Weald Action Group & Frack Free Balcombe Residents Association complaint, October 2019
Re BBC ‘The Corrections’ programme on fracking in Balcombe, first broadcast on Friday September 27th, 2019.
1) The programme was unbalanced. The subject was ‘the incorrect way fracking in Balcombe was reported in 2013’. But no one from the anti-fracking side of the argument was consulted or interviewed. No member of the Balcombe community was contacted, and no Balcombe resident was heard in the programme. The programme focussed on the industry’s view.
2) The programme was very poorly researched, in so many ways, detailed below, with evidence/links in footnotes.
3) Pre-broadcast warnings of error and bias went unheeded. Balcombe residents learnt of its intended broadcast and could see the view it would take from the on-line trail. They supplied factual, balancing information and evidence to the editor and to BBC Complaints, asking that the programme should be dropped or postponed pending investigation, to ensure truth and balance. We received the same answer from the Complaints department and from the editor. They said we should wait to hear the programme before complaining. By then, by now, the damage has been done. Many listeners will believe there is no cause for concern in Balcombe. That is not true.
4) The programme’s dismissal of the fracking argument was especially damaging at that particular time, exactly one week before the release of Angus Energy’s new planning application was due – for three years of ‘testing’ at Balcombe.
5) The tone of the presenter was sarcastic and mocking. She spoke of protest and environmental concerns with inexplicable jokiness and scorn. She presented protesters and campaigners as ill informed and violent (neither was true) and as coming largely from outside the village. We have been researching the subject now for eight years, and we are most certainly better informed than the producers of this programme. A great many people from the village protested at the site.
6) The programme was based on an incorrect assumption that fracking was never planned for Balcombe. That is not true. Oil company Cuadrilla had clearly announced at public meetings and in letters that their intention was to frack.
7) The ‘we are not fracking at Balcombe’ message came out only in January 2014. In 2014 and 2015, the government, supportive of the oil industry, changed the legal definition of fracking and the definition of ‘conventional’ oil and gas source rocks in planning guidance. Subsequently, many activities that would have been called fracking would not now be called fracking. This ‘Corrections’ programme was about alleged manipulation of vocabulary. They failed to mention those two important cases of manipulation of definitions.
8) The makers of the programme failed to understand the nature of the planning and permitting process. Planning permission comes in slices. First a company applies to drill, then to test, and then to produce. In Cuadrilla’s case, they applied in the first instance to drill and test. Villagers were clearly told at meetings with Cuadrilla that the test would involve injecting fluids at a pressure just below fracturing point ie ‘not quite fracking’. The fracking would come later, within a new planning phase. Protesters and campaigners knew that. They/we knew that fracking would not take place in 2013. Fracking was for later. We are not stupid. The oil industry increasingly exploits this ‘permission creep’ phenomenon in its eagerness not to admit, yet, that their end game is to frack.
9) The makers of the programme failed to understand that to stop fracking at the Balcombe site at a later date we knew we needed to protest at drilling stage. Once a company has spent £3.5m on drilling a well, it is hard for council minerals planners to say, ‘No, you can’t test it and you can’t produce from it!’ The protesters/campaigners knew the current planning permission was due to run out at the end of September 2013. The aim of the protests was to delay the drilling so that they would run out of time, and to raise awareness of the hazards of fracking.
10) The programme presents the idea of fracking for oil in the South East as a construct of silly-season journalists and dim-wit protesters. On the contrary, fracking in South East England is a deeply concerning future prospect that has been belittled by this programme.
11) The programme said oil production in the South East would be ‘conventional’ ie in geological terms from permeable rocks. This is a matter of spin and vocabulary manipulation. See below and please ask for further detailed explanation and evidence if required.
12) The programme makes no mention of acidising, an interim stage before fracking the shale – see below and see the attached leaflet
Fracking was in truth always the plan – the detail
Oil and gas prospectors Cuadrilla and their then operator Bolney Resources wrote to the Department for Energy and Climate Change in June 2011 that their plan had ‘always been to drill (a) well(s) (vertical and/or horizontal) targeting the Kimmeridge Shale and to hydraulically fracture stimulate… Without the ability to undertake hydraulic fracture operations, Bolney will not be able to attempt commercial production.’(1) Fracking was at that time subject to a government moratorium following induced earthquakes near Blackpool. The following January 2012, in front of a packed hall in Balcombe, Cuadrilla explained how fracking worked and expressed their intention to frack. See below (2) an article in the Telegraph about this meeting. Thus, when in 2013 protesters from the village and beyond gathered at Balcombe to oppose Cuadrilla’s plans, there was no doubt whatsoever that at some point in the future Cuadrilla intended to frack.
Cuadrilla in fact could do no more than drill during the summer of 2013 because they ran out of time, thanks to the protests. Their planning permission expired at the end of September and they had to leave the site.
Balcombe’s current site operator for Cuadrilla, Angus Energy, own a site on the same geological formation only 14 miles away in Brockham, Surrey. They announced recently that ‘It is extremely unlikely that commercial hydrocarbon flow can be established from the Kimmeridge layer at Brockham’ without fracking (3). (‘Kimmeridge layer’ means the thick layer of shale interspersed with thin layers of muddy limestone.)
The Kimmeridge layer of interbedded shales and limestones under the Weald is the kind of geology that needs to be fracked, cracked open, to release its oil. Once the fractured portion of rock runs dry, another well needs to be drilled, and then another. Looking into the future, the industry would need hundreds of wells across the region to exploit to the full the areas they have licensed. The CEO of one company exploring the Weald has spoken of ‘this kind of geology’ requiring wells ‘back to back’(4).
A new oil field across this beautiful countryside, especially at a time of climate crisis, is no joke.
For the oil and gas industry it’s a ‘seismic event’ when the earth shakes. For affected communities it’s an ‘earthquake’. Dictionaries define both in the same way. The programme followed the industry line and scoffed at campaigners using the (perfectly correct) term ‘earthquakes’. Their interviewees said that fracking-induced earthquakes are tiny, comparable to a bus passing your house. But earthquakes near Cuadrilla’s Lancashire fracking site peaked at 2.9 on the Richer scale and have damaged houses. The earthquake at Cuadrilla’s earlier Lancashire fracking site in 2011 damaged the well so badly that it had to be shut down. Earthquakes are stronger underground. Damaged wells can release methane and other pollutants into the environment.
Don’t use the F word! Manipulating language – the other side of the argument
By the end of 2013, the public had correctly begun to realise that fracking was a threat to the environment and public health. The word ‘fracking’ had become a PR menace to the oil and gas industry. In the ensuing months and years, ways were found to avoid the F word.
In January 2014, three months after the end of the roadside protests, Cuadrilla declared they had drilled horizontally into a thin muddy limestone layer amidst the thick layer of shale (muddy limestone is much easier to drill through than the jagged shale) and they had found that it ‘didn’t need fracking’. Instead they would dissolve channels through the limestone using acids and other chemicals. This is known in the trade as acidising, and, at a certain pressure, acid fracking (5).
‘Hydraulic fracturing’, in the industry, had always been used to mean fracturing the rock. But in 2015, the government, eager to support the fracking industry, introduced into the Infrastructure Act a new, narrower definition of hydraulic fracturing/fracking based on the amount of water used(6). Under this definition, 89% of the oil wells that have been fracked in the USA would not be considered in the UK to have been fracked(7). The government also inserted an incorrect definition of ‘conventional’ oil-bearing geology into minerals planning guidance(8). Now all limestone was to be considered ‘conventional’ – so the industry could declare all their activities in the thin limestone-rich layers to be ‘conventional’.
Yes, language matters. Communities across the Weald have had eight years to study fracking and acidising with all the politics, antics and semantics that come with them.
Some other errors that also need correcting
a) The industry writes frac’ing with an apostrophe. They do say frac’ing, and that apostrophe stands for a k.
b) ‘Shale deposits are mostly in the North. Yes, but there are significant shale deposits in the Weald Basin in the South East. The north has mostly gas, the South East has mostly oil.
c) Barton Moss in Lancashire had little media coverage, the programme said. How shocking that the BBC, so close to Barton Moss from their new home in Salford, for the most part failed to cover this ‘story’. Yes, there is a southern media bias and yes, Balcombe had the advantage of being on the London to Brighton line and being inhabited by, amongst others, lawyers and professors within easy commute of London. Successful publicity does not equate with spurious story.
d) The programme said ‘shale gas produces less carbon dioxide than coal or oil. Yes, when it’s burnt. But during production, treatment and transmission enough methane is lost to outweigh that ‘advantage’. In any case, all three must be phased out.
e) The American flaming tap (or ‘faucet’ as the producer described it, adopting the vocabulary of her American industry-influenced source) had nothing to do with nearby fracked wells, the industry and this programme insists. See http://1trickpony.cachefly.net/gas/pdf/Affirming_Gasland_Sept_2010.pdf for the balancing view of this industry-driven denial.
It is a pity that ‘The Corrections’ failed to do their research, failed to speak to the people of Balcombe, and took no notice of detailed information sent to them by Balcombe residents in plenty of time for this error-ridden programme to be pulled.
- Letter reveals Cuadrilla “had to frack Balcombe area of the Sussex Weald to be commercially productive”
- Shale gas: the battle for Balcombe’s riches
- Angus looks to sell Brockham after sidetrack found “uncommercial” without fracking
- CEO Interview: Game changer for UKOG, the Weald Basin, and the UK oil and gas industry
- Weald Action Group — Frack Free Sussex
- Infrastructure Act 2015
- Haszeldene S and Smythe D, Nature August 2017 https://www.nature.com/articles/548393a?foxtrotcallback=true
Kathryn McWhirter, Balcombe
Professor Lawrence Dunne, Balcombe