WATER WATER EVERYWHERE: FRACKING’S ABUSE OF NATURAL RESOURCES
This year we have experienced the longest heatwave since 1976, and we learned this weekend that the North West of England is heading for a hosepipe ban in a couple of weeks. We also discovered recently that Cuadrilla has applied for the final consent from BEIS to start fracking. For those of us who have been looking into the impacts of fracking over the years, the coincidence is striking.
Of course, any analysis of water usage has to factor in the massive inefficiencies caused by leakage in United Utilities’ creaking network, but the contrasts between domestic consumers having their water rationed and unpopular and invasive industries being allowed free rein would be remarkable, to say the least. For an industry desperately struggling to find a social licence to operate, having the general public joining the dots could be catastrophic.
Those of us with long memories will recall that the 1976 hosepipe ban didn’t end with the first rains and that the Drought Minister, Dennis Howell, “became deeply unpopular for insisting that the country would face rationing until December unless consumption was cut by half”. 1, so it is highly likely, given the current long-range forecasts that Cuadrilla will find themselves wanting to frack their first well while the rest of us are looking at our yellow lawns and dirty cars.
But why should we be concerned here? After all, they are only planning on using 34,000 m3 (cubic metres) of water, aren’t they? How does that compare to domestic usage in the local area?
Well, according to the 2011 census, the population of Blackpool, Preston Wyre and Fylde is about 440,000. Average water usage in the UK is about 150 litres per person, per day. That would suggest that domestic water usage in Cuadrilla’s licence area is about 66,000 m3 per day or 24 million m3 per year. So why the fuss? They are only using 34,000 m3 – about half a day’s local supply on this test frack after all.
To answer this we need to look forward a few years. This year, Cuadrilla plans to frack a single lateral which is 0.8km in length. Cuadrilla’s parent company, AJ Lucas, is on record as stating that they would expect lateral well lengths of 2.5km in production 4. If they are successful in extracting gas then they will move into a production scenario in which they will have to develop at least 10 pads a year and there would be between 40 and 60 wells on each fracking pad during production 3. If we assume that means the development and fracking of 400 lateral wells a year then scaling this up would suggest an annual water requirement of some 42.5 million m3 per year. That is nearly double the domestic water requirement for the area for each of the next 20 years.
So, whilst the issue of Cuadrilla’s test frack at Preston New Road in the middle of water rationing might be seen as largely symbolic, the reality is that this industry’s water usage will dwarf domestic consumption for the next two decades. In the event that recent unusual weather patterns become the norm rather than the exception, the implications are as obvious as a standpipe on a street corner.
Neither is this a problem that is going to go away, quite the opposite in fact. A US Geological Survey study in 2015 told us that:
“Oil and natural gas fracking, on average, uses more than 28 times the water it did 15 years ago, gulping up to 9.6 million gallons of water per well and putting farming and drinking sources at risk in arid states, especially during drought.” 5
Pressure on the water supplies in provincial areas is already being increased by demands from the affluent South East. Back in 2011, a certain Boris Johnson proposed moving water from Scotland and Wales via rivers and canals to supply the water-stressed South East 6. At the time this was dismissed as “tripe” by the water companies, however in June this year, the GMB union called for millions of gallons to be pumped to the South East via canals ‘at times of low rainfall’ 7.
There is clearly a water supply and distribution problem in this country, and against that background, allowing an invasive and unwanted industry to use double the amount of water required by domestic consumers in their licence area would seem extremely questionable. Of course, they will retort that domestic consumers will be given priority, but that then begs the question of how they would be able to continue as an industry if the availability of their principal raw material cannot be guaranteed?
The North has already been described as fit for fracking because it is “desolate” by Lord Howell 8. We must not allow it to become the “dehydrated” North as well.