Fracking has caused further controversy in the UK as plans to begin exploratory drilling in the Mendip Hills for Shale Gas have come under attack from elected officials and members of the public in the nearby World Heritage City of Bath. The Mendip Hills themselves have also been classified as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Fears have been raised that the process of fracking, which fractures rocks by injecting vast quantities of water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals (the make up of which Shale Energy Companies remain fiercely secretive about) into the earth, could lead to the contamination of the city of Bath’s world renowned hot springs. Fracking has already frequently been accused of contaminating groundwater sources; a claim that the Shale Gas Industry has had to refute repeatedly. Figures in the industry have argued that fracking typically takes place at depths below that where groundwater sources are generally found.However the water which supplies the hot springs comes from a deepwater source. The waters at Bath have been used recreationally and medicinally since Roman times and are the back bone of the city’s vital tourist trade. Indeed Bath City Council have placed direct income from the Hot Springs at around £34 million per annum with the wider tourist trade bringing in £348 million a year to the city.
Paul Crossley, head of the Local Authority, released the following statement:
“There is a great concern that the process of fracking will result in the water courses leading to the natural hot springs being contaminated with pollutants from this process, or for the waters to adopt a different direction of travel through new fractures in the underlying rocks.
“Bath and North East Somerset Council has obtained the very best expert advice on this matter and there is little to suggest that any thought has been given to the deep water sources that supply the springs in Bath.
“Given the fact the hot springs are a crucial part of the tourist attraction that sustains thousands of jobs in the city, the council must stand up against the these drilling proposals in the strongest possible terms.”
The Liberal Democrat MP for Wells, Tessa Munt, has already written to Energy Secretary Charles Hendry to attack the lack of consultation with local people about the proposed fracking: “I share my constituent’s unease of this highly suspect method of squeezing the last drops of non-renewable fuel from a highly sensitive and indeed fragile part of the country.”
However such opposition is facing more than one problem. For one thing the Parliamentary Act introduced to protect Bath’s hot springs (the County of Avon Act of 1982, which requires council consent for any excavation below a set depth) is inadequate in this case as the proposed drilling would be carried out in the Mendip Hills. The Hills fall under a different local authority which is not affected by the Act and they are thusly under no obligation to consider the impact fracking may have upon the hot springs.
Secondly the UK government is under increasing pressure to allow Shale Gas extraction and fracking to be carried out across the West of England.Figures released by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) show that North Sea Gas production (and therefore tax revenue) has fallen 25% in the second quarter of 2011 compared to the same period in 2010. Shale Gas has been presented as a cheap bridging energy source in the shift from fossil fuels to renewables. Oil imports are up by 0.8 million tons from 2.8 million tonnes in the second quarter of 2010 to 3.6 million tonnes in the second quarter of 2011. This is despite a 1.7% drop in total oil demand.
Malcolm Webb, chief executive of the pressure group Oil and Gas UK reacted to the figures: “On the face of it, a production decline of this magnitude is extremely worrying and we need to investigate and fully understand what has happened here.
“For the sake of the Uk’s economy and its energy security, we should be doing everything we can to encourage sustained investment in our nation’s oil and gas resources to slow the decline and prolong the producing life of fields.”
Far more positive news was seen in the figures for renewable energy generation, particularly wind energy. Renewables are now producing 9.6% of the country’s total energy output; the majority coming from wind turbines. This is a significant increase compared to just last year when renewables were producing 6.39% of total energy output. The figures also revealed that output from wind energy has risen 120% year on year. Scotland’s commitment to renewables was also shown in the fact that the country now has 20% more installed renewable capacity than England.
Gordon Edge, policy director at Renewables UK made the following comment: “These statistics show the wind industry making a tremendous contribution to the nation’s energy supply. Wind is now providing enough power to supply nearly three and a quarter million homes in the UK. This will stabilise energy prices, as well as generating tens of thousands of jobs, and helping us to build a new lower carbon economy.”
With public opposition to fracking on the increase (demonstrated by the protests at Camp Frack) it seems that the energy future of the UK is yet to be decided. A future which only renewables can secure.