Green pressure group Friends of the Earth is preparing a bitter legal battle to try to block Britain’s trillion-pound shale gas bonanza.
It wants to prevent any exploitation of this vast new reserve of cheap, clean energy forever and is already fighting to stop all exploratory test drilling.
But an investigation by The Mail on Sunday suggests that the group’s campaign is based on alarmism, spreading highly misleading claims about shale gas’s supposed dangers.
Last week the organisation issued an ‘action guide’ for activists, advising them how to stop shale gas extraction – known as ‘fracking’ – by manipulating the planning system.
It leaves no doubt as to its purpose: ‘The ultimate aim of our fracking campaign is that we stop it!’
Disclosure of FoE’s plans comes in the wake of a British Geological Survey (BGS) report, which revealed that the UK’s reserves are truly staggering – potentially enough to reverse economic decline and to turn the country into a net exporter of energy, competing with states such as Qatar.
It estimates that around 1,329 trillion cubic ft of gas and oil are held within Northern England’s Bowland shale alone – just one of six such geological ‘basins’ in the UK.
Conservative assessments say about ten per cent of this should be commercially recoverable – worth, at current gas prices, £1 trillion, and enough to meet all the UK’s gas consumption needs for 47 years, based on current demand.
It is equivalent to Qatar’s entire gas production for 36 years, or one and half-times as much as all the gas extracted from the North Sea since 1970.
Last week, Chancellor George Osborne suggested communities where there was fracking should be given a levy of one per cent of revenues. On that basis, Bowland would be given a £10 billion boost.
But industry experts believe the eventual percentage recoverable is likely to be much higher – perhaps as much as 30 per cent – worth £3 trillion and enough to last 141 years.
In the US large-scale fracking since 2005 has caused energy prices to plummet, sparked economic recovery and cut greenhouse gas emissions to levels last seen in 1990. Fracking there usually recovers about 18 per cent of the gas the rock contains.
Chris Wright, chief executive of Liberty Resources, one of America’s biggest investors in shale gas and oil, said that in Britain, the shale beds are more than a mile thick, as opposed to a few hundred feet in the US.
Commenting on the first fracking test well drilled by the firm Cuadrilla two years ago, he said: ‘The data looked very encouraging’. He added that in the US, estimates of the size of reserves had been continually revised upwards once drilling began and technology improved.
Meanwhile Nigel Smith, co-author of the British Geological Survey’s report, told The Mail on Sunday that there is ‘a lot more gas’ offshore in the Irish and North Seas – perhaps a further ten times as much.
He added some of this could be exploited without the need for offshore drilling platforms, by drilling horizontally from sites on land.
Later this year the geologists are to publish their assessment of the Wessex basin, which runs from Kent to Dorset.
Further reserves are being investigated in Somerset, South Wales, Scotland and County Fermanagh.
However, FoE is determined to try to stop this energy revolution.
Helen Rimmer, its North West England staff campaigner, said: ‘It’s a fossil fuel that we don’t need. It would be better to keep it in the ground.’
Instead, she said, Britain should invest only in renewables, such as wind turbines.
Underlying the FoE campaign is its obsession with global warming – despite a modern, gas-fuelled power plant emitting less than half the carbon dioxide of a coal plant.
‘We need to consider the climate impact,’ Ms Rimmer said. ‘We think fracking is incompatible with our carbon targets. It’s completely the wrong direction for our energy.’
FoE’s principal weapons in its bid to stop fracking are challenging Cuadrilla and other firms through the planning process – even for short-term test drills – and via the Environment Agency which issues permits.
But report by Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering last year concluded that with deep fracking this risk is ‘very low’.
In recent months, it has sent a series of letters to both the EA and Lancashire County Council, which covers proposed Bowland test sites.
Couched in legalese, they claim that fracking would endanger wildlife, cause global warming, and breach EU water directives, because of a supposed risk to groundwater and aquifers.
FoE insists that the water used to widen fissures in the shale must legally be monitored, even though most of it will stay a mile below ground.
FoE officials admit that these formal challenges are likely to be only the first stage in a tactic designed to stop any fracking until at least 2015: if the EA and councils do issue permissions to drill, they will face challenges in the courts through judicial review.
Jake White, from FoE’s legal department, said: ‘There could well be no further activity before the Election.’
He also admitted that although FoE was concerned about ‘local impacts’ such as the possible effect on bird life, its real concern was the climate.
However, some of the claims being made by FoE in its legal letters are extremely contentious, and may require expert witnesses and days of testimony in court.
For example, FoE says that earthquakes triggered by fracking may cause wells to leak, contaminating water supplies.
Yet two tremors that halted UK fracking two years ago were too small to cause damage, and were weaker than tremors commonly triggered by coal mining. In millions of US fracking operations, there has never been a powerful quake.
FoE says a EU directive demands that unless it can be proved beyond reasonable doubt there is no risk to groundwater and aquifers, permission must not be granted.
However, last year a report by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering said the risk of contamination was ‘very low’ when, as in Britain, fracking takes place deep below ground.