Fracking is safe as long as best practice is followed and regulations are tightened a review from the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering has concluded.
However, fracking may not be the answer to our future energy security suggests an academic from the University of Leicester.
The Royal Society review – chaired by Professor Robert Mair from the University of Cambridge – was commissioned by the Government and financially supported by the Office for Science to review the science and engineering risks associated with hydraulic fracturing. It followed two tremors near a fracking site in Blackpool last year, and concerns over drilling in Wales.
“There has been much speculation around the safety of shale gas extraction following examples of poor practice in the US,” said Mair. “We found that well integrity is of key importance but the most common areas of concern, such as the causation of earthquakes with any significant impact or fractures reaching and contaminating drinking water, were very low risk.”
“That’s not to say hydraulic fracturing is completely risk-free. Strong regulation and robust monitoring systems must be put in place and best practice strictly enforced if the Government is to give the go-ahead to further exploration.”
The UK government sees fracking as a cheap means of bridging the gap during the transition to low-carbon fuel mix.
Those against fracking express concern that the process – drilling deep into the ground to release shale gas – will cause earthquakes in the area, but the review suggests the process is safe because it is an established technology that has been used by the oil and gas industries for many decades. Any seismicity induced by fracking is likely to be of smaller magnitude than the UK experiences naturally, or than is related to coal mining activities.
Of particular concern is that poor well structure could lead to leakages and wider environmental contamination, as has occurred in America. The review concluded that risk of contamination of aquifers from fractures is very low provided shale gas extraction takes place at depths of many hundred metres. Wells are to be lined with steel and cement to ensure well integrity.
Open ponds for wastewater storage – like those used in the US – are prohibited in the UK and numerous facilities exist to treat similar wastes. Well established procedures have been developed for disposal of naturally occurring radioactive materials present in wastewaters, so contamination should not be an issue.
“Our main conclusions are that the environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas can be safely managed provided there is best practice observed and provided it’s enforced through strong regulation,” said Mair.
Current regulations are suitable for small scale exploration, but the review recommends that regulations are tightened to ensure best practice. This includes:
- Strengthening the UK’s regulators, including providing additional resources where needed.
- Allocating lead responsibility for regulation of shale gas extraction to a single regulator.
- Strengthening the system of well inspections to ensure well designs are considered not only from a health and safety perspective, but also from an environmental perspective.
- Undertaking appropriate well integrity tests as standard practice.
- Mandating and enforcing Environmental Risk Assessments for all shale gas operations, this should be submitted to the regulators for scrutiny.
- Robust monitoring of methane in groundwater, seismicity and methane leakages before, during and after hydraulic fracturing.
- Establishing integrated management processes to ensure water is used sustainably to minimise waste.
“As we made clear at the start, this review is not an exhaustive analysis of all the issues associated with shale gas and we have highlighted a number of issues that we believe merit further consideration, including climate risks associated with the extraction and subsequent use of shale gas, and the public acceptability of hydraulic fracturing,” said Mair.
However, research from Professor Mike Bradshaw from the Department of Geography at the University of Leicester suggests that fracking will not help secure the UK’s future gas and energy security issues.
“Shale gas is unlikely to be a game-changer in the UK,” he said, adding that significant levels of exploitation are unlikely for many years due to substantial logistical and environmental challenges.