In November 2018 Natascha Engel wrote a letter which she circulated to media editors complaining about what she saw as unfair and biased coverage of fracking, with particular reference to their reporting of the problems encountered by Cuadrilla as they began fracking operations at Preston New Road in Lancashire. You can read her letter in Word format here or in PDF format here.
Let’s examine what she says, shall we?
Natascha: “There is constant coverage of the “earthquakes” caused by fracking at the Cuadrilla site in Preston. Whilst technically true because even the slightest movement underground is called an earthquake, it is not what normal people understand by the word.”
Reality: The ” constant coverage” was because of constant seismic activity which happened whenever Cuadrilla carried out fracking operations. Although “seismic activity” is perhaps a more precise description of what was happening, the use of the word “earthquakes” by media is not inaccurate and is perhaps more readily understood by the general public.
Natascha: “Quarry blasting is common in Derbyshire and causes earth tremors many times greater than fracking. In fact, a blast in the Peak District in August was so strong that it was picked up by Cuadrilla’s highly sensitive equipment as a 1.7 magnitude event. But it wasn’t reported because it had nothing to do with fracking.”
Reality: You can’t compare quarrying with fracking. Quarrying is a surface or near-surface activity and tremors are caused by the explosive blast and the resulting rockfalls. Fracking occurs deep underground and tremors are caused both by the deliberate fracturing of the rock and by subsequent unintended fractures occurring in the surrounding rock after drilling has been paused (known as “trailing events”).
Possibly the 1.7 magnitude event Natscha refers to was recorded as 1.7 as a surface blast: potentially far less damaging than a 1.7 event in the immediate vicinity of a fracking well. But just imagine the kind of explosive forces needed to trigger a 1.7 blast in a quarry: just imagine the amount of rock blasting out of a quarry face under those circumstances. Now try to imagine an identical 1.7 force occurring right next to a drill rig containing toxic chemicals being blasted into rock layers underground.
Fracking uses a mix of water (95%), sand (4.5%) and a cocktail of hazardous chemicals (0.5%) pumped into the rock at extremely high pressures. No-one knows exactly where all those chemicals go to (some is returned to the surface, but by no means all). It’s this, together with the trailing events that worries us. Quarrying does not use any such chemicals.
Natascha: “Geothermal energy falls into the renewables category and is therefore embraced by the very organisations that oppose fracking for gas. The same process of injecting water into rock (fracking) is used to access geothermal energy. “
Reality: Again, you can’t compare the two. The important thing here is that drilling for geothermal energy injects only water, and into existing faults. It doesn’t seek to create new fractures therefore is not “fracking”. Natascha says it “often causes larger tremors” but doesn’t give any figures to support this claim.
Natascha: “The traffic light system for earthquakes related to fracking was applied to the industry after it caused small tremors in Blackpool in 2011. It was set extremely low …”
Reality: The reason the so-called “red light” was set as low as 0.5 Local Magnitude (or “ML”) as the trigger to pause drilling is that any tremors detected during the drilling process would often be followed by “trailing events” which are almost invariably of a considerably greater magnitude. It has also been observed from fracking operations in the USA and Canada that continued and sustained fracking leads to an increase both in the frequency and the severity of tremors and associated trailing activity. The bar has indeed been set higher in both those countries but fracking in North America is often carried out in great wide-open terrain where there is little or no nearby human habitation. This is just not possible for fracking the Bowland Shale in the UK.
Natascha: “It [the traffic light system] was never intended to stop the industry but rather to reassure people. No such traffic light system exists for other construction projects that cause far greater tremors because they are not the targets of a well-organised and concerted campaign to stop fracking from happening in the UK.”
Reality: It’s there so as to pause the drilling when seismic activity over 0.5 ML occurs so that the activity does not become any worse, and to watch out for any trailing events. Trailing events at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site reached 1.5 ML within just a few weeks of fracking operations. Pausing the work also allows the operator to carry out checks on their drilling equipment and well casings to make sure that neither have been damaged or compromised as a result of the tremors. Natascha doesn’t specify what “other construction projects” she has in mind but again, it’s only fracking which causes such seismic activity at these depths below the surface, where any damage cannot be visually assessed.
By Natascha’s own admission the traffic light system was introduced after “small tremors” (which actually exceeded 2.0 magnitude) in Blackpool in 2011. It was introduced well before local protest groups began to organise themselves to stop fracking.
What Natascha fails to mention in all this talk about how the “traffic light” system is disrupting fracking is that the oil and gas industry itself agreed to the safety limits which it is now compaining about. They were so adamant that fracking did not cause any seismic activity at all that they were happy to do so; now that it has been proved beyond any doubt that they were wrong and that fracking does indeed cause earth tremors, they are whingeing because the system is working well.
Natasha: “By reporting fracking events that cause tremors of 1.1 (or indeed anything below 2 magnitude) as earthquakes but not reporting similar or greater events in other industries, the media is feeding the narrative of fear that originates from those who have been spreading scare stories because they want to stop fracking at all cost.”
Reality: The media is simply reporting what is happening. These are news-worthy events of great local interest. Does Natascha advocate a state-sponsored suppression or censorship of the news?
Natascha: “Where is the science in this debate? Without putting these earthquakes into a proper context and making people fearful about something that can’t even be felt, we can’t ever look at the wider picture and ask ourselves why extracting gas from beneath our feet is so important.”
Reality: We have been talking the science right from the very beginning of this debate: the science of injecting chemicals into rock to fracture it; the science of fracking activity causing earth tremors and creating more and more unintended fissures in the surrounding rock; the science of the millions of gallons of fresh, clean water each well would need to be mixed with the sand and chemicals to be pumped into the wells and injected into the shale deposits; the science of bringing hazardous materials up to the surface together with the shale gas and the need to transport it away and dispose of it safely; the science of damage to the local environment through drilling activity and the use of large numbers of HGV’s emitting diesel fumes as they carry water and hazardous materials along our highways and through our communities; the science of climate change and global warming and the need to stop using fossil fuels such as natural gas; the science of INEOS extracting ethane and propane from the gas to use in the production of plastics; and the science of global pollution due to the proliferation in plastics production. We have been talking about the science since Day 1 but the oil and gas industry, the Government and Natascha herself have been ignoring us!
Natascha talks about “something that can’t even be felt“. On Tuesday 11 December 2018 Cuadrilla had to stop drilling again due to tremors being caused. The strongest of these, measured at 1.5 magnitude was equivalent to those (also in Lancashire) which brought about a temporary moratorium in fracking in 2011. This latest tremor was felt and reported by several people in Blackpool. Admittedly, this occurred after Natascha had written her letter, but the 2011 events were felt at the surface.
And as for that question of “why extracting gas from beneath our feet is so important” that’s a question we ourselves have been asking right from the start. We know what the answer is of course: that a handful of very powerful concerns have seen what they think is an opportunity to make huge amounts of money and they don’t want anyone or anything to stand in their way.
Natascha: “Gas is significantly cleaner than coal. By changing our coal-fired power stations to gas the UK reduced its carbon emissions by over 7% between 2015 and 2016.”
Reality: Burning gas to produce electricty produces less carbon dioxide (CO2) than burning coal and produces fewer particulate emissions: but methane is at least 30% more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. So in terms of global warming, it is actually much worse.
Natascha: “85% of us use gas to heat our homes and over 60% of us use it for cooking.”
Reality: You could also say that 200 years ago 100% of us used wood to heat our homes and for cooking. We have changed our habits before and we can change them again.
Natascha: “Since 2004, we have been importing gas – more and more of it as our North Sea fields run out. That means billions of taxpayer pounds being spent on buying in gas from Qatar and, yes, fracked gas from America.”
Reality: The Government recently announced that new oil and gas fields are to be opened up in the seas to the west of Shetland, Orkney and Scotland. INEOS are a major bidder for these rights. Latest figures show that Qatar provides 29% of our imported gas (in the form of liquified natural gas), which equates to just 9% of our total national consumption. (We get less than 1% of our gas from Russia, by the way). INEOS buy fracked gas from the USA for their Grangemouth plant, but not one drop of our national gas consumption comes from America’s fracking fields. Not one drop.
Natascha: “Last year, of all the energy we consumed, only 2.2% came from wind and 0.5% came from solar. We are a very long way off a time when renewables plug the energy gap.”
Reality: Hmmm … in other interviews elsewhere Natascha has said that in 2017 (the “last year” she refers to, since this letter was written in 2018), renewables comprised 7% of our national energy consumption. Her figures just don’t add up. Has she suffered a memory loss or is it just that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about? Or maybe she’s forgotten what numbers she plucked out of the air last time around? Who knows?
However it may be, renewables do indeed make up a lamentably low proportion of our national energy usage. This is largely because of the Government’s policies relating to renewables. This Government has cancelled all subsidies for solar panel installations and has cut back on feed-in tariffs. There has effectively been a moratorium on on-shore wind farms. We do understand that these are no more popular amongst local communities than fracking is. So why can’t the Government take the same approach to fracking as it does to on-shore wind? In response to Natascha’s figures, we could equally say that in the same period, of all the energy we consumed, 0% came from fracking!
Natascha: “To help us do so, getting gas from underground in Lancashire, Cheshire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, creating hundreds if not thousands of good jobs in places that really need them, with the potential billions in tax receipts from a developed shale gas industry, we could save the money we are spending on imports and invest it in renewables instead.”
Reality: All this talk of hundreds if not thousands of good jobs being created is a complete fantasy. During the drilling phase the majority of jobs would be for technical staff; and these staff would move from one site to another as they are developed in turn. The only new jobs that would be created would be the HGV drivers needed to transport all the water and waste to and fro.
Where would the billions in tax receipts be coming from? INEOS have openly declared that all the shale gas they extract they would keep for themselves to power their industrial plants. And as for the gas extracted by other companies, the methane extracted would be used in our own national energy supply; and since the fracking operations are entirely privately operated, the country would still have to buy that gas. There would be no vast sums pouring into the Treasury’s coffers in tax receipts and there would be little money saved – if at all – in buying gas from the fracking companies instead of from abroad. Furthermore, much of our imported gas is subject to Trade Agreements which would be difficult to extricate ourselves from.
Natascha: “The real story that everyone seems to be missing by focusing on tiny tremors that can’t even be felt at the surface is that Cuadrilla’s test results look like there is plenty of gas down there.”
Reality: Natascha seems to be growing more petulant! Again, she’s talking about “tremors that can’t even be felt at the surface”, despite the 2011 events which were felt at the surface. The events of 11 December 2018 also disprove the point she is trying to make.
If Cuadrilla have had test results which “look like there is plenty of gas down there” then they’re keeping it pretty quiet. At the time of writing Cuadrilla have stated that they managed to get a small flow of gas in November 2018 from their Preston New Road operation, but they later rowed back on that by admitting that they’d had to inject propane to propel it out!
Natascha: “Forty years ago when we found North Sea oil and gas we rightly celebrated our energy independence, the hundreds and thousands of jobs that it has brought over the years and the boon to our public finances.”
Reality: Again, that claim of “hundreds and thousands of jobs”. If Natascha came up with an actual figure it might be believable, but again she doesn’t. Instead she takes the option of using a vague, unsubstantiated “hundreds and thousands”. Either it’s laziness on her part or she knows it’s a flimsy argument that can’t be supported. The boon to our public finances has long since been squandered away due to selling-off of oil and gas fields to private enterprise for private profit. Since fracking never will be owned and run by the state, there will be no such “boon to our public finances” from this dreadful industry.
Natascha: “But today we are behaving like we did in the mid-1800s when our nascent car industry was nearly destroyed by forcing a man with a red flag to walk in front of automated road vehicles to stop them from driving faster than 4 miles per hour.”
Reality: The legislation surrounding this was introduced as a result of protests and lobbying from those interested in promoting the railways as a mode of transport. It was repealed as a result of protests and lobbying from those interested in promoting the motor car as a mode of transport. What is Natascha’s point here: that protests and lobbying really can achieve results?
Natascha: “If we stopped all industries that caused 0.5 magnitude earthquakes there wouldn’t be a house, hospital, school or road built. That’s not precaution. It’s anti-progress.”
Reality: We’re not Luddites. We see true progress as the advancement of renewables into our national energy mix. The threat of global climate change means that we need to transition to an all-renewable sourcing policy as soon as possible: and that does not mean opening up a new fossil fuel industry whilst mothballing solar, wind and wave development as this Government is presently doing.
We don’t want to stop all industries that cause 0.5 magnitude earthquakes. We just want to stop one industry that causes earthquakes several kilometers below the surface where we don’t know what damage is being done, and when there are dangerous and hazardous chemicals being unleashed: not just those used in the fracking process itself but also those which are presently trapped in the shale deposits; chemicals such as selenium, molybdenum and arsenic which are bio-hazardous and a threat to human health and even life. We just don’t know whether any of those chemicals might become able to seep and release into other, more permeable rock strata or even, heaven forbid, into the aquifers; and more worryingly, even the oil and gas industry itself doesn’t know.
The industry tells us this can’t possibly happen: but they also told us that fracking doesn’t cause earth tremors, remember?