Fracking fears for wildlife

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Fracking fears for wildlife

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I'm still on annual leave this week so here's another guest post. This one's from our Head of Climate Change Policy, Harry Huyton.

The debate over fracking for shale gas has taken over the environmental agenda in the past two weeks and voices on both sides are getting more and more shrill by the day. You can learn more about our position here.

RSPB submitted its first objections to two fracking sites last week and signed a joint statement with other environment NGOs in the Sunday Times. Our position led to coverage across broadcast and print media over the weekend and has caused debate amongst some of our members and supporters. So it’s worth examining the reasons we have voiced our concern now.

We don’t have any objection to new technology being used to help us produce energy – this is an exciting and important area of research. However we have, and always will, oppose individual developments in our countryside which have the potential to harm wildlife, be it a wind farm, a drilling well, a road or an airport.

Fracking at Singleton in Lancashire – where Cuadrilla have proposed a well – may not disturb the thousands of wintering pink footed geese and whooper swans which arrive nearby each Autumn. It may not pollute water sources and it may not lead to us overshooting our climate targets.

But the unquestionable fact is that we just don’t know. This is untested technology in the UK – a very different prospect to the US where fracking is now widespread. Developers do not need to fully investigate the impact drilling will have on the local environment. And the Government has not explained how extracting more fossil fuel from the ground will help us meet our climate targets.

These are the central questions we are raising. But this debate is really another example of a deeper, underlying challenge our environment faces in the UK.

The choice between renewed backing of fossil fuel extraction in the UK or continuing the transition to low carbon, renewable energy is a fundamental one. Too often, however, the currency of the debate is money. The Prime Minister recently talked about how “we cannot afford to miss out” on the benefits of fracking, for example, whilst the Environment Minister Owen Paterson talked of shale as a ‘god-given’ windfall. Fracking opponents often take a similarly human-centric approach, arguing about house prices and aesthetics.

These are important considerations, but their dominance in Government’s thinking is a reflection of how disconnected politics has become from our natural environment. It has been argued that our dire economic straits make cashing in on our natural resources necessary, but recession is not an excuse to shed our values. The biggest single piece of wildlife protection legislation in this country was developed during the Second World War, yet today’s leaders appear to be clambering over themselves to reel in environmental progress at the mere whiff of economic benefit.

Over in the ‘desolate’ North, along the banks of the Ribble, there remains a richness of wildlife that could inspire even the most urbanite Southern peer. In the spring and summer, you can see waders like avocets, redshank and godwit roaming the mudflats and wetlands. In autumn, hundreds of thousands of pink-footed geese arrive from as far as Siberia, providing an awesome wildlife spectacle. If you pay a visit, be sure to pop into Hesketh Out Marsh, one of our reserves in the area where you can see all this and more. It is our job as the RSPB to protect these special places, for wildlife, for people and for future generations.

We are here to defend nature when it is under threat, whatever that threat may be. Without any reliable evidence that fracking is not a threat we will continue to do everything we can to stop it in its tracks.

You can get involved in writing letters and e-mails to support RSPB campaigns and use your voice for nature. Click through to find out how you can campaign with us.

  • I have been researching fracking in New Zealand in particular its affects and what the work of the Green Party. You might like to follow this up. The Green Party Spokesperson for Environmental issues (Terrestrial Mining) is Catherine Delahunty MP. They seem to be much more pro-active than most of our conscientious objectors!

  • Hi all

    Thanks for your comments and sorry for not replying earlier. I had a few days off enjoying the gannets around bass rock among other things...

    You will have seen that Martin has posted a follow up blog today that addresses some of these comments, but here are a few further thoughts:

    Water contamination is an important concern given the nature of fracking and the US experience. The BBC posted a good article on some recent research (www.bbc.co.uk/.../science-environment-23724657). The Environment Agency is currently consulting on draft guidance on the regulatory framework for onshore oil and gas exploration (including shale gas) but this just brings together existing regulation, it doesn't propose to strengthen it or bring in any new regulation. However, we understand they intend to review this before shale gas moves into a commercial phase. We will engage in both of these processes.

    Water demand in areas under water stress could also be an important issue and would expect any proposals for fracking in water stressed areas to demonstrate that they're not going to increase the pressure on water resources in that area further.

    Ultimately, it's the cumulative impacts of large-scale commercial  development of fracking that concerns us the most, however - both in terms of ecological impacts and climate impacts. One well pad development isn't necessarily going to have serious impacts (if sited appropriately) but the cumulative impacts associated with thousands of wells could be enormous. As one of the other bloggers mentioned, the number of wells needed for fracking shale gas is greater than for conventional oil and gas extraction, and there’s potentially a very large resource available that developers are going to want to tap into. We’re concerned about how effectively the planning and regulatory systems are going to be able to assess, manage and monitor these cumulative impacts across multiple sites.  

    On the substitution of gas for coal as a transitional phase, our concern is the size of the challenge of meeting UK emissions reduction targets. To achieve this, the Committee on Climate Change have recommended that we need to virtually decarbonise UK electricity supply by 2030. Gas is lower carbon than coal but it isn’t low enough for us to be able to use it in large quantities and still decarbonise electricity supply as quickly as we need to, unless used in conjunction with CCS which is unproven at a commercial scale.

    Neal B - I agree that we need to have a full, open and more encompassing debate, considering all the evidence available.

    In relation to onshore wind, we do take the potential impacts on birds and wildlife very seriously. We invest considerable resources in assessing the impact of proposed wind farm developments and ensuring any that threaten protective or vulnerable sites and/or species do not go ahead. We will take the same approach to assessing the potential ecological impact of shale gas developments. However, the big difference between shale gas and onshore wind is the carbon emissions they emit: shale gas  risks adding to climate change while onshore wind will help to prevent it.

    Bryce - thanks for your comment on contacting local groups. We will be looking to provide information to local groups, particularly in relation to the specific ecological risks posed by fracking in their area. We're also worried about the recent planning guidance and whether this constrains the ability of local planning authorities to object to proposals for fracking in their area. We hope to provide information to local authorities that will help them to identify and steer development away from areas that are going to be most sensitive to fracking.

    Red kite - Useful insight, thank you. I agree on a case by case approach with regards to local impacts and that is indeed the approach we are taking, however, as noted above we do need an effective means of considering cumlative risks/impacts too. The climate change test needs to be addressed at the national level; unfortunately this hasn't happened yet.  

  • I whole-heartedly support the RSPB in it's stance on fracking.

    Anyone interested in climate targets and future energy needs in general may like to view these links:

    This report which was recently given to the Committee on Climate Change, the report is written by The Centre for Alternative Technology.

    Below is a link to chapter 2 of the report - context. At 17 pages long I suggest it is worthwhile reading for anyone concerned with the future wellbeing of our people, nature and planet.

    zerocarbonbritain.org/.../chapter-2-context

    You may find the full report a tedious read, you may find it extreme, but it is no more extreme than the future we face.

    http://zerocarbonbritain.org

  • I disagree. Fracking should be opposed in principle.

    The fracking process involves injecting huge volumes of water mixed with small quantities of chemicals (thought to include highly toxic benzine) into shafts at high pressure. This water is then further polluted by the shale gas flowing through it as the gas is harvested.

    Assuming absolutely none of this water leaches into the groundwater of the area being fracked, how is this water then disposed of safely? This question has not yet been answered as far as I know. If the water does leak out, and surely by the nature of fracking it would at-least escape underground via the gas seams if not via the vertical shaft itself, the impact may not be seen for many years - and could be impossible to reverse.

    The volumes of water used are immense (estimated at 75,000 litres per fracking operation), and while only a small percentage of that are toxic chemicals, Friends Of The Earth estimate the chemicals used would fill an Olympic swimming pool per every three drilling pads. Their PDF report provides further details and is easy enough to find on the web.

    I can see the potential financial benefits to fracking but this must not be at the expense of risking the environment. It is morally wrong.

    The government should instead be backing Biogas and offering tax breaks there. Some farms and industry are already generating biogas from their waste and feeding it into the gas grid which is fantastic. I also see a couple of smaller gas suppliers are pledging to purchase gas only from such sources, so soon we will be able to vote with our wallets whether we accept or oppose shale gas.

    Now that greater effort is required to extract fossil fuels, our addiction to them should be forcibly quelled rather than more and more extreme measures used. You only need to look at Suncorp's tar sands project in Canada to see where this leads..

  • "Today’s leaders appear to be clambering over themselves to reel in environmental progress at the mere whiff of economic benefit" - I couldn't agree more.  They should be called to account.

  • As a resident in the Fylde I am very aware of the impact hydraulic fracturing will have on the countryside.  I have attended information meetings by the main company involved in this gas extraction process and have had contradictory information about the safety of the process.  Like many people I would like some definitive answers to questions around the safety of the process.  

    I support the views put forward by the RSPB.  I would however suggest that the RSPB look to contact local groups across the country who are opposed to or want answers about the fracturing process.  I realise the RSPB will not wish to directly support such groups, but it may give a local view point onto the national stage if the RSPB was willing to consult with them.  Some of the more radical objections help no one and simply feed those wishing to impose the gas extraction lobby, with reasons to shout down objections and concerns.

    One huge barrier is the assumption that local planning will be over-ruled and permissions granted easily for gas extraction. Recent planning policy has seen the countryside built on, and if I may suggest, is another area the RSPB could be for influential in.  

  • I agree with the need for a larger and more encompassing debate about the potential role of shale gas and hydraulic fracturing in this country's energy supply ( / what sort of energy economy we want moving forward / the place of and pace of switch to renewables etc).

    And I would like to add a few points which I believe are important to consider in the context of this debate:

    - although the technology is untested onshore in the UK, there is a considerable amount of experience from the USA, and much of that experience will be relevant for the UK (despite the impact of differences in the legislative approach).  

    - while we continue in our hydrocarbon based economy and during any transition, I would personally prefer to see gas, as a relatively cleaner fuel, replace our reliance on coal and oil in our power stations.  It is worthwhile noting that in the USA, the boom in unconventional gas and the consequent fall in gas prices has displaced coal from US power stations, consequently coal producers have sought out markets in Europe and as a result Europe is now relying heavily on coal fuelled power generation and moth-balling proposed gas fired power stations – meanwhile the US without CO2 reduction targets is reducing its CO2 emissions while Europe with CO2 reduction targets is failing to lower its CO2 emissions.

    - one of the notable differences between shale gas (and shale oil) developments, compared to ‘conventional’ oil or gas field developments is the need for a substantially higher number of producing wells.  It may be that we are prepared to have thousands of wells across the southeast of England if the shale gas potential is proven and permitted here, it may be that the price is too high for the majority.

    Whichever way we decide to go, it should be after a full, open and more encompassing debate that considers the type of energy economy we want moving forward as well as the full current body of evidence from the global experience to date of producing ‘unconventional’ oil and gas.  The possible impact of permitting, or not permitting, shale gas developments on the environment, the UK economy, the local economy and population are all part of this larger debate.

  • There is a big campaign against fraching under way via Change.org so you can all join in by signing the petition here www.change.org/.../a-u-turn-on-fracking-would-be-the-wisest-option

    Fracking is really a huge threat to our water supply and the environment.

  • The problem with this action from the RSPB is that its politically motivated.

    There are far far greater needs for action in taking care of our precious wildlife than supporting the rabble of protestors , hangers on, opportunist has been actresses and left wing politicians.

    Lets get our act together and do the work that the members support you for. :-(

  • I am surprised and confused by this latest posting re. fracking. Yes, we have to find out about all the pro's and con's, but I fear this smacks of leaping on the "politically correct" bandwagon.

    At the weekend, I read an very interesting article about a site that has been fracking, admittedly intermittedly, for 50 years within and close to the RSPB Beckingham Marshes reserve, and causing no problems to the thriving wildlife.

    I find the relentless building of wind turbines, especially in my beautiful country, Scotland,to be a much more disturbing concept,

    damaging and destroying our magnificane land.

  • Windfall says it all - a one off short term solution. And then what? Fracking only delays the issue, it's not a solution. What we all need to do is reduce our energy use now while we can, before we're forced to. That would be a lot more unpleasant.

  • I would agree with the RSPB's general approach to fracking set out above especially that more evidence needs to be presented that it is not a significant threat to the environment here in the UK. However, should that evidence be forthcoming I do not think it would be wise to oppose fracking in principle. It should be opposed, if necessary, on a case by case basis based on sound environmental assessment. I also completely agree that if fracking produces cheap gas that that must not be a reason for the Government not achieving its carbon reduction targets.

    We do need to recognise however that this country has recently been building major facilities for the import of liquified natural gas (LNG)from overseas and if environmentally acceptably produced gas can be produced from home based sources as an alternative to imported gas, then it will save this country substantial foreign exchange currency and help to protect it from the fluctuation of world fuel prices.

    I worked with BP on the Wytch Farm oil field development project in Purbeck Dorset in the 1980s and I think it can be fairly said that that project which amongst other things, involved considerable liaison with the RSPB, was, overall, a success in every sense including its environmental aspects.

    The key issues in all this in my view is to provide sound and unbiased environmental assessment,and for good liaison between all interested parties, PRIOR to any on the ground work being consented. In this respect BP has the resources to undertake this work on the Wytch Farm project. A big concern is that a company like Cuadrilla does not have such resources and that therefore things can go seriously "off the rails" from an environmental point of view.

    The RSPB should therefore be quite rightly be very vigilant in this area but not oppose fracking in principle but rather on a case by case basis where the environmental impacts are not acceptable and/or the technical/environmental issues have not been properly addressed.