Sixty pieces of evidence have been submitted to a parliamentary inquiry on the environmental risks of fracking. Most accepted there were risks, about three-quarters questioned whether they could be dealt with adequately and about a third called for a complete or partial ban on fracking.
Of the submissions to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, eight were from anti-fracking groups, another eight from wider environmental organisations and 27 from individuals. Drilling companies and representatives of the oil and gas industry made six submissions. There were also responses from scientists, a regulator and a trade and professional organisations.
The key threats identified in the evidence were to:
- Water quality
- Air quality
- Water supply
- Climate change and temperature rise
- Wildlife and habitats
- Public health
- Landscape quality
- Rural tranquillity
Responses from drilling companies and industry organisations, as well as the Environment Agency, argued that existing regulation was adequate to deal with these risks.
But the responses from environmental and anti-fracking organisations and many individuals criticised the regulatory system and the process of decision-making about fracking in the UK.
Key concerns were:
- Inadequate or unenforced regulation
- Poor monitoring requirements
- Self-regulation by companies
- Lack of independent verification
- Inadequate data or evidence underpinning policy
- Failure by Government to implement recommendations or advice
- Lack of public accountability by decision-makers
The rest of this post looks in more detail at the responses. Links take you to the submission of each respondent. Full list of submissions.
The Environmental Audit Committee inquiry hears from its first witnesses on Wednesday January 14th in two sessions starting at 10.15 and 2.15pm. Details of witnesses.
The Environment Agency, one of the regulators of shale gas drilling, said in its written evidence: “Through our regulation, we ensure that oil and gas operations are conducted in a way that protects people and the environment”.
Ineos, the petrochemical company which aspires to be a leading developer of shale gas, said: “The risks are manageable and comparable to conventional extraction”, while the Onshore Energy Services Group, which represents the drilling supply industry, said: “Safeguards are in place to ensure the systematic protection of the environment … The existing legislation and guidelines provide sufficient measures to identify and manage any risks associated with hydraulic fracturing”.
The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, which wrote a report regularly used by fracking supporters to argue that the process is safe, said: “Fracking can be managed effectively in the UK as long as operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation”. But it added: “Risks should be assessed across the entire lifecycle of shale gas extraction, including risks associated with disposal of wastes and abandonment of wells and seismicity”.
On the other side of the argument, Greenpeace wrote: “There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that fracking presents serious risks in several areas”. Friends of the Earth (FOE) said: “Fracking poses serious risks to the local environment and to human health”. It said regulation remained “weak both in principle and in practice”. Safety in Fossil Fuel Alliance and Frack off Fife accused the Government of acting recklessly and irresponsibly. The groups said the majority of the peer-reviewed scientific reports indicated serious risks and threats to the environment and public health from fracking.
The Environment Agency acknowledged that surface and ground water could be polluted by fracking chemicals, waste substances and naturally-occurring radioactive materials. But in its submission, it said: “We will not permit the use of ‘hazardous substances’ for any activity, including hydraulic fracturing, where they would or might enter groundwater and cause pollution”.
One of the concerns of respondents to the inquiry was the movement of fracking fluid from fractures or through geological faults to the aquifer.
Geophysicists, Dr James Verdon and Professor Michael Kendall, in a joint response, said hydraulic fractures commonly interacted with faults but fractures tended not tend to propagate to what they called “abnormally shallow depths” that would threaten groundwater.
Researching Fracking in Europe (ReFINE), a consortium of academics receiving public and oil industry funding, said studies had shown that it was “extremely unlikely that a stimulated fracture could create a connection between fractures in shale and underground aquifers”. However, ReFINE recommended there should be a minimum vertical separation distance of 600 metres between shales being fracked and a groundwater aquifer. It also called for the collection and publication of baseline data on groundwater quality and radioactivity of fracking flowback fluids.
The US drilling services company, Halliburton, said: “There has never been a confirmed instance of drinking water contamination due to HF [hydraulic fracturing] throughout its long history.” The Onshore Energy Services Group said: “Good housekeeping, adequate spill containment measures and robust emergency response procedures will reduce the risk of surface spills to the extent that those risks are as low as reasonably practicable”.
But Water UK appeared less confident about areas where rocks above the shale were thin or permeable. In these areas, it said, less protection is provided to overlying aquifers. CPRE (Kent) described fracking in an active fault zone as a “high risk operation” and said fracking should not take place in east Kent.
FOE pointed out that baseline monitoring of water quality was not mandatory, no minimum safe distance from water bodies had been prescribed and the use of hazardous chemicals was permitted. It said the EA had allowed drilling through an aquifer (IGas at Ellesmere Port) and in a Groundwater Source Protection Zone (Rathlin Energy at Crawberry Hill, East Yorkshire). The EA did not require a groundwater permit for Cuadrilla’s drilling at Balcombe although there are streams running through the site and a drinking water borehole just over 2 km away, FOE said.
Greenpeace called for a ban on fracking in Groundwater Source Protection Zones 1-3. It also said a groundwater permit should be mandatory. Water UK, which represents water supply companies, said its members should by law be consulted on shale drilling planning applications.
Submissions to the inquiry raised concerns about air pollution from fracking operations, particularly from flaring. Among the risks identified were the potential release of the BETX group of chemicals (Benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, xylene).
Philip Mitchell, a member of the Blackpool and Fylde Green Party in Lancashire, said he had surveyed the health of people surrounding Cuadrilla’s Grange Hill site and in Weeton village, near the company’s operation at Preese Hall. (Preese Hall was the only UK well where there has been high volume hydraulic fracturing). Mr Mitchell said: “I’m concerned that there have been an increase in respiratory symptoms, including acute breathlessness”. He added that symptoms, which included loss of energy, lasted for the period of fracking activities at Preese Hall.
No Hot Air (whose author, Nick Grealy, has applied for three London drilling licences) argued that gas had zero particulate matter emissions which, he said, was the most dangerous form of air pollution. The shale industry representative UKOOG and the drilling company IGas Energy, in similar submissions, said Public Health England had concluded that the risks to public health from exposures to emissions from shale gas extraction would be low if operations were properly run and regulated. [See criticism of the Public Health England report in the section below, headed Decision-making: evidence.]
The professional body, the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM), said emissions from a fracking well, along with those from onsite diesel engines, could combine with other emissions to form ozone, other photochemical oxidants and particles. These had adverse effects on human health, the organisation said.
FOE said baseline monitoring of air quality should be mandatory for fracking applications. It criticised Trafford Council, which initially decided that an environmental impact assessment was not necessary for the IGas application at Davyhulme, even though there were serious concerns about air quality.
Dr Verdon and Professor Kendall said fracking had the potential to trigger seismic events that could be felt by local populations. But they said they were unlikely to cause damage and they were rare: “a handful of recorded cases from hundreds of thousands of completed hydraulic fracture stimulation treatments”, they said.
Their submission, along with those of UKOOG and IGas, referred to the “traffic light scheme” introduced by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) which is designed to monitor induced seismicity from fracking. Under the scheme, operations must stop if there is any seismic activity above 0.5 on the Richter scale. The geologists said: “There are uncertainties as to exactly how the system will be implemented that should be addressed”. Other submissions criticised suggestions in a recent academic paper that the 0.5 level was too strict and should be relaxed.
Many respondents raised concerns about well failure and threats to the integrity of wells from, among other things, seismic activity and the failure of concrete around the steel casing. Talk Fracking, the campaign group set up to promote discussion of fracking, said: “There is growing evidence that the integrity of well-casing is an on-going problem with onshore oil and gas extraction”. It added that failure of well casing had been linked to methane migration from shale gas extraction sites to localised water sources.
The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering said: “Ensuring well integrity must remain the highest priority to prevent contamination. The probability of well failure is low for a single well if it is designed, constructed and abandoned according to best practice”. Ineos said: “There have been rare instances of shale gas extraction causing methane leakage in the USA, which has led to understandable concern about groundwater. Research has shown, however, that this was due to poorly insulated wells rather than fraccing (sic)”.
ReFine said its research showed that well barrier failure has occurred in between 1.9% and 75% of hydrocarbon wells. It recommended that decommissioned and abandoned wells were monitored for leaks and the results made public.
Several respondents supported government policy, which regards shale gas as a useful tool in the UK’s transition to a low-carbon energy system. No Hot Air said: “Since natural gas in most energy scenarios still plays a major role to 2030, 2050 or beyond, locally produced natural gas reduces, not increases, CO2 and other greenhouse gases”. IGas Energy said: “Generating electricity from natural gas produces around half the emissions of generating electricity from coal”. And the Grantham Research Institute said: “Shifting from coal to natural gas – either from conventional or unconventional domestic sources, or from imports – for electricity generation could help the UK power sector to decarbonise in the near term.”
But the Institute added: “In the medium to long term, a heavy reliance on gas-fired power stations with unabated emissions would hinder the decarbonisation of the UK’s power sector”.
Other respondents opposed the idea of developing a new fossil fuel. The RSPB said: “We are concerned that developing unconventional fossil fuel resources, including shale gas, will be incompatible with the UK’s commitments on climate change. And Talk Fracking said: “We believe that investing in further fossil fuel extraction through processes like fracking are incompatible with the UK’s commitment to reduce our carbon emissions.
Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and respondents examined whether fugitive emissions from shale gas sites would contribute to climate change and global warming.
The EA said: “Effective regulation at operational shale gas sites will help reduce carbon intensity of the shale gas industry”. It said “green completions” would help to reduce methane, volatile organic compounds and air emissions and reduce the need for flaring. UKOOG said it had developed guidelines for what it called comprehensive baseline methane monitoring of soil, air and water before and during operations.
But Greenpeace said “There is evidence that fracking will increase emissions, thereby undermining carbon budgets and driving further climate change. Talk Fracking said: “Fugitive methane emissions released during shale gas extraction make fracking much more carbon intensive than previously thought”. [See also Decision-making: evidence for criticism of data on the carbon footprint of shale gas].
Halliburton said: “Production of gas through HF requires far less water than other forms of energy generation such as coal or nuclear and is not exceptional when compared with other industrial activities. The Onshore Energy Services Group said by reusing flowback in-situ, it was possible to significantly reduce the demand for clean water and cut down on the quantity of flowback fluid disposed of as wastewater, removed from site in road tankers.
But CIWEM said there may be local consequences if a significantly sized production industry developed, particularly in areas in south east England which were already water stressed. Water UK said in the Weald Basin, where water resource zones were smaller, meeting demand from shale gas operators was likely to be harder. The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) concluded that an additional water user could increase water stress in times of shortages.
Regulation: Scale and enforcement
Submissions which said fracking could be done safely often included the caveat that regulation must be enforced and operators should apply best practice. The Geological Society , for example, said: “Regulation should be effectively applied by appropriately skilled and resourced regulators”. Some defenders of fracking quoted a list of regulations that drilling companies had to comply with.
Respondents were divided about whether these regulations were rigorous enough. The EA said: “We are satisfied that the current legal framework is sufficient to protect the environment during this phase of the industry’s development”, while No Hot Air said it had “complete confidence in the United Kingdom’s” regulatory regime, which it said was stronger than that of the US.
But Mike Hill, a chartered engineer who has studied fracking regulation, said regulations on well design and operation were “not sufficient” to address the issues of onshore drilling, exploration and production. They were either aimed at offshore development or pre-dated high volume hydraulic fracturing, he said.
Joanne Hawkins, who is doing a PhD on fracking regulation at Bristol University, identified specific gaps in current regulations on chemical use, waste, emissions, environmental liability, environmental assessment, water and planning. For example, she said there was no guarantee that a borehole passing through groundwater would need a permit under the Environmental Permitting Regulation because many chemicals used in drilling muds and fracturing fluids were categorised as non-pollutants. This meant, she said, that their direct injection into groundwater was not controlled.
Frack Free Balcombe Residents Association (FFBRA) said the UK did not have strong regulation, while Greenpeace described the regulatory regime as “piecemeal”. FOE said: “Planning regulation for unconventional oil and gas is now weaker in England than for onshore wind farms”. It said the government’s “risk-based approach to regulation was the opposite of a precautionary approach, where risks were first understood, rather than simply being taken”.
Respondents were also divided on whether regulation would (or could) be enforced. The EA said: “We will monitor compliance with permits and take enforcement action if we believe permit conditions have been breached”.
But Julia Desch said: “The EA has neither the resources, nor the technology nor the expertise to monitor the fracking exploration companies and any of their employees will probably say so”. Caroline Raffan said the Environment Agency could not cope with the amount of monitoring that would be required to regulate the unconventional oil and gas industries.
Mike Hill said regulations on well design and operation were “entirely self-regulatory”. Joanne Hawkins said industry best practice guidance had attempted to address some of the gaps in regulation but the guidance was voluntary and unenforceable. FFBRA described monitoring generally as “poor”.
Regulation: Independent verification and trust
Mike Hill told the committee the regulations should be implemented through random and agreed on-site visits that took place when key actions were happening. There should, he said, be serious repercussions if an operator breached a regulation, including fines, license revocation and criminal proceedings. He listed 12 areas of regulation which required verification, based on frequent and random site visits by independent monitors, including cement quality, annual pressure readings, surface methane detection and flowback fluid storage, treatment and disposal.
“Most of the above, if not all, the industry claims it is executing already”, he said. “The problem is that there is no independent verification of any of this. We (the general public) are just left to take the operator’s word on it”.
Some responses, particularly those from people who had experienced drilling activity, revealed a lack of trust in companies and regulators.
Robert Cockburn, who lives near one of Rathlin Energy’s sites in East Yorkshire, said: “This industry lacks transparency and is not trustworthy/ethical”. Mr Cockburn also questioned whether the council in his area was up to the job of deciding planning applications. “The Council has no expertise of what is a new area and a very technically complex industry. Their decisions have been based entirely on information provided directly, or commissioned and paid for, by Rathlin Energy. When issues are raised with the Council challenging whether planning conditions are being adhered to the Council’s sole source of information to rebut the concerns is Rathlin Energy”.
FFBRA said: “Following three years of contact with the regulators and numerous FOI requests, we do not trust the DECC, the EA or the HSE [Health and Safety Executive], and we consider most of the people we have dealt with in these organisations to be on the side of the industry”. The residents’ association said the EA would not divulge how, by whom and where fracking waste would be treated, nor how it would be disposed of. It urged the committee to question the EA on this issue.
Mike Hill said: “A seriously robust regulatory regime requires funding. Random inspections, frequent site visits to a rapidly expanding industry will mean a significant increase in costs to the HSE and EA”. He said the regulatory regime needed a new funding structure. “It must be done and soon to ensure we have not only the regulations but also the implementation of them at the well site”.
The Countryside alliance also recommended that “adequate resources be made available to the regulatory authorities to undertake this role”.
Other fracking risks
Waste The environmental consultancy, Mobbs Environmental Investigations, argued that effluent from fracking operations was a more significant issue than just the disposal of fracking fluids. “Based upon DECC’s assumptions, exploration activity under the 14th Round [the licensing round which closed in October 2014] may create between 22 million and 1.2 billion gallons of effluent”, he said. “During production, a further 118 million to 12 billion gallons of effluent may be produced”. He said treatment did not eliminate the problem: it extracted the pollutants, producing clean(er) water but a more toxic waste stream, which was more damaging to the environment and human health. “Assuming a realistic period of exploration/production, UGO [unconventional gas and oil] production may create an additional quarter of a million tonnes of hazardous waste landfill a year – a 50% increase on present figures”, he said.
Wildlife FOE criticised the government for not carrying out a Habitat Regulations Assessment before the 14th licensing round. “This fails to ensure that the cumulative impacts of activity across the UK will be taken into account”, it said. The RSPB said fracking could lead to serious loss of habitats and biodiversity. 18% of the UK’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest were in land available under the 14th Licensing Round, it said. Any damage to the SSSI network could lead to the UK failing to meet its international commitments for biodiversity. Along with other biodiversity groups, the RSPB is calling for ban on fracking on wildlife protected areas and designated sites. In its evidence, the Woodland Trust called for a ban on fracking in ancient woodlands.
Wider environment Mobbs Environmental Investigations said roads and pipelines needed to serve fracking sites would affect a bigger area than the well pads themselves. He gave as an example Dart Energy’s application near Falkirk, where he said the land taken for pipelines would exceed the land taken for well pads by 4½ times. The Countryside alliance recommended that brownfield land or existing well sites should be used for initial shale gas appraisal and development. Planning approval should not be granted for fracking in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, SSSIs or Nature Reserves, it said. FFBRA urged the committee to consider the “cumulative effect of thousands of wells in our very densely inhabited country”. It said: “A network of wells will isolate habitats and block wildlife corridors. It will multiply risks of air and water pollution”.
Liability for damage Who carries the cost of any damage from fracking operations has been an ongoing debate, particularly among landowner organisations. The NFU said government or industry should underwrite any compensation to landowners and potential long-term liabilities. Greenpeace argued that the government should establish a financial guarantee from onshore oil and gas operators, sufficient to meet any costs that arise from a pollution incident, and protected in case of insolvency.
Noise and traffic The Countryside Alliance said increased traffic associated with shale gas development was likely to have a significant impact on the environment. Although it was likely to be temporary, fracking traffic would lead to noise, air pollution, disturbance to communities and wildlife, damage to roads and bridges and increased risk to other road users.
Economic damage The NFU said land values could fall because of public perceptions of fracking. A group of its members in north-west England had already raised the issue of property blight. Local members were worried about the threat of fracking to farm diversification, particularly into tourism. The NFU was also concerned about short-term damage caused by anti-fracking protests. It is seeking a standardised process of negotiating underground access (currently being debated in the Infrastructure Bill) and agreed minimum levels of compensation from drilling companies.
Decision-making: public accountability
Several submissions criticised central and local government for failing to take account of public opinion in decisions.
FFFBRA said: “We, out in the communities, feel our voice is being ignored by politicians from local to national level”. SAFE quoted the Aarhus Convention, which requires signatories (including the UK Government) to give people directly affected by environmental decisions the ability to engage in decision-making in a meaningful way. SAFE accused the government of circumventing compliance with the Convention in adopting its energy policy.
The government was particularly criticised for pressing ahead with changes to the trespass laws that would allow oil and gas companies to drill at depths of more than 300m without landowners’ permission, despite 99% of the responses to its consultation opposing the plan. Frack off Fife said: “Decisions need to be made on the best available scientific/expert evidence, in the public interest and with meaningful public participation as per the Aarhus Convention”.
Mobbs Environmental Investigations said the closure of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and The Sustainable Development Commission in 2011 meant there was now no objective, public interest agency available to carry out research into the environmental consequences of policy. It said: “The way the Government’s policies on UGO have been implemented go beyond issues of fairness in decision-making. Given the poor evidence on which those decisions are based, and the involvement of persons with a professional or financial interest in those decisions, I believe they have become a criminal matter.”
SAFE called for an independent panel to investigate conflicts of interest in environmental decision-making in government. It warned that the “ill-defined boundary” between industry and government was eroding public confidence in political activities and government policy-making.
Some respondents criticised the quality and adequacy of evidence used to support government policy.
Mobbs Environmental Investigations said information on the environmental and public health risks of fracking was insufficient. There was a general lack of comprehensive analysis and forecasting of potential health effects on nearby communities and no research or monitoring of damage from accidents and incidents. Research was also needed to reduce uncertainties and better understand variability of fugitive gas emissions, it said.
Another consultancy, S M Foster Associates Ltd, said more research was needed into well design and construction techniques, as well as options to mitigate the effects of well failure. The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering said decision-making would benefit from more research into the climate risks of shale gas and into the public acceptability of these risks. Greenpeace said there should be no exploration or extraction of shale gas at any location until there had been 12 months of monitoring of data, including baseline methane emissions in groundwater, ecological studies and surface water. Abandoned wells should be monitored for four years.
The report by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering on fracking risks was criticised. Tom White said only one of 10 recommendations had been implemented and it was now out of date. He also criticised its reliance on two studies to prove that fracking was safe if properly regulated. One had since been withdrawn, he said, and the other had been criticised for its quality and indirect connection to an oil company.
Mobbs Environmental Investigations said the RS/RAE report had been produced prematurely, before there was sufficient research to underpin its conclusions. Subsequent research has invalidated its conclusions. “It can no longer be relied upon as a fair or accurate statement of available fact”, it said.
The consultancy said Public Health England needed to be held to account about the conclusions in its report on the health impacts of fracking. “Given the weight of contradictory evidence which now exists, no value can be attached to the conclusions of the PHE review”, it said.
Mobbs Environmental Investigations also criticised the data used in a report on greenhouse gas emissions by Professor David MacKay and Dr Timothy Stone. It is often quoted by defenders of fracking to argue that the carbon footprint of shale gas extraction is comparable to that of conventional gas from the North Sea. Mobbs Environmental Investigations said MacKay and Stone used data that under-estimated emissions and over-estimated gas production. The consultancy also questioned the figures used in the report to measure the impact of methane on atmospheric warming. If the correct figures had been used, Mobbs Environmental Investigations argued, the evidence showed that producing electricity with shale gas could be worse than burning coal.
Many respondents called for a moratorium on fracking in the UK. Dr Francis Paul Rugman, who lives 1.6 miles from the proposed fracking site at Preston New Road, said there should be a ban until the results of US epidemiological and population studies were known. “The residents of the Fylde deserve better than to be designated an American style ‘Fracking Sacrifice Zone’ only to become the innocent victims of this toxic industrial experiment”, he said.
FFBRA said: “We want a ban, not better regulation. You can make fracking less of an environmental disaster than it has been in the USA. You cannot make it safe”. Another residents’ group, Frack free Ryedale, said “Ryedale is now in the new ‘fracking front line’” after Third Energy announced plans to frack at Kirby Misperton, near the North York Moors National Park. The group said it had spent months sifting through the evidence of the effects of fracking around the world. It concluded: “Fracking should be banned in the UK on the basis of environmental safety, carbon emissions and the precautionary principle”.