ARE the Dales at risk from fracking, asks rural campaigner Colin Speakman.

Few current issues are causing a greater stir amongst environmentalists than fracking.

Fracking is shorthand for hydraulic fracturing. This is a technique to tap into deep underground reserves of oil and natural gas. It involves drilling a pipe a mile or so below the surface into suitable deep shale and other formations before gradually turning the drill horizontally and continuing for several thousand feet.

Once the new well is drilled, and encased in cement, small perforations are made in the horizontal portion of the well pipe, through which a mixture of water (90 per cent), sand (9.5 per cent) and additives (0.5 per cent) is pumped at high pressure. This creates micro-fractures in the rock held open by the grains of sand through which brine, oil and natural gas then flow. The additives help to reduce friction, reducing the amount of pumping pressure needed and preventing pipe corrosion.

Fracking technology has caused a world-wide energy revolution, transforming the USA from being a major importer of energy, to becoming the world’s largest producer of natural gas and a leading producer of oil. Energy prices have plummeted. This has allowing the American economy to surge forward.

Britain, however, faces a serious energy crisis. With the forthcoming closure of highly-polluting coal power and decommissioning of several nuclear power stations, the risk of winter power cuts in the very near future is very real.

Little wonder that the Government is enthusiastic about the potential American-style fracking offers Britain, in terms of potential vast new supplies of cheap, home produced energy to meet emerging shortages and to boost UK balance of payments, plus energy security if we don’t have to purchase oil and gas from Russia or volatile regimes in the Far East.

The Government claims the technology is tried, tested and is 100 per cent safe.

Not everyone agrees. Minor earth tremors along Lancashire’s Fylde Coast in 2011 were almost certainly triggered by exploratory drilling. Local protest in Lancashire and other places where exploratory drilling has taken place or is planned, has now developed into a national environmental campaign, supported by such organisations as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, The Green Party and a UK coalition of activists with the memorable title of Frack Off.

These groups attack what they perceive to be multinational energy companies, backed by Government and major financial institutions such as Barclays, who put profit before the environment or local communities.

Protesters point to research that indicates that there are risks. There are no absolute guarantees that fracking in the longer term could not result in pollution of underground water courses and aquifers. Research by the University of Missouri has found higher levels of hormone-disrupting chemicals in water supplies close to fracking sites compared with other areas, and also points out the risks of radioactive radon gas being present in natural gas from UK fracking wells.

The Government has also enraged UK national park campaigners by allowing drilling underneath (if not within) National Parks and AONBs, which could theoretically contaminate water courses leading into national parks.

So what about the Yorkshire Dales? As was recently reported in the Craven Herald, thankfully the Yorkshire Dales National Park is outside the areas designated by Government for future fracking activity, although the North York Moors and nearby Forest of Bowland are within such areas.

But there is no reason for complacency. A detailed study produced in 2013 by the British Geological Survey for the Department of Energy & Climate Change indicates potential areas of shale gas in what are known as the Lower Bowland-Hodder Shales which extend through the Aire Gap into the southern fringes of the national park, along the gritstone areas of central Wharfedale and into Nidderdale.

Whilst these areas may not be at risk in the immediate future, given a frenzied national “dash for gas” in years to come, opening new wells in the southern Dales could well be on the radar of the fracking companies, especially, as seems likely, strong local protest and political pressure makes exploration in other areas, such as Lancashire and the North York Moors, more difficult.

But there are even more fundamental issues. Fracking may provide an attractive short-term answer to our energy needs. Ironically the world-wide slump in global energy prices initially caused by the fracking boom, now makes much fracking exploration, along with the UK’s entire North Sea oil and gas production, more financially vulnerable.

But as many environmental bodies point out, the real cost of fracking lies in the fact that it makes the UK ever more dependent on the burning of fossil fuels, thereby undermining the economic motivation for energy conservation or development of renewables, whether wind, water, solar or bio-fuels. The argument that fracking produces less carbon than coal burning is to imagine you cure the source of a major problem by offering a slightly less harmful substitute. In the context of our increasingly fossil fuel dependent lifestyles, this is irresponsible.

The transition to a lower carbon economy is urgent, if events like the recent catastrophic floods are not to become ever more frequent and severe. In Craven, grass-roots groups like Community Energy in Gargraveand Malhamdale, who are prepared to look at new ways of creating local sources of renewable energy, are showing the way. This is where the future lies, attractive as fracking might seem to Government as a quick fix, though perhaps one not quite so politically expedient as they first thought.