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April 27, 2015

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Get fracking: a safe resource?

Cuadrilla Resources drilling equipment at Shale Gas Drill Site,  Presse Hall Farm, Singleton, Blackpool, Lancashire, UK

Scare stories about the dangers of fracking have often grabbed the headlines. Rod Thonger argues that fracking can be carried out safely, as long as the risks are assessed and it is strictly supervised.  

Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, a technique that is used to open up shale rock, thousands of metres below the ground surface, for the purpose of releasing trapped gas and oil. The gas is predominantly methane, much the same as produced in the North Sea; the types of oil vary depending on their history.

thonger alternateIn recent years, fracking has generated much publicity as the government seeks to exploit this resource and a wide cross-section of the public has voiced its opinion that this is not the way forward for the UK’s energy needs, either philosophically or practically. Even so, exploitation is the policy of all the major UK political parties and people should be knowledgeable about what the process entails, and the associated issues.

In a global context, the USA and Canada are the only countries so far with significant production. In Europe, decisions on fracking appear to be more politically motivated, based on the strength of feeling of the electorate rather than the threats and benefits to the state.

For example, France rejects fracking but embraces nuclear; Germany rejects nuclear but is leaving itself wriggle room on future development of fracked wells. In fact, fracking of wells has been a standard procedure for stimulating wells in countries for over 50 years and these continue to produce gas.

The UK, the USA (most states), Australia, China, Russia, Poland, Argentina and South Africa are among many countries determined to go ahead, or are already ahead, with both fracking and nuclear. Interestingly, considering the concerns about poisoning of water tables, fracking techniques have been used in water wells in the USA, Australia and South Africa.

The primary scientific references in the UK for a review of the issues involved are found foremost in the report Shale Gas Extraction in the UK, a Review of Hydraulic Fracturing, written by the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2012 and jointly presented with the Royal Society. Their work is supported by the British Geological Society, which has field data and records going back to 1835. These organisations have an enormous amount of knowledge and experience and are respected worldwide.

They have reported on the techniques and the identified hazards, perceived and real, and their conclusions are that fracking can be carried out safely if the risks are assessed, the rules are obeyed and there is robust supervision. No risk management specialist would argue with that.

political thongerIn addition, just about any organisation that has anything to do with nature and water has taken a neutral position. This includes the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England, Sussex Wildlife Trust, the Chemical Industries Association and the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management. They all make the point that the rules must be followed and supervised.

The hazards most commonly discussed tend to overlap between environment, health and safety. It is worth noting that the actual hazards identified arise in all wells drilled, they are not specific to fracking, though the potential effects need to be examined. There is not enough space here to discuss this in any depth but they can be summarised as follows:

  • Groundwater contamination.
  • Methane leakage to the atmosphere.
  • Water usage and disposal.
  • Spillage of chemicals – environment.
  • Chemicals and materials – health.
  • Vehicle traffic.

Companies are required to prepare plans to handle these before any licenses to drill, let alone to frack, are issued. While the specific matters of applying for and drilling a well are covered by national legislation, planning permission must also be sought from the local county council (the Mineral Planning Authority), which consults the various councils within the county and reaches a decision, which must also bear the national interest in mind.

Councils have been in the news in West Sussex, Derbyshire and Lancashire for turning down applications, primarily on the grounds of traffic disruption and noise. Exploration companies are required to follow a process of 15 separate steps through various bodies.

We are fortunate in the UK because we possess not only the expertise and experience of professional bodies but also a government infrastructure with long experience of legislating for and regulating oil and gas activities.

The Department of Environment and Climate Change (DECC) legislates, HSE regulates health and safety and the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs handles environmental issues. Each produces reports on the current state of the industry, organises consultations and produces position papers, which you can find on the respective websites.

This is a complex subject, with technical reports competing for space with scare stories and routine rubbishing of the other side’s point of view, but as part of the energy mix, the chances are that fracking will go ahead.

Rod Thonger is chair of the IOSH South Downs Branch

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Alan Tootill
Alan Tootill
9 years ago

I am sorry to be so negative, but really this report is full of misleading information, not to mention untruths. Let’s take an example of a false statement. The UK does not import 15% of imported gas from Russia. This is totally unsubstantiable. In reality the UK imports probably net zero Russian gas. n 2012 imports of gas accounted for 47% of supply. The majority of the imported gas, 55%, came from Norway. Imports of LNG, from a variety of sources, eg Qatar, Australia, Algeria, and also USA, from where we expect to import significantly more in the near future… Read more »

Rod Thonger
Rod Thonger
9 years ago
Reply to  Alan Tootill

Alan – thanks for your comments. Your main point is about security of supply, primarily reliance on Russian gas. Various interpretations can be put on pronouncements by all parties in this debate but I offer this story as a start: “Britain to import Russian gas under 2012 deal as tensions mount” from Reuters. The main point of this story was confirmed to me by Centrica last week. Also to confuse the situation, contracts with Gazprom may not be filled from Russia but other sources. I suggest that that still leaves the supply open to risk. In 2013, nearly 60%… Read more »

Vince Butler
Vince Butler
9 years ago

Yes fracking can be done safely – but it won’t be!
TTIP will ensure a race to the bottom of standards.
TTIP will ensure legislation and enforcement is weakened.
The tax payer will foot the bill and suffer the dreadful legacy the corporations leave behind.
The big corporations will create shadow companies, rape the asset, claim bankruptcy, walk away – leave the tax payer to pick up the cost – fact – the exact same corporations are doing this already in the USA.
Why would they do anything different here?

Rod Thonger
Rod Thonger
9 years ago
Reply to  Vince Butler

Dear Vince. Thanks for your note. Interesting point about TTIP (I presume you mean Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the US and EU). Taking your point “fact –” the exact same corporations are doing this already in the USA. Why would they do anything different here?” a lot of the fear of fracking has been generated by stories from the US which do not apply to the UK for reasons of culture, geology, techniques, environment and legislation though we ought to be aware of the issues raised. You assume TIP can only be bad in terms of standards. I… Read more »