Author Tony Whitbread
Sussex is in the front-line in the exploitation of unconventional gas supplies, such as 'fracking'. We have therefore had to think carefully about what this could mean to Sussex wildlife.
Arguments in favour of fracking include the economic benefits that a new energy source might bring against the claimed relatively low environmental impact of gas extraction. It is also stated that fracking provides a good bridging fuel between fossil fuels and low carbon energy. Energy production from coal is a major producer of greenhouse gases whilst, in comparison with coal, energy from gas emits about half the amount of carbon dioxide for the same amount of energy. Converting from coal to gas, it is said, is therefore a good step towards reducing greenhouse gases.
All of these claims, however, are questionable.
On-site issues are a major worry to us. The process uses large amounts of water, in a county that is often water-stressed. So, the effect on rivers, underground aquifers and so wetland habitats are concerning. Waste water from fracking also needs to be treated in order to prevent ecological damage from pollution. The flaring of waste gas could also impact on wildlife, from airborne pollution, light pollution and local disturbance effects. One site in Sussex for example is placed directly on a major flight line for one of the rarest bat species in Europe – threatening to disrupt the population of a European protected species. All of this, if possible at all, will require very strong regulation. There is no evidence that government will increase the capacity of regulators like the Environment Agency to oversee this industry, indeed the opposite seems to be the case.
If there is a significant gas resource here then there could be multiple well-heads every few kilometres across Sussex. Water demand, pollution risk, local disturbance and a large increase in the demand for transport infrastructure to get materials to and from well-heads could therefore become very significant.
Claims that fracking could reduce greenhouse gas emissions are also dubious. Fracking gas is methane, and methane is 70 times stronger as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. A small amount of methane leakage would make energy from fracking worse than coal in terms of its effects on the climate.
Sussex is still a rural county, with a diverse landscape and a rich wildlife. Fracking could result in the industrialisation of Sussex. Perhaps a more significant threat, however, is that we are all being diverted. At a time when we should be talking about more modern alternative energy sources – renewables – we are instead wasting time discussing a carbon-based fuel which, if we are to prevent catastrophic climate change, should remain in the ground.