13th March 2014
A group of wildlife and countryside organisations says current regulations for unconventional fossil fuel development are not strong enough to prevent damage and it calls for a permanent ban on fracking in all protected areas.
The group, which includes National Trust, RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts, was responding to the government’s plans to sell oil and gas licences across about 40,000 square miles later this year. In a report published this morning, the group said 12 per cent of the proposed new licence areas (more than 23,000 km2) would cover protected areas, such as National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
The report, Are we fit to frack?, says, despite government and industry assurances, the current regulatory regime is not fit for purpose. “It is unable to adequately manage serious environmental risks that may arise from individual projects and cumulative developments, such as species disturbance, water stress and inevitably the residual risk around pollution. Additionally there is a significant risk that taxpayers and third parties could be forced to pick up liability for damage caused.”
The report specifically covers unconventional shale gas extraction and calls for exclusion zones in protected areas. But Dr Tony Whitbread, chief executive of Sussex Wildlife Trust, confirmed that the conclusions and recommendations also applied to shale oil, which companies want to extract in the Weald Basin.
He said: “The point is that exploration for all fossil fuels has similar implications”. When pressed on whether unconventional oil should be developed in protected areas he said: “It would have to be consistent [with shale gas] and the exclusion should be in perpetuity on all sites.”
He said the exclusion zones should also apply to oil and gas licenced areas from previous rounds, as well as the planned 14th round. “There would be administrative problems but that is for the government to sort out. It doesn’t matter whether the areas are covered by the 14th round or previous rounds.” This could eliminate any future unconventional exploration by Cuadrilla at Balcombe in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and by Celtique Energie at Fernhurst, in the South Downs National Park.
Dr Whitbread said conventional oil and gas development had many of the same impacts as those for unconventional fossil fuels. But he declined to say whether conventional techniques for fossil fuel extraction should also be banned in protected areas.
According to the report, the frack-free zones should also include European designated areas, such as Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas. Nick Shelton, a spokesperson for the RSPB, said the groups would accept fracking in other parts of the country if the industry allayed concerns on:
- Water contamination and supply
- Impact on wildlife
- Effects of shale gas development on climate change
The high pressures and volumes of fluids used in fracturing exacerbate the risks of blowouts and equipment failure that are present in all drilling operations, the report said. It quoted American evidence of ground water contamination by methane and surface spillage of flowback wastewaters. “Despite rigorous enforcement of regulations, accidents do happen: hence we conclude that shale gas development poses a relatively low probability but very high impact risk to surface and groundwater.”
The report also raised concerns that a large concentration of extraction activities in areas already under water stress could have an unsustainable impact on the environment. “15 per cent of catchments in England and Wales are over-abstracted, including Weald Basin,” it said.
The most serious risks to wildlife, the report concluded, were habitat loss, fragmentation of habitats and disturbance to wildlife. Shale gas developments could involve significant land take. “Development of well pads will result in clearing areas for industry infrastructure with potential impacts on sensitive species felt well beyond the footprint.” The report quoted research* in Elk County Pennsylvania where the construction of a single well pad and its associated infrastructure reduced an intact forest patch from 78 to 70 ha.
It also noted that noise and visual impacts would be 24-hours a day, seven days a week and would be compounded by hundreds of truck movements of equipment, materials and waste.
The report challenged the contention that shale gas would be a transition fuel to a low-carbon future. The authors argued that it would divert resources aimed at renewable energy development. “We propose that other justifications are needed to rationalise the growth of the onshore unconventional gas industry in the UK.”
As well as a ban on fracking in protected areas, the groups called for:
- Mandatory Environmental Impact Assessments for all shale gas extraction proposals
- Shale extraction companies to pay for a world-class regulatory regime
- No cost for accidental pollution to fall on taxpayers
- Water companies to be statutory consultees on fracking plans
- All hydraulic fracturing operations to operate under a Groundwater Permit
- Best Available Techniques for mine waste management to be rigorously defined and reviewed regularly
- Transparency of the shale gas industry and its environmental impact
- Independent and rigorous monitoring and testing of shale gas operations
- Minimised and monitored methane emissions
In response to the report, the Department for Energy and Climate Change made the following statement:
“Councils are best placed to decide if fracking is suitable in their local area and an environmental impact assessment is likely to be required in designated areas. Rather than having a blanket ban on certain areas, planning Authorities will assess each application on a case by case basis, including those parts of the country where there is a general presumption against development.
“We also have regulations in place to ensure on-site safety, prevent water contamination, mitigate seismic activity and air pollution and we have been successfully regulating for gas and oil drilling for over 50 years.”
*JOHNSON, N, GAGNOLET, T, RALLS, R, ZIMMERMAN, E, EICHELBERGER, B, TRACEY, C, KREITLER, G, ORNDORFF, S, TOMLINSON, J, BEARER, S and SARGENT, S. (2010) Pennsylvania Energy Impacts Assessment – Report 1: Marcellus Shale Natural Gas and Wind. Harrisburg, PA, US: The Nature Conservancy – Pennsylvania Chapter.