Moratoires, exploratory drillings, misinformations

Shale Gas, an issue for the whole of Europe ?

Netherlands : Censorship of the film Gasland

Mercredi 9 mars 2011, par Tineke Aarts // 889. Recherche des gaz de schistes.. actualités..risques...dégâts..

In a small article in the Dutch press, Saturday 19 February it was announced that the municipality of Boxtel had granted a licence for exploratory drilling to look for shale gas. A second drilling was planned nearby, at Helvoirt.

The drilling licence has been given to a British company Cuadrilla which has, amidst much controversy, already carried out exploratory drilling in Lancashire, England.

There has been not a single mention in the Dutch press about the controversy surrounding this drilling, nor of the moratoria that are being called for elsewhere. However, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change at the University of Manchester, and Huw Irranca Davies of the Labour Party, want a moratorium in the United Kingdom “until more is known about the environmental impact”.

In particular, they wish to have the results of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, a highly anticipated study due at the end of 2012. A draft of this report, containing its unconfirmed results, has been published already by the EPA and is available on the Internet. The study notes that the geological conditions from one region to another may vary and with this, so do the chemicals needed and the other risks associated with the horizontal boreholes.

Moratoria sought for New York, Quebec and England

A BBC documentary “Is extraction of shale gas by fracking safe ?” revealed that there are concerns among scientists about the chemicals that are essential for the fracturation. (“fracking”). The risk of water contamination is not excluded. It is because of this very risk that the State of New York has insisted on a moratorium since December 2010. The politicians are not risking a contamination of New York City’s drinking water.

The people of Quebec want a total moratorium. A poll conducted in January 2011 amongst members of the Quebec Network of Engineers revealed that 59% are against the exploitation of shale gas. The engineers believe that the companies do not have the necessary expertise. Moreover, there is no legal framework in place to cover this field of exploration and development. The engineers are worried about numerous environmental issues and the risk of ecological accidents. Leakage of contaminated water into a number of wells has been reported in America.

Shale Gas : A policy well orchestrated in France

In France, without any announcement, the government granted companies the right to explore the sub-soil for shale gas. Licences were issued by the then Minister of Ecology, Borloo, in 2010. Subsequently on 19 January 2011, and this is no coincidence, the Council of Ministers approved a ruling dealing with the codification of the legislative section of the mining code with the intention of “modernising and simplifying the provisions governing mining operations and ensuring their environmental compatibility.”

Following the lively debate launched by environmentalists, on 14 February 2011 the new minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who inherited the case, imposed a moratorium on the companies holding the research licences. The minister has demanded that the risks linked to the explorations must be studied first ; a task given to the GENERAL COUNCIL OF INDUSTRY, ENERGY AND TECHNOLOGY (GCIET) and the CGEDD. Their initial report is due the 15th April with the results expected by the end of June.

The study will therefore be carried out by the GCIET, established in 2009 and responsible for implementing the statutory provisions applicable to engineers of the Corps des Mines. As well as dealing with administrative matters, it supports the individual member engineers throughout their careers. The CGIET comprises permanent members : general mining engineers and general economic and financial controllers.

Decisions delayed, bosses “frustrated”

Whether anyone can have confidence in these studies is uncertain given that the shale gas operation was orchestrated by the State and the petrol companies. It is not over yet, only stalled. The CEO of Total, Christophe de Margerie, has said in several interviews that he is “annoyed” by the controversy. “It is good to talk about problems that may arise – if one day they do – but today there are none

His colleague in the United Kingdom, Cuadrilla CEO Mark Miller, said exactly the same thing in the press in that country. His message : those opposing do not know what they are talking about and have understood nothing.

If we do not have all the information it is because we have not been given it. Mark Miller assures us that in Europe there will not be the same problems as in the United Stated because their techniques are better. Nevertheless, nobody can deny that the techniques used to find shale gas are dirty and consumes large amounts of water. Even without major accidents, these techniques will cause an ecological disaster in the long term ; in other words, for the next generation.

How were decisions taken in the Netherlands ?

In the Netherlands, it is the same company as in the United Kingdom, Cuadrilla, that will do the drilling in the south of the country. In September 2010, Member of Parliament Van Tongeren (Green Party) tabled questions to the Minister of Economic Affaires about the exploitation of shale gas.

The Minister’s reply revealed that the State, with ‘ENERGIE BEHEER NEDERLAND’ has a 40% interest in the companies engaged in the drilling. The Minister has stated that the drilling “requires a very small percentage of chemicals to be added to the water and sand. The composition of the chemicals is a commercial secret in view of the competition between the oil companies

He added however that the Government will receive full information on the composition of the chemical additives used via its appointed Supervisor.

Consultation prior to licence issue

The situation differs between France and Netherlands. Firstly, the municipality of Boxtel which considered the project to be financially very interesting gave its full cooperation to Brabant Resources – the consortium of the State and the British company Cuadrilla. Likewise, the town followed the appropriate procedures, including the necessary consultations.

The town’s website sets out what will be troublesome for the inhabitants during the exploration period of approximately six months : the setting up of the work site ; the drilling, the gas flares during the production trials, right up to the decommissioning and removal of the platform.

The site is located some 250 metres from any homes and will operate 24 hours a day. The town will regulate to prevent the ‘dozens of lorries each day” from transiting this ‘village’ of 30,000 inhabitants and to meet the concerns of the inhabitants.

Brabant Resources has declared itself liable for damage to individual interests or physical well-being and this financial assurance is vital. The Dutch Government had already been advised in the strategy documents that in order to obtain the necessary support, it was essential to give a financial incentive to the inhabitants in proximity to the shale gas drilling sites.

The Netherlands : silence on the subject of chemical pollution

The Boxtel website says openly that the soil could be contaminated by drilling operations. They will take measures to counter pollution of the soil and the underground water. Tests will be conducted before and after the operations. The water used in the fracking will be cleaned and reused. Excess water and drilling mud contaminated by the oil company operations will be transported to land fill or water purification sites.

Compared with France where local communities are rapidly mobilising against shale gas, in the Netherlands there is very little information to be found on the chemicals used or on the drilling process.

In line with the Minister’s response, it is stressed everywhere that only a mere 0.5% of chemicals is added in the water ; nowhere is it mentioned that one fracking requires between 9 and 29 litres of water per well drilled throughout the entire operation. Nor is the uncertainty regarding the recycling of the injected water mentioned.

An area the size of the Lot : 4.5 million litres of chemicals !

The companies can only fracture the subsoil for a small area around each well. This is another disadvantage with this controversial technique. This is well illustrated at Brabant, a region that is highly urbanised (497 inhabitants per km2) and of an area comparable to that of the Lot. CEO Miller has said that 100 wells will be required.

No doubt the operation at Brabant will be profitable given the investments and the price of crude oil. However the operation will require one hundred platforms, at least 900 million litres of water, and 4.5 million litres of chemicals !

We know that chemicals build up slowly in water, the atmosphere and the subsoil. The first people to suffer will be pregnant women and children. No-one has mentioned the effect on animals and wildlife which have a constitution more fragile than ours and are already suffering as a result of pollution, the alarming devastation of the bee population is an example already evident..

The risk of accidents always exists

In a populous country like the Netherlands, which has a large petrochemical industry around Rotterdam, the requirements to meet safety and pollution controls are strict. Nevertheless, accidents are inevitable. In early January there was a huge fire on the site of the Chemie-pack company in the Moerdijk.

The company had the mandatory list of the chemicals stored on the site but the fire-fighters were unable to decipher it and it was not up to date. The Government had promised to inform the inhabitants about the products released into the atmosphere, but so far there has been only one statement made : that public health is not at risk.

Censorship of the film Gasland.

For the second drilling, planned at Helvoirt, consultation with the inhabitants was organised. This time there was opposition, and as a result, immediate problems.. An epidemiologist, Doctor Jan Willem Atsma, had asked to show an excerpt from the film Gasland. At the last minute, Brabant Resources were able to ban the showing of the film, saying “This film is pure Harry Potter-like story”.

The epidemiologist nevertheless has told the inhabitants about the risks linked with the chemicals used and the toxic substances which will be released into the soil. The result ? There is now one action committee in the Netherlands, at Helvoirt.

Governed by an oligarchy ?

Although there are differences between countries, no-where has the population been completely and honestly informed. The way in which this subject has been handled has provided arguments for the Le Monde journalist Hervé Kempf, to include in his book “Enough of the Oligarchy, Long Live Democracy !

Political choices seem no longer genuinely debated, but dictated by certain global companies. The debate on ‘Shale Gas’ is just as much a debate on who governs us ?

The bosses of Total and Cuadrilla are in a hurry, and desperate to get their controversial ‘shale gas’ plans of the ground in Europe. The financial backers are demanding results, the competition is great, and the European Governments hope to profit from investments made.

The oil companies do not support a debate.

The oil company bosses do not want discussion or consultation. Moreover, they refuse to admit that there are ecological risks in the short and the long term with the continuously dirty and risky techniques to be used. The concerns of the population are justified. We only have to think of recent disasters, not just in the Netherlands, caused by the oil or chemical companies, the financial and political interests of which are intertwined.

The bosses of these companies would have us believe that there are no alternatives. This is not true ; they do not want them raised because they would derive no benefit from them. The green energy industry could be promising if the European Governments chose unambiguously this approach, which is not the case today. In several countries, subsidies for solar energy are reducing, there are even moratoria…

We can only hope that the debate on the subject of Shale Gas will lead to a real change.

Tineke Aarts is a CA-member of Lot Nature. She has published a best-selling book in the Netherlands about the behaviour of bosses : LEVEN MET EEN BAAS (translates as LIVING WITH A BOSS), with Carien Verhoeff, published by De Boekerij, Amsterdam 2000, and the novel FAMILIEBEZIT, published by Arena, Amsterdam 2004.

English translation : Vivianne Lucas

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