March 25, 2019 / 2:01 PM / 3 months ago

FEATURE-Fractured community as fracking takes hold in Britain's rural land

PRESTON NEW ROAD, England, March 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - W hen Susan and Chris Holliday moved to a rural strip of land in northern England for their retirement, they looked forward to the area’s peacefulness and unspoilt views.

But in the past couple of years the serenity of Preston New Road, Lancashire, has been shattered for the Hollidays by the passing rumble of trucks, an air quality monitoring van in their carpark and a view dominated by a large rig and flare stacks.

Hydraulic fracturing, a technique known as fracking that uses a high-pressure mixture of water and chemicals to extract gas from deep within the earth, has moved into the neighbourhood.

“Whereas when we looked out of our upstairs window we used to see green fields, we now see an industrial site,” said Susan Holliday.

Industry groups say fracking could prove a huge domestic energy source, and that Britain’s shale gas reserves could cut imports of natural gas to zero by the early 2030s - but those living on the frontlines fear their homes could pay the price.

The Hollidays said they were concerned about property damage, earthquakes and health implications.

Late last year, British shale gas developer Cuadrilla began fracking operations at Preston New Road, making it the site of the country’s first fracked horizontal well - a return to work in the area by Cuadrilla after a seven-year hiatus.

The company halted operations in 2011 when earthquakes measuring 2.3 and 1.5 on the Richter scale were linked to fracturing of its nearby Preese Hall well, causing public protests and an overhaul of regulations.

PROPERTY CONCERNS

Although fracking has grown rapidly in the United States, it has been banned in France, Germany and several other European countries.

Britain supports the industry as a way to reduce reliance on imports of natural gas - which is used to heat about 80 percent of Britain’s homes - as it prepares to leave the European Union. Holliday worries that Brexit may erode “human rights and environmental protections”, making it easier for fracking operations to continue with fewer safeguards for those living near sites.

Many of her neighbours also fear declining property values, she said, with some struggling to sell their homes.

“My belief is that these properties at the moment are unsellable, nobody wants to move to an area next to a frack site,” Holliday said.

In line with common practice for energy-development projects, Cuadrilla offered the Hollidays and others in the vicinity money as part of its community fund - up to 2,000 pounds ($2,600) per household.

Unclaimed funds will go towards community projects, the company said.

Conservative lawmaker Mark Menzies acknowledged the “stress and strain” to those living near the site, but noted he had received only a handful of enquiries from constituents about property concerns.

Menzies said that fracking had in fact not deterred property developers, who were building about 6,500 new homes in the area.

“There’s an awful lot of properties being built and a lot of people moving into them within a very, very tight radius of the site,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

‘GUINEA PIGS’

Sitting in his car late at night, anti-fracking activist Gayzer Frackman - who legally changed his name from Geza Tarjanyi in 2012 - prepared to stream his live fracking update on Facebook.

Frackman said he felt the 2011 Preese Hall earthquakes in his home and later noticed cracks in the brickwork and damage to doorways.

“I’d never been in an earthquake before, but it was months later we found out it was about this thing called fracking,” he said.

Since then, Frackman has been an outspoken critic of fracking and feels residents are treated as “guinea pigs.”

In 2015, Lancashire officials voted to deny a planning application by Cuadrilla to restart their fracking operations, but their decision was overturned by national government.

Local councilwoman Miranda Cox also felt the 2011 tremors, and has since taken action to oppose fracking, including being arrested after chaining herself to the gates of the Cuadrilla site.

“I feel like we’re a sacrifice zone,” she said.

“If they can do it here, they’ll do it anywhere and that’s why we feel very strongly that we are a front line in the battle.”

But a Cuadrilla spokesman said “the natural gas beneath Preston New Road could help secure our domestic gas supply,” and reduce carbon emissions associated with gas imports.

The company has set up websites to help locals understand the shale gas exploration process and regularly publishes results of air and water quality tests, he added.

KEEP OPTIONS OPEN

Lawmaker Menzies acknowledged that fracking could be divisive, but warned against blanket criticisms of the industry.

“I think you’ve got to treat it on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

He added that he had worked to secure robust regulations around fracking and that it had brought benefits such as jobs and training to the community.

“This (fracking) is an option that we have to leave on the table, provided it can be done safely and in an environmentally sensitive way. If it can’t, then we have to take it off the table,” he said.

Britain currently operates a ‘traffic light’ system, which halts fracking for 18 hours if seismic activity of magnitude 0.5 or above is detected. That has already led to several pauses at Preston New Road.

In February, fracking companies called on the government to relax the traffic light rules, which they say could thwart the nascent industry.

However, Britain’s energy minister has dismissed pleas for regulations to be modified.

Menzies said he also did not support any changes to the system. "The traffic light system is here - don't touch it." ($1 = 0.7691 pounds) (Reporting by Adela Suliman; editing by Zoe Tabary and Jumana Farouky. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

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