Fracking risk ‘low if run properly’
Thursday 31st October 2013, 2:00PM GMT.
The risks to people’s health from fracking are low as long as the process is “properly run and regulated”, health officials have said.
Public Health England (PHE) – an agency of the Department of Health – published a report saying the risks from air pollutants, radon and contamination of ground water and drinking water were low provided safeguards were in place.
The report – described as an “initial review” – is based on research mostly from the US.
Officials admitted this could not easily be translated to the UK, where no studies have taken place, but said the evidence suggests overall risks are minimal. F racking – also known as hydraulic fracturing – is also expected to be safer in the UK than the US, they said.
Evidence from the US contained in the report shows emissions from fracking are a “significant source” of many air pollutants. Fracking sites also contribute to higher levels of ozone.
A review from the European Commission concluded that the “potential risks to human health and the environment from releases to the air across all phases of development was high”.
The report said the US has now put in place new regulations to cut these emissions – and argued similar controls must be introduced into the UK.
Fracking is the process of extracting natural gas from shale rock.
Wells are bored into the rock and a blend of chemicals, water and sand is pumped at high pressure to split the rock which releases the gas.
One US study in today’s report suggests a higher risk of cancer for people living near fracking sites, but P HE experts said it was a poor quality study. No other studies on cancer risk have been carried out.
The report also concluded it was “unlikely” that fracking would lead to a significant increase in people’s exposure to the naturally occurring radioactive gas radon.
Furthermore, it was “unlikely” that groundwater would become contaminated by fracking because of the depth at which it occurs.
The experts said controls were needed over how chemically contaminated water, which is an essential requirement for fracking, is stored and disposed of.
Evidence suggests poor storage of this “flowback” water could lead to accidents and the release of methane and other chemicals into water.
In conclusion, the report said problems encountered in the US “appear to have been due to operational failures and inadequacies in the regulatory environment”.
Dr John Harrison, director of PHE’s centre for radiation, chemical and environmental hazards, said: “The currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health from exposure to emissions associated with the shale gas extraction process are low if operations are properly run and regulated.
“Where potential risks have been identified in other countries, the reported problems are typically due to operational failure.
“Good on-site management and appropriate regulation of all aspects of exploratory drilling, gas capture as well as the use and storage of fracking fluid is essential to minimise the risks to the environment and health.
“PHE will work with regulators to ensure appropriate assessment of risk from all aspects of shale gas extraction.”
Professor John Newton, chief knowledge officer at PHE, said: “The report makes a number of recommendations, including the need for environmental monitoring to provide a baseline ahead of shale gas extraction, so that any risks from the operation can be appropriately assessed.
“Effective environmental monitoring in the vicinity of the extraction sites is also required during the development, production and post-production of shale gas wells.
“In due course it will also be important to assess the broader public health impacts such as increased traffic, the impact of new infrastructure on the community and the effect of workers moving to fracking areas.”
The review looked only at the immediate health impacts of fracking and not other issues, such as climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, water resources, or how noise, odours and fracking sites would affect local people.
Prof Newton said a lot was already known about the health effects of some of the products of fracking – such as methane – in other industrial settings.
He said of today’s report: “On the whole, the results are reassuring. We do not expect any adverse health effects.”
Today’s report called for the chemical make-up of fracking fluid to be made public.
In the US, over a four-year period, more than 2,500 fracking products were used by the industry, containing more than 750 chemicals and other components.
In the UK, fracking as part of shale exploration by energy company Cuadrilla near Blackpool was suspended in 2011 after it caused two small earth tremors.
Cuadrilla also faced anti-fracking protests at Balcombe, West Sussex, over the summer where it was carrying out exploratory drilling.
Potential shale resources have been identified across swathes of the country, particularly in northern England and the Midlands where a study from the British Geological Survey suggest there is as much as 1,300 trillion cubic feet in the Bowland shale, double what was previously estimated.
Earlier this month, energy minister Michael Fallon said around 40 wells investigating the UK’s potential use of shale gas could emerge in the next couple of years.
He said it would be “irresponsible” not to allow companies to find out if the underground reserves can be extracted.
Prime Minister David Cameron has also backed fracking in the hope it will create tens of thousands of jobs and bring down consumer energy bills.
Leila Deen, energy campaigner at Greenpeace, said of today’s report: “This report is a timely reminder of the risks inherent in fracking, and the potential long-term health impacts from industrial activity, traffic and the process of firing cocktails of chemicals into the ground in a densely populated country.
“The Government has so far responded to these risks by cutting the budget of the environmental regulator and effectively allowing companies to mark their own homework when it comes to monitoring.”
Mr Fallon said: “I welcome this report which shows that the potential risk to public health from shale gas production in the UK is low.
“The UK has the most robust regulatory regime in the world for shale gas and companies will only be granted permission to frack for shale if their operations are safe.
“Public safety and health is paramount and Government will continue to work with industry to ensure the stringent safety guidelines are upheld as they explore the great potential for shale.”
Ken Cronin, chief executive of the UK Onshore Operators Group (UKOOG), the representative body for the onshore oil and gas industry in the UK, said: “We welcome the report from Public Health England that shows that there is a low risk to public health of properly run and regulated shale gas extraction.
“As the UK has among the highest standards for onshore oil and gas extraction in the world, backed up by the industry’s own stringent shale gas well guidelines, we hope that the Public Health England findings will reassure communities up and down the country that shale gas can be extracted with minimal risk to their well-being.”
Stuart Haszeldine, professor of sedimentary geology at the University of Edinburgh, said: “The substances listed are no different to those already handled during North Sea oil and gas exploitation, so the technology exists to cope.
“Challenges for the Government are to ensure high quality analysis of groundwater before shale gas drilling commences – that may require specialist shallow sampling boreholes.
“Also to ensure that the UK has enough inspectors to ensure that strong rules are adhered to.
“The University of Edinburgh is already developing robust baseline monitoring to detect any shale gas contamination in groundwaters.”
Quentin Fisher, professor of petroleum geoengineering at the University of Leeds, said: “I think it’s particularly important for the public to understand that leakage along boreholes is far less likely in the UK compared to the USA because we have never had a large onshore petroleum development programme so pre-existing boreholes close to the shale gas resources are not a significant issue.
“Overall, the report provides even more evidence that production of gas from shale can be made very safe.”
Professor Richard Davies, from Durham University, said: “Of the 2,152 wells drilled onshore in the UK since 1902, approximately 50% are buried and therefore not easily monitored, and 1,138 were drilled by companies that no longer exist.
“If the rocks are suitable and the UK presses ahead, then well integrity is an area that will need a great deal more focus.”