In Depth: Drilling down into prospect of fracking on Sheffield’s doorstep

Fracking protest, Bramleymoor Lane at Marsh Lane
Fracking protest, Bramleymoor Lane at Marsh Lane

“The well will be around 60 metres tall,” said David Kesteven, describing the impact that drilling for shale gas would have on his village, just eight miles from Sheffield city centre.

“The Angel of the North is 20 metres. It will be on top of a hill - you will be able to see it from Sheffield.”

Mr Kesteven, head gardener at Renishaw Hall in North Derbyshire, is one of a growing number of campaigners opposing chemical firm Ineos’s bid to carry out exploratory work at Marsh Lane, near Eckington.

The company wants to drill a fracking well on privately-owned land, in order to carry out a three-month test into whether gas can be recovered from shale rock underground.

Ineos has already just been given permission by Chatsworth to conduct a seismic survey on its Scarcliffe and Staveley estates, between Chesterfield and Worksop. The Chatsworth Settlement Trustees confirmed that, if it refused, Ineos would access the land anyway, citing mining laws dating from the 1960s.

The firm is optimistic that fuel can be extracted at the Marsh Lane site, which backs onto a popular garden centre, and has expressed its willingness to have a good relationship with the community - but residents and activists are lining up in opposition.

“It comes down to a little village against a chemicals giant,” said Mr Kesteven.

“The gloves are off.”

Dr Domenico Blau, a senior lecturer in the department of civil and structural engineering at Sheffield University, said he tried to be ‘as objective as possible’ when faced with the fracking controversy, but said he felt ‘very cautious’ about the practice.

“Really the science is not there yet to understand what the risks involved are,” the academic said.

“Essentially fracking is a technology that has been developed in the last 10 to 15 years in the US.

“The technology itself isn’t new - what’s new is the combination, the merging of technologies.

“Shale formations have long been known to contain gas but the problem is they are very impermeable.

“Previously, getting fossil fuels out of them was pretty much uneconomical.”

Dr Blau said that, in America, the nation’s regulatory system ‘pretty much prevents’ the Environmental Protection Agency from controlling exploration.

But he added: “In the UK the Environment Agency has a handle on the possible environmental impact that fracking may cause.”

Potential side-effects include water contamination, air pollution and ‘seismic risks’ - put simply, earthquakes.

“When we go into the sub-surface and start injecting fluid we affect the geological equilibrium and things may shake,” said Dr Blau.

“We pretty much liberate the energy stored in the sub-surface.

“The problem with fracking in my personal view is that, if we look at the technology, it’s probably well-developed - what isn’t well-developed is the research into the side-effects.”

Ineos intends to submit a full planning application which will then be considered by Derbyshire councillors. A final verdict could be reached as early as July.

But Dr Blau said he thought local councils did not have the necessary expertise to make decisions.

“Not even national Government is well-equipped enough,” he said.

“The positive thing is that 90 per cent of the scholarly publications say there is an economic benefit, because it reduces the dependence on fossil fuels from different companies, and creates jobs - but it may come at a cost.”

Mr Kesteven has gardened at Renishaw for nearly 20 years and said he could ‘see climate change happening’ as he tended the flowers and plants.

“That’s why I was first interested in fracking,” he explained.

“I can’t tell you how shocked I felt about Marsh Lane. It’s 200 metres from a school - it’s too close. It will be unsafe. There will be huge disruption.”

Estimates suggested that lorries would travel to and from the site 3,500 times, he said.

“At Misson in Bassetlaw, another fracking site, overall vehicle movements will be four times as many as the HGVs. A lot of people here used to work the mines, and will be very aware that this particular areas is riddled with old mine workings.

“The thought of setting off explosions 2km underground with people’s houses on top is worrying.”

Dr Blau said he had witnessed the industry’s enthusiasm for fracking first-hand in the America.

“Before I joined Sheffield University, I used to live in northern Colorado, north of Denver.

“Historically this was an area where companies would extract oil - you would drive around on the highway and see oil jacks.

“Oil production there decreased substantially in the 1980s, but in the last 10 years it’s picked up again using fracking techniques. And they’re not far away from built-up areas.”

The lecturer continued: “One great problem to me is long-term monitoring. We need to be able to go underground and put sensors here and there.

Underground, things move very slowly. Fluid creeps upwards until it reaches the surface.

“How to do the monitoring, how to make sure everything is kept under control, nobody really knows yet.”

Mr Kesteven said Sheffield needed to be aware of the prospect of fracking on its doorstep.

“They can’t put a well in Sheffield, it’s too densely populated.

“But to have the surrounding countryside degraded in this way is not what anybody wants.”

‘As a company we are keen to listen’

The operations director at Ineos, Tom Pickering, said the company had been ‘holding discussions with a number of landowners across the north of England’.

He said there were ‘two avenues’ for seismic surveys - commercial agreement, and the exercise of rights under the Mines (Working Facilities and Support) Act 1966.

“Although we have had a very positive response among most landowners we have approached, we anticipate that we may need to exercise those access rights in some areas,” he said.

Mr Pickering previously said it was ‘important to talk with people and listen to their concerns’ about the application to frack at Marsh Lane.

“I totally understand people’s concerns - but I hope they see that as a company we are keen to get out and talk to people, and really listen to them.”

Ineos would commit to an Environmental Impact Assessment ‘if required to do so’.