Fracking, the controversial process of extracting oil and gas from the ground has recently taken the centre stage in the public eye over the last couple of weeks with the ongoing protest camp in Balcombe. After Boris Johnson recently gave his seal of approval for fracking to take place in London, it was discovered that there is currently a Petroleum Exploration and Development License (PEDL) license to drill in Croydon.
Hydraulic fracturing or fracking as it is more commonly known involves drilling a hole into the ground and forcing a mixture of chemicals and water into the ground at high pressures which causes the surrounding rock to break and release the oil or gas trapped in the rock. Fracking for oil differs from fracking for gas in that hydrochloric acid is also used.
In 2008, PEDL license 245 was issued. The area encompasses Croydon as well as Bromley, Sutton, Mitcham and Epsom. The license is currently majority owned by Northdown Energy Limited. The Wimbledon based company was incorporated in September 2011 and employs less than five people. It is not a major player in the oil and gas industry. However Director Alexander MacDonald previously worked in the North Sea for both Conoco and Chevron. The company also has formed partnership with Alamo Energy – a US based company who have several large scale fracking projects across the United States.
Currently Northdown Energy are focusing on the villages of Otford, Dunton Green, Shoreham, Eynsford and Knockholt for exploration. Knockholt which is located within the M25 is the closest site to Croydon. Although Northdown Limited are focusing their energy more in Kent, their exploration license expires in July 2014. So they may still choose to look at developing sites closer to Croydon.
The company is currently looking oil which they plan to develop using more conventional techniques and not the controversial fracking process. However, there is no regulation to stop them from deciding to frack for oil if they so choose. Seismic tests were carried out by the company in the spring and will provide an estimation as to the amount of oil present in the area. It will also determine whether or not there is an abundance of unconventional oil which could lead to fracking being used in the area.
Whilst fracking typically occurs in more rural areas, it is not unheard of for the practice to take place in more suburban areas. In the United States, fracking is taking place within the city limits of Dallas, Texas. This had lead to a myriad of problems. Since 2010, the Dallas area has experience 3.0 earthquakes every year with the exception of 2011. Experts have argued that this coincides with the disposal of fracking waste which has been re-injected in the area. It is still unclear if such practices will be replicated in the United Kingdom.
Air pollution is a little cited consequence of unconventional fossil fuel extraction. Specifically with unconventional oil extraction, many companies have said that they will use gas flaring on site. Gas flaring involves the burning off of excess methane that is found when drilling for oil. As the methane found isn’t large enough to justify the price of producing it, companies opt to burn the gas instead. This has lead to increased levels of methane – a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide – in the atmosphere.
An increase of greenhouse gases is only one of the air pollution concerns associated with fracking. Dangerously high levels of cancer-causing benzene has been found in the air of towns in Dallas near drilling wells which has lead the US Environmental Protection Agency to call for new air quality controls near oil and gas wells.
Along with environmental risks, fracking leads to an increase in industrial activity. During the production phase millions gallons of water are needed to frack just one well. It is estimated that this will require nearly 1000 lorries. Not only does this lead to increase traffic delays but it also causes a lot of damage to the road.
In the United States, housing prices have also decreased significantly in areas close to fracking sites. American homeowners have seen their property values drop as much as 24%. Already in West Sussex where Celtique Energie have a license to drill for oil and shale gas, several residents have reported that housing sales have fallen through due to the impending drilling scheduled to take place there.
All of these risks sound very frightening and many people worry that there is nothing that they can do. However there are steps that local communities can take to resist the industry. In Australia, local communities adopted the Lock the Gate strategy.  It involves local communities getting together and deciding to declare that their area is ‘frack free’. They then set up a neighbourhood watch. But instead of looking out for criminals, they instead watched for oil and gas companies that are trying to move in the area. They then worked together to fight planning permission and if necessary form a community blockade as has been done in Balcombe to keep the drillers out. The purpose of the Lock the Gate strategy is to show that there is no social license for the industry in the community. And once one community declares themselves frack free, neighbouring communities soon follow suite. In Australia, this strategy was responsible for causing Dart Energy – who have now moved in to Scotland – as well as Metgasco to move their operations elsewhere.
Along with the Lock the Gate strategy, an important first step for everyone to do is to write to your local council with your concerns and to look out for any potential planning applications that are being submitted for approval.