As a special debate is planned to set out the county’s position on fracking, DAMIAN FANTATO unpicks the controversial drilling process
A YEAR on from the Government earmarking parts of Oxfordshire for fracking, the debate over the controversial form of gas and oil extraction still hasn’t died down.
Demonstrators recently put a fence up around PM and Witney MP David Cameron’s constituency home and Oxfordshire’s Green Party has attempted to put a temporary stop to fracking in the county – but this failed because of Government rules.
Greenpeace demonstrates at PM and Witney MP David Cameron’s house against fracking
Local authorities cannot block applications to frack simply because it is controversial or they would like a blanket ban. Instead, each application must be judged on its individual merits or faults.
Oxfordshire County Council’s Green group had attempted to seek a moratorium, a temporary ban, on fracking while the authority considers its position.
Despite the fact that no companies have yet come forward hoping to frack in Oxfordshire, the county’s councillors have now agreed to hold a special debate on it in a bid to find out where they stand on the issue.
County councillor David Williams, the leader of the Green group, said: “I am disappointed that the council’s legal officers gave us that advice. We are trying now with our legal team to find out what we can do.
“I am going to try everything within the law to see how we can stop fracking in Oxfordshire. Fracking is a dangerous process in of itself and it only adds another 10 years to fossil fuel projections.
“I think this debate is a great idea because we have got to start this process.”
Last year the Government designated a 347sq-mile area over the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire border for fracking, stretching from Kidlington to Milton Keynes and Aylesbury to Banbury.
If the Government gives a company a licence to “frack” in Oxfordshire, then that company has to submit a planning application to Oxfordshire County Council before extraction can actually begin.
Since this happened, the anti-fracking movement has descended on the small West Sussex village of Balcombe, where hundreds of demonstrators blocked the gates to a fracking test site and set up a protest camp.
And Mr Williams said he suspects a similar thing might happen in Oxfordshire if fracking were to ever go ahead.
Ian Hudspeth, Oxfordshire County Council leader, said he hoped the debate would be interesting but said the authority is bound to consider any proposals for fracking.
He said: “We cannot put a motion forward that says we cannot have any fracking in Oxfordshire because our planning policy has got to be based on national planning regulations.
“We have to consider any proposals on their merits. There are local issues we have to take into consideration but each each application has to be taken on its merits.”
“I am inclined to be pro-fracking because we have got to get as much energy as possible and we are going to have an energy deficit in the future.
“But I want to understand what the facts are. There are lots of claims made by both sides and I would like to understand what the benefits are and what it means.”
Fiona Tavner, coordinator of Oxford Friends of the Earth, said: “What we know is that there is a shale gas seam from Kidlington to Banbury and we really need to get a better feel for the environmental impact and the human impact.
“I can see that the Government is trying to push through with this and whilst a moratorium would be good to give us breathing space, we should be looking at alternatives.
“We believe that the Government should be investing in looking towards more renewable solutions.”
WHAT IS HYDRAULIC FRACTURING?
Hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, is a controversial way of recoverying gas and oil from shale rock.
It involves drilling into the earth before a high pressurewater and chemical mixture is pumped down. This force causes cracks in the rock to open and release reserves of gas or oil.
The process normally involves drilling horizontally into the rock.
Fracking has been used extensively in the USA where it began in 1949.
However, in the UK the process has been used in the North Sea since the 1970s.
WHY IS IT CONTROVERSIAL?
One of the main concerns stems from the chemicals which have to be pumped into the ground to release the gas or oil. There is a worry that these potentially carcinogenic chemicals could contaminate groundwater, raising the prospect of them making their way into drinking water.
That the practice could cause earth tremors. Following fracking near Blackpool in 2011 there were two small earthquakes of 1.5 and 2.2 magnitude. Additionally, environmental campaigners claim that energy companies should be looking for cleaner power sources, not new ways of extracting fossil fuels.
SO JUST WHERE DOES X MARK THE SHALE SPOT?
A 347sq-mile expanse in the north of the county has been identified as a possible source of shale gas by the British Geological Survey.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change is still deciding whether to grant a licence that would allow firms to frack an area between Banbury, Bicester and Kidlington for gas. The area is being considered for a licence because of the types of natural material beneath the ground on the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire border.
Ministers in the Department of Energy and Climate Change are still deciding whether a 14th round of licensing should go ahead.
APPLYING FOR A LICENCE TO OPERATE IN THE COUNTY
Cuadrilla Resources near Preston, Lancashire in August, 2011. The company is drilling for shale gas
Fracking for shale gas in the UK was suspended in May 2011 following the small earthquakes near Blackpool.
But a new set of rules was drawn up and in December 2012 the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change said new applications would be considered.
The Department for Energy and Climate Change is responsible for issuing licences to companies that wish to explore for oil and gas.
Companies that have a licence can apply for planning permission to frack – with Oxfordshire County Council – the body for making this decision in the county. If an application is submitted to the county council, it will have to be considered based on national policy, but local residents as well as the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive, will be able to make submissions.