A farmer who gave an energy company permission to dig a test borehole for coal bed methane gas out of a sense of national duty has warned other landowners not to allow fracking and other unconventional gas exploration companies on their land.
The potential of gas drilling to pollute water courses and the effect it could have on the value of farmland left Paul Hickson and his family stressed for years and no wealthier, he said.
“I very much regret signing anything. I would never ever go into this kind of agreement again. As a farmer or landowner, you have the most to lose. I would say to anyone approached, please don’t let anyone drill on your land [to extract coal bed methane and gas by fracking shale].”
Along with several other local farmers, Hickson signed an initial access agreement for a test site in 2008 with Composite Energy, which got planning permission for a test site at Brooklands farm at Dudleston, near Ellesmere in Shropshire , but never drilled.
The company was then taken over by Dart Energy but planning permission lapsed and Shropshire county council is still in the process of deciding whether to allow it to be refreshed. But the access agreement made by Hickson with Dart Energy in 2012 expired last week and the landowner, whose family has farmed the area for 100 years, has refused to refresh it.
Hickson, whose 570-acre farm is at the southern edge of the former Denbighshire coalfield and borders the estate of the pro-fracking former environment secretary Owen Paterson, said that when he signed the access agreement he had no idea of the physical or psychological impact that gas drilling could have.
“When I signed it there was never any mention of the damage that drilling could do to. I was badly informed from the start. It was a bad access agreement. It was only two pages long but it made out that the company would only be here for a little while and then they would go away. I signed but I now regret it very much,” he told the Guardian.
A protest camp known as Dudleston Castle was set up on his land and he met strong opposition from villagers who feared environmental damage and the prospect that their properties would lose value and environmental damage. More than 500 local people objected to the company’s planning application.
He said that he only gave permission out of a sense of national duty instilled by his father: “He always said that while it was our land whatever was underneath it belonged to the country. I always knew I was never going to make money from it because you never receive royalties for anything dug more than six foot deep on your land.
“It was put about in the village that I was going to make a lot of money but I never was. Some people were quite abusive.”
Hickson, whose sons have a pedigree herd of rare Brown Swiss cattle, says he regretted signing when he when he learned how potentially damaging the drilling operation could be.
“This is an organic farm and with the drilling on my land I would have lost that status. If chemicals had seeped into the land they would have got into the springs on the farm and could have poisoned my cows,” he said.
Coal bed methane extraction involves pumping large quantities of water out of old coal seams to release trapped gas. It only needs the fracturing of rock with water and chemicals when the gas flow declines, usually after a few years.
But like hydraulic fracking for shale gas, it produces very large volumes of polluted water, requires many wells to be drilled and can lead to air pollution.Campaigners say around 60 planning permissions have been granted in Britain so far .
“I can see why the villagers were upset. I learned that any pollution of the two springs on my land would devalue the farm 60-70%, and that if my cows died I would not get compensation. All I would have received was up to £4,000 to put the land back to what it was.
“I lost friends over this whole thing, but I also made some new ones. What it caused me and my family was stress. I was worried about the health of my mother and others and I was ill a lot.”
He added: “Paterson disappointed me. He thinks fracking is wonderful and has said that he would welcome it in his constituency. But he never came to see us. Before the election he was twice invited to talk to the community about the drilling but he declined to speak to them.”
Although Hickson says he changed his mind shortly after signing, he could not say anything publicly under the terms of the agreement. It was only when that expired last week that he could legally withdraw his permission to drill, and talk.
“IGas [which has since acquired Dart Energy] approached me last week to ask if I would renew the agreement. They met me on the farm for two hours and I told them about the problems. They were very understanding. They said they were willing to give me a big fee to sign another contract but I said if they put up £50,000, even £100,000, I would not be interested. I am glad it’s all over. That’s the end of it.”
The Guardian 2015