As Lancashire councillors prepare to decide on Cuadrilla’s fracking applications, a senior academic has called for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing until more information is known about the risks of contamination.
Stuart Haszeldine, Professor of Geology at Edinburgh University, said there were still uncertainties about faulting and the underground movement of fluids and gases in Lancashire.
He made his comments in a submission to Lancashire County Council’s development control committee, which is expected to make a decision today on Cuadrilla’s application to frack up to four wells at Preston New Road. Another application for its site at Roseacre Wood is expected later in the week.
Professor Haszeldine said his submission was based on recent published research. It comes to the same conclusion as that presented last week to a pre-meeting of the committee by David Smythe, Emeritus Professor of Geophysics at Glasgow University.
Professor Haszeldine, who is currently working on several research council funded projects on fracking, said: “I recommend a moratorium, so that truly scientific investigations can be undertaken. UK Government has allocated £31m for such purposes.”
“It has to be wondered why the science will not predate the commercial drilling, to inform the most secure and best result, but instead the science will follow after the commercial drilling.”
“Fundamental uncertainties on faults, fractures, stress, movement of frack fluids, movement of frack gases and hydrocarbons, and basic understanding of deep hydrogeology remain unresolved in the sub-surface planning evidence submitted for fracking at Preston New Road and Roseacre Wood.”
The professor’s submission reviews studies published this year from Pennsylvania and the Barnett shale in Texas and a report on the deep hydrogeology of Lancashire, published last year. It also looks at the recent recommendations of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
The Pennsylvania study showed that deep gas could migrate to hit the drinking water table, Dr Haszeldene said. He added: “Pre-existing steep fractures could be gas and groundwater conduits to move contamination vertically and laterally”.
“Lessons emerging from studies of recent fracking practice in some states of the USA, show that is has been difficult to predict the effects of fracking on fluid flow in some cases”, he said. “It is of course clear that most fracked boreholes do not show evidence of adverse consequences. But those that do have not been cleaned-up and remain contaminated, permanently in human timescales.”
Professor Haszeldene said more detailed tests would provide information about where faults and fracture occur in Lancashire, which have particularly adverse positions and, of these, which would be first to become conduits for frack fluids.
All the tests were technically possible but would mean deferring commercial drilling in the UK, he said.
“Clearly commercial pressures will claim a high probability of “success” by pressing ahead and learning on the job. The examples of Pennsylvania show that this can be a disastrously false economy, and that a “Precautionary Principle” is wise to invoke, to provide the very best chances of avoiding unintentional damage to subsurface and near surface water supplies and environment.”
Yesterday, Dr Nick Riley, who described himself as a world expert on shale, told councillors he disagreed with Professor Smythe’s call for a moratorium until concerns about faulting were addressed.
“This is a strange position for a scientist to take”, Dr Riley said.
“There comes point when …. gathering state of the art information is the only way to address uncertainty.”
“I, as a scientist, welcome the opportunity to find out more about the geology through exploration so as to diminish uncertainty.”