A response to Ken Wilkinson

 A response to Ken Wilkinson, disinterested man of science, (Wells Journal 2.4.14) from Frack Free Somerset.

We have been receiving a good deal of attention from Mr Wilkinson of late and regard it as something of a compliment to our campaign that we have attracted the interest of someone of his calibre. He appears to be genuinely interested in both ‘science’ and ‘the truth’ – so let’s begin there.

Frack Free Somerset is a coalition of groups spread across Somerset which consists almost entirely of concerned citizens who give their time voluntarily to a campaign which seeks to make the people of Somerset aware of the potential impacts of High Volume High Frequency (HVHF) hydraulic fracturing of shale rock deposits to extract methane as well as to the related procedure of methane extraction from coal beds (coal bed methane). We are, for the most part, not scientists but many of us have been prompted to learn more about these processes due to the experiences of communities and families, particularly in the US and Australia, which have been visited by fracking and coal bed methane companies.

What we have learned has horrified many of us, so that we are compelled to give up our free time to try and alert people in the UK before drilling companies begin in earnest over here. On the basis of our inquiries we feel it necessary to challenge one of Mr Wilkinson’s claims immediately.

He states in the article posted in the Journal on-line that Fracking is just like normal drilling”. Nothing could be further from the truth. HVHF fracturing of shale involving clustered multi well pads is a very recent phenomenon, an innovation, if you like, in oil and gas extraction. It has led to a boom in gas extraction in the US in the past 10 years or so. Unfortunately, for both industry and local communities, shale rock is highly impermeable and so does not give up its gas easily. Companies tend to find that yields from wells drops off quickly, which means that you have to drill a large number of wells. We are therefore talking about an industry which is spatially intense and certainly unlike anything we have ever seen in the UK to date.

As for chemicals, which is something that people get very worried about, especially in relation to the contamination of drinking water and air pollution, Mr Wilkinson brushes over the ‘Injured, poisoned people….., really bad practice, leaks pollution ….., all crucially in the USA, and Australia’ portrayed in the excellent film by Marco Jackson, “Fracking in the UK, The Truth Behind the Dash for Gas”.  From Mr Wilkinson’s account it is as though we cannot learn from the bitter experience of others or that, perhaps, because we are British such things would never be allowed, or, even more cynically, that the injured, poisoned people over there don’t really count.

As he seems more interested in science we offer instead, a summary by Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy of the peer-reviewed literature on surface and groundwater contamination in the U.S.


In his article he goes on to state that The main frac fluid is polyacrylamide’. This is a chemical used as a friction reducer in the ‘frac fluid’. In short, water is not slippy enough and this chemical acts to reduce turbulence in the water, thereby improving flow under the kind of pressures used in fracking. Of itself, polyacrylamide is relatively benign and is found in toys such “Test Tube Aliens” – which delight children when they swell up when added to water. However, this useful polymer is susceptible to chemical, thermal and mechanical degradation, which can lead to the release of acrylamide, a known carcinogen. Furthermore, polyacrylamide is only one choice of friction reducer available to the fracking companies. Others include petroleum distillates such as benzene and toluene which are known to be highly carcinogenic.

Mr Wilkinson, slightly disingenuously we feel, does not mention these. Nor does he mention the biocides, buffers, breakers, corrosion inhibitors, crosslinkers, gelling agents, scale inhibitors and surfactants used in frac fluid. The list of chemicals available to the fracking companies is long and even at concentrations of only 1% of total we are looking at something like 100,00-250,000 litres of chemicals for each well.


When it comes to regulation of this potentially devastating industry, Mr Wilkinson displays an almost touching degree of naive faith in the effectiveness of UK regulators. I wonder if he is aware that when Cuadrilla began drilling in Balcombe last summer the Environment Agency had to be reminded by Friends of the Earth to ask for two permits required under UK regulations, as reported by Geoffrey Lean in The Telegraph?


Is he also aware that when Cuadrilla were drilling in Lancashire that they broke the conditions of their planning permission by drilling beyond an agreed time limit and beyond a cut-off date put in place to protect wintering birds?

Is he also aware that Caudrilla was criticised in 2011 over its performance as a licensee in Lancashire due to its initial reluctance to report  earth tremors caused by drilling and of the subsequent damage to well-casing? The incumbent energy minister at the time, Charles Hendry, who criticised Cuadrilla’s actions was replaced at the department only months after his correspondence with Lord Browne’s company.

These may seem to be minor infringements and lapses, yet they have occurred when fracking in this country is still in the early stages. We at Frack Free Somerset have concerns about an already over-stretched Environment Agency being able to adequately protect people and environment when fracking begins in earnest. Similarly, the HSE has been “streamlined” and as yet does not reflect the model of best practice as outlined in the Royal Society Report of 2012.

We have not yet touched on Coal Bed Methane (CBM) extraction which is a related but distinct process. The main issues regarding CBM from an environmental perspective involve the “de-watering” of the coal seams. Essentially the target coal beds are generally marinating in water. Many hundreds of thousands of gallons may typically need to be removed from the seam in order to allow the gas to flow. This results in a disposal problem. How to safely dispose of water  which is rich in dissolved salts, heavy metals and radionuclides.

Australia has been the most significant test ground for this process and has led to the formation of a large social movement called ‘Lock the Gate’ – prompted by the observed effects on human health and the environment as a result of these activities. CBM is intended for the UK.


Inherent to science are transparency, dialogue and dispute and we welcome Mr Wilkinson’s input on this issue.

Further to this and given that Mr Wilkinson seems to agree with us that “there are many reasons to not want fracking” can we suggest to him that instead of wasting our time with hostile questioning and vexatious complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority that he join with us in helping to get the ‘science’ right so that together we can prevent this potential nightmare from being inflicted on our green and pleasant land?


Posted on: April 10, 2014