Fracking in England: wicked spirits or energy bounty?

Robert Rand, BURN Editor

One of the pleasures of traveling the world is spending time with foreign taxi cab drivers. What visitor to London, Moscow, Bangkok or Buenos Aires hasn’t hopped into a cab, engaged a driver in conversation, and come away with some real insight into local events?

That happened to me recently in Eastbourne, an old British resort town situated next to Beachy Head – a towering  cliff with chalk white shoulders that hovers above the English Channel. Eastbourne is on Britain’s southeast coast, near the place William the Conquerer fought in 1066. It’s also not far from a village called Balcombe, where a more contemporary battle is underway about fracking, the controversial technology (also known as hydraulic fracturing) that inserts vast quantities of water and chemicals into the ground to extract natural gas and oil from shale formations.

I’ll get back to the cabbie in a moment, but first the fracking backstory. Proponents say it’s a safe and effective way to collect shale gas and oil. Its many opponents say the technology’s mix of water and chemicals is toxic and harms the environment.

In the US, fracking has boosted shale gas and oil extraction to such an extent that energy self-sufficiency seems within reach. It has also unleashed serious debate in America and abroad about fracking’s capacity to taint groundwater and, through the methane that’s released in the process, warm the planet.

In the UK, hydraulic fracturing was suspended two years ago after the fracking of Britain’s first shale gas well was blamed for triggering several small earthquakes in northern England. The ban was lifted last December, shortly before the British Geological Survey (BGS) reported that shale gas reserves in the north alone are much greater than previously thought.

Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the British Treasury, said the BGS analysis “confirms the huge potential that shale gas has for the UK.”  The Telegraph newspaper concluded that shale gas in northern England could meet the country’s gas needs for the next 40 years.

With respect to the rest of the country, the BGS study said, “other areas in the UK have shale gas and shale oil potential,” including southern coastal regions. With a strong shale wind at its back, the British government has issued 176 licenses this year for onshore oil and gas exploration, including exploratory drilling near Balcombe.

The anti-fracking demonstrations in Balcombe began in July and targeted the energy company Cuadrilla, which plans to frack shale formations there. The controversy is a classic developer vs. environmentalist tussle. Fracking opponents have boisterously made their case, and they’ve made the front pages of England’s newspapers as well.  “The grassroots protests in the village of Balcombe against fracking have sparked a countrywide rebellion as villages up and down the country vow they will also blockade any attempts to drill,” the Telegraph reported. The BBC has also given the story wide coverage.

Cuadrilla began test drilling for oil in Balcombe on August 2, although fracking was not yet carried out.

All of this was on my taxi driver’s mind when I entered his vehicle a week ago. Our conversation went on for quite some time (it continued even after I reached my destination), but it boiled down to something like this:

“You’re from America, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Lots of fracking there.”


“The Arab kingdoms are frightfully worried, you know, because you Americans won’t be purchasing their oil much longer, thanks to all that shale drilling.”

“Yes. The U.S. might even become an exporter of oil. But what’s the story with fracking here in England?”

“Some of us don’t like it.”


“Let me put it this way. How big is Texas?”

“Pretty big.”

“Did you know you can fit about five Englands into Texas?”

“No, I didn’t. But what’s your point?”

“Your country is big, and fracking easily can take place in places where nobody lives. Our country is small, and fracking is more likely to occur right outside my window.”

End of conversation. According to my cabbie, the case for NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) is especially compelling in the UK, where the fear of negative-fracking-consequence is palpable and very close to home. As he put it, “We will feel it more than you.”

The problem is, at least for fracking opponents in England, a lot of British government officials would like to feel the kind of shale gas and oil boom currently underway in the US. They argue that shale drilling will lead to lower energy prices in the UK. Boris Johnson, the London mayor and a fracking supporter, has even offered to open up the streets of Shakespeare’s city to hydraulic fracturing if the bounty be good.

Which one day soon will probably cause my cabbie and the people of Balcombe to utter what Buckingham said to his sovereign in Shakespeare’s Henry VI:

         Such as my heart doth tremble to unfold.

         A sort of naughty persons, lewdly bent…

        Have practised dangerously against your state,

        Dealing with witches and with conjurers…

        Raising up wicked spirits from under ground.


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Today’s Army – the march toward better batteries

REF generators for site

A series of diesel generators on a mini-grid power a Combat Outpost at Ft. Bliss. REF is working on better, lighter ways to bring power to soldiers based around the world. (Alex Chadwick/Burn)


The U.S. Army’s Rapid Equipping Force – REF for short – is a little-known agency making big changes in how soldiers fight. It was created after an officer saw a video of soldiers trying to clear an Afghan cave with a rope and grappling hook – why not robots, he wondered?

That was 10 years ago, and as BURN host Alex Chadwick reports, since then REF has become an innovator in many fields, including energy.

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Tar sands in the US? It’s not just about the Keystone Pipeline

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

This just in: the Obama Administration continues trying to walk the very fine line that will least anger his many critics in the energy industry and among environmental groups.

 The latest is an announcement last week from the outgoing Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar. It’s about development of potentially huge hydrocarbon reserves in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

The DOI agency that manages federal lands – aptly named the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – has formulated new rules about how to exploit these reserves in a way that it says is environmentally sound, and a good financial deal for the feds and, ultimately, taxpayers.

From comments by Mr. Salazar: “This plan maintains a strong focus on research and development to promote new technologies that may eventually lead to safe and responsible commercial development of these domestic energy resources. It will help ensure that we acquire critically important information about these technologies and their potential effects on the landscape, especially our scarce water resources in the West.” 

But it’s a good bet that no one will be happy with this. There are oil shale and tar sands operations already set to get underway this summer in Utah – operating on state and private lands, and thus not subject to BLM rules. The tar sands operation would be the first of its kind in this country. The oil shale facility would be the first US site for that development in thirty years.

Both hydrocarbons are solids in their natural state, and must be treated, and often heated, to be transformed into petroleum. The estimated recoverable reserves of these hydrocarbons are enormous – perhaps three times the size of the oil holdings in Saudi Arabia. The world’s easy-to-get petroleum reserves are dwindling, but the industry sees huge potential payoffs in these ‘unconventional’ fuels.

And the Greens see a disaster. The climate numbers keep getting worse. Much worse. More hydrocarbons = more devastation for our children and grandchildren, the Greens say. We have to leave some hydrocarbons in the ground, and these are the ones to start with. It takes more energy to make them usable, which means their carbon consequences are even greater than normal petroleum.

Oh, by the way: jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs. And jobs.

This new BLM proposed rule is now open for 60 days of comment. It’s just another small tick for the time bomb of energy and climate. And why now? An act of grace by Mr. Salazar. His replacement, the new Secretary of Interior, Sally Jewell, CEO of Recreational Equipment, Inc., is about to get a confirmation vote by the full US Senate. She’ll be glad this isn’t waiting for her. But those 60 days will pass soon enough.

The ticking doesn’t ever stop. There’s a tremendous political fight in this country right now about the Keystone XL Pipeline meant to carry Canadian tar sands to US Gulf Coast refineries. As US land continues to be developed for tar sand exploitation, the fight won’t just be about resources coming in from Canada. The battle will be here, too.
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