— Andrew Locking (@andrewswalks) August 28, 2014
Hydraulic fracturing or “Fracking” to extract shale gas is held up by the government as the answer to Britain’s future energy security and the source of vast deposits of home grown fuel. What they are less concerned to highlight is the fact that it could pose one of the most serious threats to Britain’s already struggling wildlife we have ever seen.
This opinion is not confined to the lunatic “anything new and different must be dangerous” crowd, but is shared by many well respected and thoroughly main stream bodies such as The Angling Trust, The Royal Society For The Protection Of Birds (RSPB), The Salmon and Trout Association, The Wildlife Trusts and The Wildfowl And Wetlands Trust. They have produced a recent report detailing their concerns called “Are We Fit To Frack ?”
Fracking involves drilling a vertical well 1000 to 4000 metres deep to reach layers of shale rock which contain gas. A horizontal hole is drilled along the layer of rock that contains the gas. This hole is lined with concrete and steel and then what is called a perforating gun is lowered into the bore hole which makes small holes in the lining. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is then pumped along the hole at high pressure. This causes the surrounding rock to fracture and release the gas. The grains of sand lodge in the fractures, keeping them open and allowing the gas released to flow out of the rocks and up the well to be collected at the surface.
As you can imagine this process requires huge amounts of equipment and materials to be brought to the well site. In addition the well site itself requires a large area of land (about 2-3 hectares(ha)) as well as land for storm water systems, new roads, compressor stations and pipelines. A drilling field could contain many such wells spaced about 1 kilometre apart. If these are not sited correctly they could cause massive fracturing of habitats, habitat loss and wildlife disturbance.
Many animals do not remain neatly confined within one area, they roam their territories to find food. These areas can be quite large. A Hedgehog for instance, will travel about 2 kilometres (Km) on it’s nightly forage and a Badger will travel about 1.6 kilometres along regular musk scented paths. Imagine the devastating effect on these creatures if their territories were criss crossed with new roads, well sites and pipelines. Hedgehogs are already in crisis, this might finally push them over the edge to extinction.
It is inevitable that woodlands and other wildlife areas would be sacrificed in the pursuit of the shale gas goal. How many of Britain’s birds, insects, mammals, reptiles and plants could find their often unique habitats destroyed. Any pockets that remained might find themselves so isolated that any new environmental pressures or sudden catastrophes could leave them unable to respond and adapt, leading to extinction.
Travel down any road, quiet or not, and you see all too many wildlife casualties. Recently I travelled a half mile stretch of road in rural Pembrokeshire which is extremely quiet and noticed a Fox, a Hedgehog and some other animal which was too squashed to recognise lying dead in the road. Imagine how road casualties in our precious wildlife could increase with the inevitable increase in traffic (lorries etcetera) which major fracking developments would bring.
Vast quantities of water are required for the fracking process (each well could need up to 25000 cubic metres of water – which means as much as 108 million cubic metres of waste water would need to be treated in a 20 year period). In some areas, with already low supplies of water, where rivers have low flows, the demand for extra water could put pressure on the fish and wildlife which depend on a healthy river system. There is also the risk of spills of the chemicals used for fracking which could kill aquatic life and the creatures that depend upon it. In 2007 there was an incident in Kentucky USA where waste water spilled into Acorn Fork Creek and left an orange-red substance, contaminating the creek with hydrochloric acid, dissolved minerals, metals and other contaminants. State and Federal scientists found the waste had killed virtually all aquatic wildlife in a significant area, including a species of colourful minnow which was endangered. Substitute our own aquatic wildlife such as Salmon, Trout, Water Voles and Otters and imagine how devastating the effects could be.
Well sites require illumination and one proposal for exploratory drilling in the Weald Basin in southern England included installing a 45 metre tower, which could be lit up to 24 hours a day. This light pollution could play havoc with many vulnerable nocturnal species such as the endangered Barbastelle bat. The low Weald of Surrey is very important for this species which roosts in dense woodland and flies out nightly along regular foraging routes. If their flight lines were disrupted by prominent artificial lighting the animals would find it increasingly difficult to find enough food and might therefore be unable to survive.
Drilling sites would increase the noise levels around them which could further disturb wildlife species which rely on being undisturbed to survive, such as the Pink Footed Goose. Eighty five per cent of the global population winter in Britain. Unfortunately 2 out of 4 main overwintering sites in the UK lie within possible shale gas extraction zones.
Everyone can understand the need to ensure long term energy security. Surely it would be better to step up the search for reliable, cost effective, renewable sources than it is rolling the dice and risking our country’s people and wildlife on a technology which runs the risk of increasing global warming whilst also, possibly, leading to the mass extinction of many of our vulnerable species.
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