Environmental campaigners fear an oil company's plan to drill for gas in one of Britain's national parks is a stalking horse for a future bid to carry out fracking in the area.
Third Energy, backed by banking giant Barclays, is set to begin working Ebberston Moor in the North York Moors after winning permission to get rid of a vast amount of potentially radioactive waste water – that will come up with the gas – by pumping it back into the ground.
According to documents seen by The Independent on Sunday, the Environment Agency (EA) has been warned that public water supplies could be affected. Yorkshire Water is concerned about the re-injection well which will travel through the rock from which they draw water, called the Corallian limestone aquifer. In submissions to the EA the water company said the water re-injection may "directly affect their asset".
Environmentalists fear the permission sets a precedent for future fracking applications. Fracking involves forcing liquid into the ground to split rocks and release the gas trapped within. A key fracking fear is the amount of water used and the potential for contaminating drinking water supplies. The North York Moors – famous for stunning moorland, and historic sites such as England's oldest Christian monument, Lilla Cross on Lilla Howe – are said to be rich in shale gas, which can only be extracted by fracking.
Russell Scott, of Frack Free Yorkshire, said: "Third Energy intends to inject via mechanical means a total of 5.88 million cubic metres of waste over a nine-year period. Third Energy's suggestion this process will not have any negative impacts on the integrity of the well casing protecting our drinking water from the injected waste is simply ridiculous."
Third Energy, formerly called Viking, plans to extract gas from a band of limestone. The water that comes up with the gas may be naturally radioactive and cannot be drunk, so the company will pump it into a layer of rock called the Sherwood sandstone formation, which lies above the limestone.
Notes of a meeting between Third Energy and the Environment Agency, disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal "the success of the Ebberston Moor Field is dependent on disposal of [produced] water to the Sherwood Sandstone". The company also contended that the local geology meant the risk of pollution of groundwater drinking water was "very low".
Anti-fracking campaigners argue a report to the EA justifying the water re-injection plan underplays the risk of failure of the well. Private wells could also be affected with the nearest known private groundwater abstraction just over a kilometre away from the site.
There are also two "source protection zones" – areas that are meant to protect groundwater – within 10 kilometres of the proposed re-injection well. These are designed to protect the "highly sensitive" aquifer which supplies water to Scarborough. Despite approving the plan, the documents reveal the EA questioned whether the method was the "Best Available Technique (BAT)" available.
An email from the Environment Agency asked "why Best Available Technology isn't being proposed?". In response, Third Energy argued the water must be re-injected to comply with its licence whereby the Government "requires petroleum licence holders to maximise economic recovery of oil and gas".
Russell Scott fears such logic could lead to fracking in the national parks despite government assurances of protection. "The North York Moors National Park sustains a healthy tourism and agriculture industry which would be jeopardised by the large-scale industrialisation required," he said. Third Energy was unavailable for comment last night.