How this green land exposes madness behind your soaring energy bills: As Britain’s shale gas lies untapped, a despatch from a US state shows how fracking is thriving alongside unspoiled nature… and despair
- Hysteria over tremors and poisoned water means Britain’s shale gas is untapped
- But in Pennsylvania, fracking thrives and nature is unspoiled – with bills low too
- The U.S. state could have plenty to teach Britain about the virtues of natural gas
- Tioga County, PA residents and business owners say the economy is transformed
Set back from the road and nestled in the wooded hills of northern Pennsylvania stands a three-acre patch of gravel-covered ground.
The silence there is almost total.
There are no lorries clattering about, no sounds of excavation or extraction — and, in particular, no environmental protesters banging drums.
In fact, I can’t see any people at all — though I do glimpse deer pacing through trees nearby.
The site is all but empty apart from a cluster of seven assemblages of pipes and valves poking about 10ft above the gravel.
Green and pleasant Pennsylvania is now home to America’s highest gas output outside Texas
Known colloquially as ‘Christmas trees’, these are used to cap wells of natural gas that have been fracked: the controversial process that involves injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into shale rock, fracturing it and releasing the natural gas trapped inside.
This ‘well pad’, which pipes gas up to 900 miles away to Alabama, was opened last summer.
According to its owner, Seneca Resources, it will continue producing gas for perhaps another 30 to 50 years.
The only noise breaking the stillness is a quiet puffing sound every minute or so, as a heater comes on to dry out any moisture in the gas. It’s no louder than a domestic boiler — and I can still hear the birdsong over it.
Britain’s climate protestors have succeeded in blackballing fracking – and there’s a price
Fracking has transformed America from being a net energy importer, reliant on supplies from often unstable countries, to a net exporter.
Natural gas produces fewer carbon emissions than oil and coal, so it’s ‘greener’ and less polluting than they are.
Nevertheless, it’s still a fossil fuel — and thus, according to environmental activists, should stay in the ground.
Determined to do whatever it takes to thwart the frackers, they have also identified a host of other problems they claim the technology brings.
In Britain, an aggressive campaign has been mounted to dissuade the Government from embracing fracking.
It’s been very successful: many Britons hear the word ‘fracking’ and think of polluted aquifers, flames bursting out of taps spouting methane gas, earthquakes, toxic chemicals, huge water wastage and lorries carving up country roads.
Of course there are no votes to be won in any of these: and so, in 2019, the British government imposed a fracking moratorium. Until recently, ministers planned to close the country’s two shale gas wells near Blackpool — although fracking company Cuadrilla has been told it will no longer have to seal the wells, pending further research from the British Geological Society.
This stay of execution on Britain’s nascent fracking industry has, of course, been precipitated by the war in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s invasion has made clear Europe’s dangerous reliance on Russian natural gas.
As prices have soared — and are set to rise even higher in the autumn — Boris Johnson has faced pressure from some of his own MPs to unleash the UK’s fracking potential and help bring household energy bills down.
‘Christmas tree’ drills quietly and efficiently extract natural gas in Tioga County, Pennsylvania
‘Energy security’, meanwhile, is also a problem across Europe. Germany, for example, imports a third of its natural gas from Russia, and faces accusations that it cannot adopt a sufficiently tough line against the Kremlin as a result.
The Russians are keen to keep it that way — and are thought to have handsomely funded environmental campaigns to discourage fracking in the West.
A former head of Nato, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has said Russia has ‘engaged actively with so-called non-governmental organisations … to maintain Europe’s dependence on imported Russian gas’.
And as the commentator and businessman Lord (Matt) Ridley has pointed out, the Centre for European Studies found that the Kremlin poured almost £74 million into non-governmental organisation campaigning against shale gas, while the Putin-mouthpiece TV network RT has run frequent anti-fracking stories, including one that declared ‘frackers are the moral equivalent of paedophiles’.
Fracking – shale gas extraction – was halted in the UK in 2019 following earthquake fears
Environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends Of The Earth insist that rather than fracking, the answer is more investment in renewables such as wind and solar, and better home insulation.
And yet sceptics counter that that’s wishful thinking: it will take years before the UK and EU countries can fully wean themselves off fossil fuels. As if to illustrate this, the EU last month tripled the amount of liquid natural gas it plans to import from America until 2030. Shipping gas from America is both expensive and carbon-intensive.
How much better, proponents of fracking argue, to source gas directly from the ground under our feet. Especially, they add, when the Bowland Shale under much of northern England may be among the world’s richest sources of natural gas.
Could fracking really — and safely — transform Britain’s energy security? Nearly a decade ago, I visited North Dakota, then in the midst of a fracking boom. I was impressed by its economic transformation of a region that was dying on its feet, but it was clear that the sparsely populated U.S. state could hardly be fairly compared with the crowded UK.
Fracking involves injecting liquid into rocks to widen cracks and draw gas (file image, Poland)
Pennsylvania, however, is different — and it’s now America’s second-biggest gas-producing state after Texas. In 2005, there were only a handful of gas drilling wells in Pennsylvania, but today there are almost 11,000, with thousands more forecast for the coming years.
Tioga County is less than 250 miles from New York. While predominantly rural, it certainly compares with parts of northern England.
This is not an area desperate for energy industry money at any cost: thanks to a 50-mile, steeply forested gorge known as the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, it’s a popular destination for hikers and nature lovers. The attractive main street of the county town, Wellsboro, is lined with picturesque Victorian gas lamps (although they are not powered by fracking).
County Commissioner Erick Coolidge, the chief executive of Tioga’s local government, tells me his constituents initially needed to be reassured in meetings with fracking industry chiefs about the impact the technology might have on their lives.
Tellingly, what caused most unhappiness since then was when the gas price dropped and fracking dwindled, ending a mini economic boom and depriving the area of jobs and business from energy workers.
A decade after the fracking started in earnest, it’s so commonplace in Tioga County that locals admit they barely notice it any more.
Despite spiking energy prices amid the war in Ukraine, fracking is not a priority for Number Ten
And they have largely welcomed it, despite the fact PennEnvironment, a local anti-fracking group, claims frackers have ‘contaminated drinking water supplies with benzene, toluene, formaldehyde and other dangerous contaminants; dumped under-treated wastewater in rivers and streams; clear-cut our state forest land to make way for gas wells; and are crisscrossing the state with dangerous gas pipelines’.
Mr Coolidge, a dairy farmer who has been county commissioner for 27 years and leads the state-wide commissioners’ oil and gas task force, tells the Mail he is glad the town brought in fracking a decade ago.
He doesn’t deny that it has been lucrative for local government. Thanks to an ‘impact fee’, or tax, that Pennsylvania imposes on the fracking companies, the industry has added almost £19 million to Tioga County’s coffers since 2012.
This has been spent on social improvements including building a vital helipad for the local hospital, installing a new traffic-light system in Wellsboro and upgrading the prison.
And that doesn’t include the many millions that Tioga landowners have earned from leasing out their land and from gas royalties: estimated at almost £100 million in 2010 alone. (In the UK, by contrast, oil and gas rights belong to the Crown.)
Mr Coolidge admits it has been a learning process. Initially, energy companies exploited local ignorance of the goldmine on which they were sitting and leased drilling sites for far less than they were worth. ‘Some people were taken advantage of,’ he says.
However, local officials refused to be bullied. ‘We made clear that the energy companies were visitors — and when you’re a visitor you need to respect your environment,’ he said. ‘They’ve got to be able to do their job — but do it safely.’
He rejects as ‘fear-mongering’ the green lobby’s portrayal of fracking. In Tioga County, says Mr Coolidge, there has been no evidence of earth tremors — which is generally true of fracking across America.
Cost of living crisis and war in Ukraine slams brakes on Britain’s economic recovery as IMF slashes growth forecasts once again
The cost of living crisis and war in Ukraine will slam the brakes on Britain’s economic recovery from the pandemic in the years to come, the International Monetary Fund warned today.
The body slashed its growth forecasts for Britain and the rest of the world as it cautioned that inflation is set to remain elevated ‘for much longer’ than previously expected, hampering consumer spending – the main driver of the economy.
Britain’s gross domestic product is now expected to grow by 3.7 per cent this year, down from the 4.7 per cent growth predicted by the IMF at the start of the year and a further downgrade from its 5 per cent October forecast.
In its latest World Economic Outlook update, the IMF has also downgraded its expectations for next year to 1.2 per cent, from a 2.3 per cent estimate in January – the slowest rate for any ‘advanced’ economy.
‘In the United Kingdom, consumption is projected to be weaker than expected as inflation erodes real disposable income, while tighter financial conditions are expected to cool investment,’ the body said.
It comes as Britain’s economy was only starting to recover from the pandemic, having grown by 7.4 per cent last year after shrinking by 10 per cent in 2020, when Covid-19 restrictions brought many businesses to a halt.
Nor have there been any fracking-related health problems (despite opponents claiming a link between the extraction process and rare cancers among children). Nor has noise — generally from the fracking equipment rather than road traffic — been an issue, he adds.
Mr Coolidge concedes there had been ‘rare’ occurrences early on of fracking waste-water spilling next to wells, but adds that this hadn’t happened in years.
As for allegations that drinking water from wells near fracking sites had been tainted, he stresses that subsequent official testing had established no link to fracking.
Mr Coolidge blames ‘people looking to make money’ for the contaminated-water allegations, noting that on two occasions, the complainants continued to have gas wells on their property ‘so I guess it wasn’t too bad for them’.
On a country-wide level, myriad studies about the environmental effects of fracking have often contradicted each other.
However, two academic studies in 2018 found fracking in Pennsylvania was not contaminating groundwater.
Mr Coolidge admits that sometimes it’s necessary to play hardball with the energy industry. He urged anyone regulating fracking in the UK to consult Pennsylvania’s current strict environmental guidelines.
Fines running into millions of dollars for breaches had been crucial, he says, in keeping energy companies compliant.
Pennsylvania bans fracking within 500ft of any residential property. In 2015, the state required shale gas companies to publish online all details of the chemicals — typically amounting to just 0.5 per cent of the mixture — they use in the fracking liquid pumped down each well.
The industry emphasises most of the chemicals can be found in any home, including salt, acids used in swimming pool cleaners, disinfectant, hydrochloric acid and citric acid.
Another important consideration, says Mr Coolidge, is that the upheaval caused by the actual drilling and the fracking process is only temporary.
According to Rob Boulware, a spokesman for Seneca Resources, which has drilled 1,300 gas wells in the state and is now the main energy company in Tioga County, it takes about 25 days to drill each well and another 17 days to frack it. (A typical pad contains eight wells.)
After that, the wells will produce gas for at least another 30 years. Eventually the site will be restored as closely as possible to what it looked like beforehand.
‘Done properly, there’s no reason British people shouldn’t embrace fracking and care for themselves,’ says Mr Coolidge.
People in the fracking industry agree. ‘It’s a highly regulated industry — there are strict guidelines for every phase of the operations,’ says Seneca’s Mr Boulware.
‘We need an honest conversation about natural gas and hydrocarbons, and the fact that renewable energy needs something to back it up. But right now, we’re a convenient industry to blame a lot of stuff on.’
Seneca and its competitors know they face intense scrutiny and have been fine-tuning their practices.
A common criticism, for instance, is that fracking wastes huge amounts of water; but Seneca now reuses the water it uses to frack.
And technological improvements mean a single well pad can now produce far more gas than before, meaning fewer drill sites are needed. Those that are created are hidden from view as much as possible behind trees or earth banks, with metal pilings used to reflect any noise back on to the site.
Despite the presence of fracking, local wildlife remains in good shape – including bald eagles
At The Steak House in Wellsboro, locals generally agree with their county commissioner and give fracking a thumbs-up for the benefit it has brought the local economy.
Restaurant owner Geoff Coffee tells me he can’t think of any significant downsides, noting with relief that Wellsboro even managed to avoid the rowdy, overpaid drillers who brawled at the weekends in the neighbouring town of Mansfield.
‘The biggest issue is the people who didn’t get any money out of it,’ he says. ‘They tend to have been the ones who have objected.’
Had the fracking put off tourists? Not at all, said Matt West, a local tourist-information officer relaxing at the bar.
Mr West is an expert on bald eagles, one of the area’s main visitor attractions.
‘You can tell how well an environment is doing by how many eagle nests there are,’ he said. ‘There are more than 20 pairs now nesting in this county.’
The bald eagle is, of course, one of the symbols of America — and the country’s national bird since 1782. If they can live comfortably alongside fracking for years, many would suggest that — at a time of unprecedented energy crisis — it’s surely worth a try in Britain, too.
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