Greenpeace has called on councils and MPs in Sussex to explain their ‘acquiescence’ to possible fracking across the county.
Crawley and the Horsham and Mid Sussex districts are listed by the environmental charity as areas where companies have licenses to explore for shale oil or gas, which is trapped inside of porous rock and released by pumping high-pressure water and chemicals underground to split it open.
In Government emails obtained by Greenpeace under a Freedom of Information request, the Environment Agency (EA) categorically said that it would not allow fracking in areas where aquifers supplied drinking water, as in the case in much of Sussex.
The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) was then told by the EA its original statement was too stark and needed some finesse.
Lawrence Carter, Greenpeace energy campaigner, said: “Fracking is a dangerous gamble that could threaten local environments, derail efforts to tackle climate change and cost green jobs and investment.
“For communities across Sussex, fracking could end up being a lot of agony for little gain.”
He added: “MPs and local councillors in Sussex need to explain to their constituents why they are happy for the local area to be fracked when everyone from Ofgem to BP to the energy secretary says UK shale gas won’t reduce energy bills.
“And they must explain why increasing UK reliance on expensive, polluting gas is a good idea when we should be moving towards a carbon free electricity system.”
Campaigners have warned that plans for exploratory drilling, at the moment for conventional energy deposits, in Balcombe by Cuadrilla and near Wisborough Green by Celtique Energie, could be the first step towards fracking.
Vanessa Vine, of Frack Free Sussex and a West Hoathly resident, pointed to the proximity of the Balcombe site to the River Ouse and Ardingly Reservoir.
“They [Cuadrilla] condescendingly try to placate genuine concerns by saying that they’re not fracking. If Cuadrilla find the oil or gas they lust after, they will seek to frack. How credulous do they think local people are exactly?” she said.
“We have to stop sanctioning the dragging of yet more and more quick fix fossil fuels out of the ground, largely for the benefit of foreign investors. We must instead look at our consumption and our energy efficiency measures and invest instead in safe, renewable energy technologies that will provide lasting employment and true energy security.”
Cuadrilla CEO Francis Egan said: “Although this summer’s work will be unobtrusive, we’re fully aware that local people will have many questions about our plans and we’ll do our best to answer all of them.”
East Sussex County Council unanimously passed a motion expressing concern at the process of fracking in spring 2012, a move not followed by West Sussex County Council (WSCC).
On the county council’s website it has a lengthy guidance note on fracking and says: “We are committed to engaging positively with the community about any applications, including through our website, and to encouraging applicants to do the same in advance of submitting the application.”
Francis Maude, MP for Horsham and minister for the cabinet office, said he had met with the chief executive of Cuadrilla and was in touch with the Environment Agency over other drilling sites in West Sussex.
He added: “If oil or gas was found at Balcombe, Cuadrilla would have to assess the environment in much more detail before deciding if more exploratory work should be undertaken. The company have assured me that local residents and local authorities would play a part in this process – indeed West Sussex County Council would have to grant planning approval and the local community would be consulted.
“So, to reassure you, Cuadrilla do not currently have plans for fracking to take place on the Balcombe site and if their intentions change they would have to apply for an environmental permit ensuring that, among other things, contaminated water is disposed of safely. The Department for Energy and Climate Change would need to give consent for fracking to take place.
“As a Government, we have looked closely at oil and gas exploration. It is a promising new potential energy resource which could reduce our reliance on imported gas and help lower household energy bills. We recognise that the processes can prove controversial but we are confident that we have brought in new and stringent controls and conditions, indeed, a new Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil will focus on the regulation of explorations.”
After Cuadrilla voluntarily suspended activities in Lancashire in June 2011 after concerns over seismic activity , the DECC commissioned a report, and then ruled that fracking could continue in the UK in December 2012.