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To its supporters, it could hold the answer to spiralling energy bills, provide thousands of jobs and generate significant tax revenue.
To its critics, the environmental costs could be devastating.
Political editor Paul Francis reports how Kent is shaping up to become a key battleground in the dash for shale gas and the controversy over fracking.
You could call it the Balcombe effect.
When the Kent branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England organised a public meeting on fracking in east Kent recently, some 300 people crowded into a hall in the village of Shepherdswell to listen to the arguments.
The turnout owed much to the publicity surrounding protests over the summer centred on the Sussex village, where the energy company Cuadrilla was trying to carry out exploratory drilling for shale gas.
Fracking has been thrust centre stage in the quest to address our energy crisis and now the county has become a new focus for the debate.
Shepherdswell, a small east Kent village, is one of three locations around Dover where applications for drilling exploratory boreholes are being considered by county planners.
A licence for one in nearby Woodnesborough, near Sandwich has already been granted, despite vociferous local opposition.
“We do not see a renewable solution to the demand for energy to heat homes..." - UKOOG's Ken Cronin
The company behind this and the three others applications is Coastal Oil and Gas, based in Wales.
It is just one of dozens of companies joining what some are describing as a ‘gas rush’ as the issue of energy supplies and escalating bills rises up the political agenda.
Events in Balcombe show just how attritional the argument has become. With stories about toxic chemicals contaminating water supplies and flames leaping from taps, protesters spent weeks blockading the site.
But it is a measure of how much is at stake that the companies applying for licences are proving equally determined in the battle for minds and hearts.
A sophisticated and intensive PR campaign from the industry is underway to counter the sceptics and at its heart is a simple message: fracking and shale gas will cut household energy bills.
It is a powerful message but one that is proving slow to win over sceptics. Companies who want to drill for gas are doing so against a backdrop of alarming stories about water contamination, flames from taps and earth tremors.
Separating fact from fiction, however, is tricky.
Ken Cronin speaks for the United Kingdom Onshore Operators Group (UKOOG), which represents companies with interests in fracking. He says fears over fracking are “completely overblown” and the economic argument is a “no brainer”.
“The UK has much stricter regulations than anywhere else in the world and is recognised as the gold standard. About 80% of our heat comes from gas and if we stopped producing gas from the North Sea, what are we going to do? We can either get it from Russia or China or we could get it from the UK.
“It is not as if we don’t already do some of this already. The UK has benefited from having an onshore oil and gas industry for over a century. Over 2,000 wells have been drilled – many of them hydraulically fractured – and over 300 are currently operational.”
He accepts there is a place for renewable energy from other sources but says they will not, on their own, be able to satisfy demand: “We do not see a renewable solution to the demand for energy to heat homes but there is plenty of space for both. If we produce enough [from fracking], it will have a major impact in terms of jobs and revenue.”
It appears to be a claim borne out by a report by the Institute of Directors, published in May. It concluded shale gas extraction could mean investment of £3.7bn in a year, supporting 74,000 jobs.
The pollution could be huge. The money should be spent on developing renewable energy solutions instead...” - East Kent Against Fracking's Rosemary Rechter
It calculated shale gas could reduce reliance on gas imports by 37% by 2030 and the impact on the environment was small, given that a two-hectare site could potentially support 40 wells and generate enough gas power for 74,000 homes. According to the IoD, whose report was sponsored by Cuadrilla, one of the big players promoting fracking, many of those jobs could be in the South East.
Unsurprisingly, the prospect of reaping such an economic dividend fails to convince those on the other side of the argument.
CPRE Protect Kent is among them, saying the possible repercussions could be wide-ranging and the risks are too great. Among its concerns are the possible contamination of water supplies in what is already a water-stressed ares and the geographical uncertainties of the Kent coalfields.
Chairman Richard Knox-Johnston said: “There is considerable concern among those in the area about this drilling operation, the way in which it needs to be regulated and the unseemly speed with which the planning application is being processed.”
Mrs Rechter, who chairs the group East Kent Against Fracking, believes Kent has features that make it a more dangerous place to explore: “We have extremely thin layers of rock beneath the earth so it’s more likely that toxic water will escape and poison our supplies. The pollution could be huge. The money should be spent on developing renewable energy solutions instead.”
With both sides so firmly entrenched, there is only one certainty: the chances of a consensus being reached over the way forward is remote.
Kent County Council will have a key role in fracking and gas drilling as it will be up to county planners to decide whether licences should be granted.
There has been support for the industry from the politician in charge.
Cllr David Brazier, Conservative cabinet member for the environment said: “My overall view is that we are a nation with an insatiable appetite for energy and we are running out of resources.”
In a briefing note to councillors he claimed: “It could be very important to Kent, bringing jobs and a range of other benefits to the economy and, of course, a measure of energy security.”
He faced some criticism over comments that appeared to downplay the potential risks, saying: “The technique can occasionally cause earth tremors that might crack the plaster but it is not capable of causing serious damage.”
Coastal Oil And Energy is the company behind the three applications for licences to drill exploratory boreholes in east Kent. It is based in Bridgend, Wales where it has also applied for exploratory drilling boreholes.
Director Gerwyn Williams has argued critics of shale gas extraction exaggerate the impact it has on the environment, including those who argue it can contaminate water supplies.
In an interview, he pointed out that the 18,000 cubic metres of water used to drill a shale gas well is the same as is used to water an 18-hole golf course in one month.
“Of that amount of fracking solution used, only 0.4% is made up of chemicals, all of which are commonly used in the food industry and therefore pose no threat to water pollution.”
The company’s interest in Kent is not, however, shale gas but methane gas which uses similar techniques.
It recently emerged that the company has been talking to county planners about a staged approach to its three applications to explore for coal-based methane, saying it would be a way of “winning people’s confidence”.
The Conservatives are supportive, despite concerns among some backbenchers facing protests in their constituencies.
Prime Minister David Cameron said recently that the public should support fracking: “It’s simple – gas and electric bills can go down when our home grown energy supply goes up.”
He has an unlikely ally – UKIP leader Nigel Farage believes fracking represents “a God-given opportunity” to lower energy bills.
The Kent MP and energy minister Michael Fallon has said communities must be prepared to allow exploration to take place. “We’ve got twice or three times as much shale as we originally thought so we do need to do everything we can to make sure they [companies] can explore as soon as possible the potential for getting it out.”
But the coalition is not exactly united. Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat energy minister recently queried claims that fracking could mean lower bills.
“North Sea gas didn’t significantly move UK prices so we can’t expect UK shale production alone to have any effect,” he said.
Green MP Caroline Lucas, who was arrested while protesting at Balcombe, said: “Fracking for shale gas seriously undermines efforts to tackle the climate crisis.”
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