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Frack the system: The UK’s hydrocarbon threat

Frack the system: The UK’s hydrocarbon threat

With the fracking industry poised to attempt its largest assault on communities across the country to date, and what would be its most significant advance in this country since 2011 if not resisted, it seems an appropriate time to take a look back at what has led to this threat we are facing and examine what we are fighting for.

The Fracking Threat

The last decade has seen an explosion in unconventional oil and gas (fracking) drilling as easy to extract hydrocarbons have become harder to find. The system has been forced to resort to new and increasingly more aggressive extraction techniques. While oil prices are currently well below their 2008 peak, and new drilling has stalled in many places, this hasn’t stopped preparations for continued expansion once prices rise. Places where fracking has broken out of its US/Canada/Australia incubation zones include Argentina’s Vaca Muerta (“Dead Cow”) Shale where 400 wells have been drilled so far and Essar Energy’s Raniganj Project in West Bengal where almost 300 coalbed methane (CBM) wells have been drilled to date. While small compared to the hundreds of thousands of wells which have been drilled in the US, tens of thousands in Canada and over 7,500 in Australia, this could be just a foretaste of millions of wells coating large swaths of the globe, if not stopped.

The impacts of these wells, often drilled at densities of eight wells per square mile or more over large areas, on local communities has been extensively documented (from air and water pollution to spills and explosions). What has received far less attention is the systemic impact of these new, more expensive, energy sources on our societies as a whole. Fracking wells are expensive (and produce much less oil/gas per well), with a one shale well in the US often costing in the region of $10 million. Multiplied by the hundreds of thousands of wells drilled to date this add up to a rather hefty pile of cash (measured in trillions of dollars) and it is unsurprising that energy prices have needed to rise. We are now learning, from Goldman Sachs, that the fracking “boom” has driven oil and gas investment returns to 50 year lows (not that someone hasn’t been profiting somewhere), confirming the perceptions of a pyramid scheme driven by investment hype.

Extreme Energy-Austerity

The interaction between the global economic system and the fossil fuel extraction industry which fuels it is highly complex in its details, but simple in its essentials. It takes energy to extract energy and so some fraction of the energy produced by the fossil fuel industry needs to be fed back to power further extraction, rather than be used by the rest of society. In the past that fraction was small, a few percent or less, and could be easily ignored, though it was constantly growing as easier to extract energy sources were depleted, and slightly harder to extract ones replaced them. A slow, incremental increase. The peaking of conventional oil production in the last decade or so has changed all this, with extraction effort exploding as new, more intense chapter of fossil fuel exploitation has got underway.

Fracking and other extreme energy extraction methods, such as tar sands, deep water & arctic drilling etc. are not just poisoning communities and polluting whole ecosystems but reshaping the very fabric of our societies. When mediated through the mechanisms of globalised capitalism, and its associated markets, these changes are in no way confined to the areas where fracking is actually taking place. As a greater and greater portion of the global economy must be devoted to fossil fuel extraction, the resources available for other activities must be proportionately reduced.

The fossil fuel extraction industry has grown from under 4% to over 11% of the global economy in a short number of years, which has necessitated massive redistribution of resources. While much of this redistribute has been market based, through the mechanism of rising energy prices, this has been followed up by more deliberate, state focused re-allocations (austerity).

Of course in any such economic re-alignment there will be winners and losers, and as you would expect large energy related corporations, and their sub-contractors, have generally been the main winners. While the system is already well adapted to make sure that those lowest down the pecking order feel the brunt of such changes, the last five years have been dominated by efforts to insulate corporate capitalism from these changes, and displace even more of the burden onto ordinary people.

In this respect the pervasive effects of fracking, its economics ones, have already crossed the Atlantic. Mediated by globalised energy markets the costs of fracking, and other extreme energy extraction like tar sands, are already being born by people in this country. It is far from coincidental that the two major new political issues of our time, fracking and austerity, emerged at the same time.

Dominant issue for the 21st Century

This brings us to the heart of the matter, fracking is not just another environmental issue, but a key symptom of Extreme Energy, the complex interplay between the inevitable resource exhaustion caused by the voracious global economic system and the system’s increasingly desperate responses to that depletion.

This is a process, like “climate change”, which is only set to grow in importance, and seems likely to dominate every aspect of the 21st century. As easier to extract fossil fuels are used up, and that is happening at a frightening rate, only harder to extract ones remain to take their place. Absent massive cuts in energy usage, this is a process that can only go in one direction. And there are even more costly and damaging extraction techniques being lined up behind the current crop, fracking, tar sands etc., such as underground coal gasification, oil shale (not to be confused with shale oil) and methane hydrates.

While climate change is portrayed as the issue to end all issues, the reality somewhat more complex. The cumulative effects of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere are constantly growing, but it is entirely unclear when, and if, changes to the global climate will dominate over the socio-economic and local environmental effects of fossil fuels. While half a million people a year are being killed by climate change, 5 million are killed directly by fossil fuel pollution and many millions more by the intensifying wars to control these dwindling resources. The climate change fatalities will grow but at present other impacts are growing much faster. Ironically we are now in a position where we have a serious fight on our hands, even to get to the point where climate change is our greatest problem.

The disproportionate focus on climate seems to stem for is a “safe,” distant, abstract threat, a worry that requires no immediate action. Fracking on the other hand changes all that. Not only does it bring the threat of immediate impacts to doorsteps of anyone within a licensed area, it also crosses all class boundaries, pitting local communities, rich or poor, against the fossil fuel industry. Even the perceived rural/urban divide is illusory, with fracking sites creeping into Texan cities. Once the economic impacts of fracking are factored in fracking is a threat to everyone, save perhaps the most privileged.

Fracking Resistance

Fighting fracking isn’t about begging the political classes, who arguably don’t have the power if they had the will, to bite the hand that feeds them and start dismantling the current system. Instead it is about getting in front of the leading edge of fossil fuel exploitation and standing in the way of global capitalism expanding its use of fossil fuels. Shutting down established institutions is always going to be much harder than stopping something new from starting, but if those institutions are part of a system which also require these new changes, then the game has changed.

In the new normal we now inhabit it is no longer necessary to fight to change the status quo, because the continued existence of the system depends, not on business as usual, but constant, aggressive and radical change, be it new economic frontiers or the aggresive use of austerity.

Talk of banning fracking is like talk of banning capitalism or world trade, lots of hot air but the system must keep rolling on regardless, because it has no other choice. There are only two real sides in the fracking fight, pro-energy consumption and anti-energy consumption. But of course even this is only a transitory dichotomy, in the long run fossil fuels will be exhausted, human energy consumption will fall, massively, and with it the social constructs which have seen half the world’s population move into cities over the last century.

The trans-national corporations, mega-cities, and neo-colonial empires which have been so constructed, have a major difference from anything which has preceded them. All these inhuman entities require fossil fuels in order to exist and will fight tooth and nail to maintain access to them. We are faced with a fight to the death, where there is no second place. Either we destroy the massive corporate entities which presently dominate our existence or they will they will drag us down.

Like the peoples of some earlier era’s, such as those who resisted the industrial revolution, we are faced with a system which is trying to change itself, and us, fundamentally. Like them we will be ridiculed for standing in the way of such “progress”, but the hollow nature of such mythology becomes increasingly stark by the day. Unlike the past we have two clear advantages. Firstly the current system’s need for change is much more desperately and delays more likely to unmask that desperation, if not completely destabilise it. Secondly present communications technology means the scope for coordinated local action across whole countries or even globally, to block or at least delay these these measures, seems far greater than it has ever been before. Wherever fracking companies want to drill there are threatened local communities who, with the right information, can be a thorn in the industry’s side. A few thorns can be dealt with but thousands, or millions, is another story.

This is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, but while the stakes could not be higher, at least this time real systemic change is inevitable. The capitalist-industrial system has been digging its own grave for a long time, the only question is whether these unavoidable changes can be steered in a positive direction. Building a broad based, but radical, decentralised resistance to the system’s attempts to sustain itself a while longer is crucial. On the fracking front a good start has been made in resisting attempts to sustain the system a little longer, through an intensification of destructive energy extraction.

Current Fracking Frontlines

The present fracking situation in this country can best be described as a slow motion invasion, being fought on numerous fronts, most actively by threatened local communities, in a manner reminiscent of guerrilla warfare. Not that you will find many Kalashnikov toting partisans in the home-counties, or even Lancashire, but strategically, the modus operandi has many parallels. Fighting on numerous small fronts, the currently 250 plus local anti-fracking groups, have been delaying and ramping up the costs of fracking projects, wearing down the opposition and deterring the investment on which the industry relies. Not a single well has been hydraulically fractured since Cuadrilla’s disastrous attempt at Preese Hall (where the well was damaged by an induced earthquake), and the number of vertical test wells (primarily to obtain core samples) have been vastly reduced from what was planned.

This is no reason to be complacent, the industry is in the process of lining up the most significant assault to date and the threat is spreading as more areas have been licensed. That said, the growing threat is mobilising more resistance every day and this community-based movement seems unlikely to be a flash in the pan (these communities have little choice but to stand and fight). While all licences areas are under some threat, as well as many areas which are not licensed, there are definitely areas where the threat is more immediate that others. Below are listed some of the most important frontlines in the fight against fracking.

Lancashire — Cuadrilla Resources (Shale Gas)

Frackers, Cuadrilla, has plans for two large appraisal sites in Lancashire as it attempts to overcome years of delays in its attempts to exploit the Bowland Shale. These are the largest propose fracking sites in the UK to date, with four horizontal wells each, and would require two years of drilling and hydraulic fracturing, producing vast quantities of toxic and radioactive waste, needing in the region of 20,000 truck movements per site.

Last year Cuadrilla came up against enormous community opposition in Lancashire and its two flagship UK fracking projects were rejected by the County Council, a major blow the industry as a whole. Now the company are appealing those decisions, with central government set to bypass the local communities and grant approval anytime now.

North Yorkshire — Third Energy (Tight/Shale Gas)

In North Yorkshire, as in Lancashire, the Bowland Shale is the primary target, and companies are scrambling to try to exploit it.

Cuadrilla and INEOS have recently acquired licences in the area, but an existing licence holder Third Energy has a head start, with planning permission for a hydraulic fracturing test on its Kirby Misperton well obtained in May.

The company plans to initially target tight sandstone layers within the Bowland Shale (so called tight gas), but this unconventional extraction is very similar to shale gas, and a step on the way to exploiting the shale itself.
Legal challenges by residents seem set to delay any work until at least the end of November.

East Midlands — IGas Energy (Shale Gas)

A major fracking push is also underway in North Nottinghamshire where IGas Energy (with the backing of Total SA) are threatening communities in Bassetlaw, with a planning application for a shale gas exploration site with two wells at Misson due to be decided in October and has submitted another application for one well on another site at Tinker Lane near Blyth. While IGas seem to be in increasing financial difficulty, and may or may not be in much of a position to act of any planning permission they obtain, the licences could easily be sold (along with the permission) or a new partner brought in to push the project forward.

Sussex/Surrey — UKOG etc. (Tight/Shale Oil)

The threat of tight (shale) oil extraction in the Weald in Sussex and Surrey is growing fast, with UK Oil & Gas Investments (UKOG) cheerleading it. A consortium of firms (including UKOG) is set to apply for permission for further flow testing of the Horse Hill well (including the Kimmeridge Clay shale layer) in Surrey soon.

Europa Oil & Gas also want to target the Kimmeridge Clay during drilling of their planned Holmwood-1 well at Leith Hill. UKOG have also just acquired the Broadford Bridge site in Sussex, which has planning permission for a well to be drilled. At an existing well at Brockham in Surrey there are also plans for a new side-track targeting the Kimmeridge Clay. exploitation of the Kimmeridge Clay would require thousands of wells to be drilled across the Weald Basin.

Licensed Areas — INEOS etc. (Seismic Surveys) 

The long-delayed 14th licencing round has seen an additional 11,500 square miles of licences offered to fracking companies. In particular Fracking company INEOS Upstream is planning to carry out a seismic surveys across the its newly acquired licence areas and is targeting South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire first, with Cheshire and North Yorkshire likely to follow.

INEOS has contracted Fisher German Priestner as their land agent to try to gain access to the land they need for the surveys. Fisher German has already begun contacting landowners, and has told councils that INEOS wants to begin the survey within a month (as of writing). Seismic surveys are a first step to obtain information needed to select test drilling sites and secure further investment.


Before you breathe a sigh of relief that you aren’t near a  site, you might want to consider the support networks which enable it. Every well requires thousands of truck movements, which drive out of a limited number of sites. Trucks may bring toxic frack sand or take away health-risking waste. Affected areas include Cheshire, Norfolk, Leeds, Middlesborough, Stoke-on-Trent and Northamptonshire.

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This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of Freedom anarchist journal


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