Last updated: December 14, 2012 6:02 pm

Bath pours cold water on fracking

The tourists were queueing as usual for their £26 session at the Bath thermal spa on Friday. But across the city there was official anxiety the city’s £57m tourism industry could be under threat from another danger – fracking.

The object of their fear is a government decision, announced on Thursday, to lift a moratorium on shale gas exploration, a move that some oil companies believe could unlock a vast new domestic energy resource.

UK Shale gas map Thumbnail

UK Shale gas map Thumbnail

But it was instantly denounced by environmentalists, who say the technology used to extract shale gas – hydraulic fracturing, or fracking – can contaminate underground water.

That charge has a special resonance in Bath, home to the UK’s only hot springs, which deliver 1m litres of mineral-rich water to the city every day.

Locals fear any attempt to exploit the vast quantities of shale gas thought to lie under the city and the nearby Mendips could do irreparable damage to the springs – Bath’s premier tourist attraction.

“It would be a disaster,” says Charlotte Hanna, marketing director of Thermae Bath Spa. “After all, the hot springs are what brought the Romans here. It’s why the Georgians rebuilt the city in the 18th century and it’s why tourists come to Bath today.”

Fracking – injecting water, sand and chemicals deep underground at high pressure to fracture the shale and release gas trapped inside – is unlikely to come to Bath any time soon.

Eden Energy, of Australia, and UK Methane, based in Bridgend in Wales, are the only two companies with licences to explore in the area. They originally planned to look for coal bed methane – gas trapped in coal seams – but are evaluating the area’s shale gas potential too.

UK Methane has asked for permission to drill in Keynsham, a small town about 10km northwest of Bath. But it faces a wall of opposition, with 636 objections lodged against its drilling application.

“If we were to extract all the gas by these extreme methods, it would last 20 years – well, wowee!” says Mary Lambert, a Keynsham resident who opposes UK Methane’s plans. “Anyway, we should be investing in renewables, not more fossil fuels.”

To address public concerns, Bath and Northeast Somerset council commissioned a report from the British Geological Survey on the potential impact on Bath’s hot springs from shale drilling. Its findings make uncomfortable reading: the shales that were likely to be targeted in any exploration programme were close enough to the limestone formations in which waters migrate “to pose an undefinable risk to the springs”, the BGS said.

The scientists said it would be “difficult to guarantee” that companies would not fracture strata through which the hot waters flow. They said Bath’s shales were better suited to a small-scale “cottage industry” approach rather than a US-style operation with hundreds of wells and mass, high-volume fracking.

Paul Crossley, Bath council leader, says losing the springs would be an “absolute travesty”. The council earns £3.5m each year from “heritage services”, with the Temple of Sulis Minerva and the baths complex – among the most important Roman remains north of the Alps – worth £92m a year to the local economy, according to council figures.

“Our position is that the risk to the World Heritage site of Bath far outweighs the potential value of the gas,” he says.

It is no surprise, then, that the city has become a centre of the anti-fracking movement. On December 1 protesters from “Frack Free Somerset” erected a mock-up of a drilling rig in a Bath shopping mall as part of a nationwide day of action against the shale industry.

Yet shale also has many backers. UK oil and gas production has been falling steeply as the North Sea fields decline – the sector has contracted by 38.5 per cent since the economy’s pre-crisis peak. Developing a native shale resource could mitigate Britain’s growing dependence on imported gas.

There are obstacles to be overcome however, not least rising costs. In lifting its moratorium, the government also imposed stringent rules on monitoring for seismic activity, designed to prevent the kind of small earthquakes that fracking triggered in the Blackpool area last year.

The tremors are another reason why Robbie Archer, a council worker sweeping the streets outside Bath’s Royal Mineral Waters Hospital, is cautious about fracking. “We don’t want any damage to our lovely Georgian buildings,” he says.

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