projects as alternatives to fracking.

A few days before Cuadrilla started drilling in Balcombe, a trial started in Leighton Buzzard of the largest battery in Europe in what could be a breakthrough for renewable energy by allowing it to be stored until it is needed and so balance supply and demand on the national grid. The development of this technology would save greenhouse gas emissions and could save the UK £3bn a year (according to Imperial College research). But for capital, the best option is still to blast gas out of the ground.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.