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What do you think? Warning over fracking impact on Norfolk, Suffolk and Fens wildlife

PUBLISHED: 11:44 14 March 2014 | UPDATED: 11:44 14 March 2014

The Pink Footed Geese fly over Snettisham RSPB reserve at as the sunrises.

The Pink Footed Geese fly over Snettisham RSPB reserve at as the sunrises.

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Conservation groups have issued a stark warning that Norfolk, Suffolk and the Fens’ wildlife-rich nature reserves and landscape should be deemed “frack-free zones”, or vulnerable species like the pink-footed geese could be disturbed.

Geese and the ten recommendations

Pink-footed geese – which draw many visitors to the Norfolk coast each year – have been cited as a species which is “particularly vulnerable to human disturbance” by the charities.

A case study in today’s report said the geese – of which 85pc of the global population spend the winter here – were particularly vulnerable to human disturbance and preferred large, open areas to feed in; areas that were not protected.

The report said: “There are still considerable uncertainties about the potential disturbance levels, but evidence suggests it could be significant.”

It said that in the Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, 64 compressors (associated with shale gas extraction) resulted in a 56.8 decibel rise above typical ambient sounds in some areas.

The report said heavy goods vehicle movements and light pollution from sites, with a proposal for exploratory drilling for shale gas in the Weald Basin in southern England including a 45-metre tower, lit up 24 hours a day, could have an adverse effect on vulnerable species.

1. Avoid sensitive areas for wildlife and water resources by creating shale gas extraction exclusion zones.

2. Make Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) mandatory for shale gas extraction proposals.

3. Require shale gas operators to pay for a world-class regulatory regime.

4. Prevent taxpayers from bearing the costs of accidental pollution.

5. Make water companies statutory consultees during the process of planning.

6. Require all hydraulic fracturing operations to operate under a Groundwater Permit.

7. Make sure Best Available Techniques (BAT) for mine waste management are rigorously defined and regularly reviewed.

8. Ensure full transparency of the shale gas industry and its

environmental impact.

9. Ensure monitoring and testing of shale gas operations is rigorous and independent.

10. Minimise and monitor methane emissions.

As the government’s shale gas revolution gathers pace, organisations, including the National Trust and the RSPB, have also warned that drilling for energy could add even more pressure to water-stressed areas, including many parts of our region,

But MPs and experts suggest this region is unlikely to be top of the list for energy companies, with many other areas of Britain hosting more obvious sites.

Cuadrilla, one of the energy firms hoping to exploit the UK’s shale gas resources, has already carried out exploratory drilling near Blackpool, angering campaigners concerned about its impact on the environment.

Firms can now apply to the Department of Energy and Climate Change for fracking licences in areas such as the wildlife rich North Norfolk coast, The Wash and West Suffolk.

Water concerns

Fracking would place a significant burden on our existing wastewater treatment infrastructure, the charities warn.

It cites a recent AMEC report for the government which estimated that the UK shale gas industry could require up to 25,000 cubic metres of water per well, which would translate to as much as 108 million cubic metres of wastewater requiring treatment over a 20-year period.

Overall, rainfall per person in the UK is on a par with that of Spain and significantly less than Greece or Portugal, with the east of England receiving, on average, as little as 700mm of rain a year – about the same as Ethiopia.

Martin Spray, chief executive of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, which has a site in Welney, pictured, said: “A single frack can use more water than 1,000 people use in a year and if it goes wrong it could contaminate drinking water and ruin wetland habitats. That’s a big burden on communities and it’s a risk we want managed.”

In a new report - Are We Fit to Frack? - the groups have called for full environmental assessments to be carried out for each drilling proposal, and the shale gas industry to pay the costs of any pollution clean-ups.

It also warns that a lack of regulation could have an adverse impact on a range of wildlife, including the pink-footed geese.

Simon Pryor, National Trust Natural Environment Director, said: “Whilst the Government is keen to see rapid roll out of fracking, there’s a real danger that the regulatory system simply isn’t keeping pace. The Government should rule out fracking in the most sensitive areas and ensure that the regulations offer sufficient protection to our treasured natural and historic environment.”

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said the government should be “extremely cautious”, adding: “I have not been someone who has said we have to go for fracking at all costs, but I do not philosophically have a problem with fracking, if it can be cost effective and not destructive of the natural environment.”

The geologist view

This is not the first time that our part of the world has been an area of interest for a potential new source of energy.

During the First World War, in the search for petroleum, the government allowed a search for oil shale to be undertaken in King’s Lynn. A search borehole was dug and a plant was started, but the project was abandoned in the 1920s.

But Kimmeridge Clay – one of the main source rocks for North Sea oil and gas – which is evident in our area is of interest to potential shale gas investors, according to geologist Julian Andrews, head of school for environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia. He said that for shale gas to exist you needed a rock with oil and gas in it, but it also needed to have been buried far enough to have been “cooked” to create the right sort of gas.

Kimmeridge Clay is exposed on the land surface between Ely and King’s Lynn, but gradually gets buried underneath the chalk as you head east into Norfolk. Professor Andrews said that it was likely that it was present from The Wash through to Fakenham, but disappearing by the time you get to Norwich.

He said: “If you know the type of rock, and how warm it is likely to be, then you can make a guess as to whether there will be shale gas there or not. My guess is there is a chance there is something there, otherwise nobody is going to be interested in going there,” he added.

He said there were other areas where there was a more well-known potential source rock and conditions which were perfect to generate the gas.

“My guess is the Norfolk stuff is not very deeply buried so it may never have got warm enough to produce much gas. I would guess that is the scenario,” he added. He said that it would not be that expensive to create a test borehole to find out if there was shale gas in a rock. “In the First World War the government allowed a search for oil shale in the King’s Lynn area. It was abandoned in the 1920s, which suggests they did not find anything worth following up. They did not go very far with it, so it suggests it was not economically viable.”

North-West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham said he wouldn’t completely rule out fracking in East Anglia in sites away from people’s homes and areas of outstanding natural beauty, but said he could not think of too many that would be suitable.

“There is going to a conflict with what we have got along the coast, which is a very unique and beautiful environment.

He added that Norfolk was “well down the list of potential sites” and was more likely to affect this generation’s great, great grandchildren.

Norfolk County Council has a new working party on fracking, which published a report this week.

Potential licence areas for fracking in the EastPotential licence areas for fracking in the East

Andrew Boswell, Green Party councillor who is leading the fracking group, said: “Developing a whole, new fossil fuel industry is a dangerous distraction from making the necessary investment into renewables and a thriving low carbon energy economy in the East.”

He said the group wanted to work closely with the district councils, particularly in North Norfolk and West Norfolk which were the most likely areas for any fracking applications in Norfolk.

A DECC spokesperson said local councils were best placed to decide if fracking was suitable in their local area, and an environmental impact assessment was likely to be required in designated areas.

She added: “Rather than having a blanket ban on certain areas, planning authorities will assess each application on a case by case basis, including those parts of the country where there is a general presumption against development.”

“We also have regulations in place to ensure on-site safety, prevent water contamination, mitigate seismic activity and air pollution and we have been successfully regulating for gas and oil drilling for over 50 years.”

What do you think about fracking? Write (giving your full contact details) to: The Letters Editor, EDP, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE or email EDPLetters@archant.co.uk

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