Councillors in North Yorkshire want detailed information to be collected about the health of local people before fracking starts.
They say this baseline data is essential to find out whether any health problems have been caused by shale gas exploration or production.
The county is the front line in the campaign for and against shale gas. A planning application to frack at Kirby Misperton is currently before the council. And gas companies have exploration licences from the Yorkshire Dales to the coast and from the North York Moors to the Derwent valley.
A meeting at County Hall in Northallerton today heard evidence from the shale gas industry, regulators and members of the public.
During a session with officials from Public Health England, the chair of the meeting, Cllr Andrew Backhouse, said:
“It is essential that this baseline health data exists.”
He said the council would ask for baseline information to be in place as a “future reference” in case anything went wrong.
The meeting was taking evidence to help the council respond to a new minerals and waste plan, which will set planning policy for fracking for the next 15 years.
Cllr John Clark, who represents Pickering, said he was concerned that any changes in health would not be recognised if there were no baseline measurements. He warned that if fracking were allowed there was a risk of repeating past mistakes when there was no health information before the products were introduced.
He cited the case of problems caused by organophosphates.
“When something went wrong everyone was fishing around to find the cause”.
“If we do baseline monitoring first – and we have a good public health department here that could work on a pilot study – it would put you way ahead of the rest of the country”.
He questioned whether Public Health England had asked the Treasury for money to do the studies and said:
“I suspect the total cost to the oil industry of doing a baseline health pilot study would be very, very small. I am concerned that you are not saying we need that baseline but we can’t get the funding”.
Greg Hodgson, of Public Health England, said a report by his organisation had concluded that the health risks of shale gas extraction were low if the industry was properly regulated. But he acknowledged that the report did not look at a complete range of impacts on health, including noise and light pollution.
North Yorkshire’s Director of Public health, Dr Lincoln Sargeant, said the council could currently monitor impacts on health through, for example, cancer registrations, information from GPs and hospital admissions. But he admitted the measures were “very crude”.
“You may pick up issues sometime after events have happened. By the time that you begin to deal with it you are a few years out”.
He warned that investigations into possible health problems related to unconventional gas production needed to look at all the possible causes. He said a study looking at air pollution, for example, would also have to look at the prevalence of smoking.
But he added:
“We have begun discussing how we could partner with academic institutions”.
“This is something I would like to see funded, possibly from the proceeds that have been talked about, the one per cent to every community”.
“I would not want to see this coming out of public health funding. I see this as a separate pot of money that we could use with Public Health England to commission appropriate studies as and when facts suggest this would be useful.”
Key points made by witnesses
Financial health of companies Toni Harvey, of the Oil and Gas Authority, said companies that had been issued exploration licences were judged to be in “sound financial health” and had shown they had enough money to pay for their work programmes.
Waste treatment Mark Morton, of Yorkshire Water, said his company had not been approached by the shale gas industry about processing waste at its facilities. Yorkshire Water was entitled to refuse waste if it believed the product would damage treatment works. Waste was likely to be treated by a specialist company first, he said. But even then there were probably only two Yorkshire Water treatment plants that could take the waste.
Water supply and fracking Mark Morton said it was likely that any contamination of drinking water would be detected before it entered the supply. He also said Yorkshire Water would be able to supply water for fracking in the county. He said he had calculated that the likely demand from the largest possible number of wells – what he described as “a worst case scenario” – would amount to under 2% of current supply.
Regulation Naomi Luhde-Thompson, of Friends of the Earth, said current regulations of fracking were not fit for purpose. The Environment Agency and Health and Safety Executive said they were satisfied with the regulations and had sufficient staff.
Location of shale gas wells in Ryedale Ken Cronin, of the industry group UK Onshore Oil and Gas, said locations would be determined by geology and where regulations allowed the wells to be sited.
Life of a shale gas well Ken Cronin said this depended on various factors, including geology. But he said there was an assumption that wells would last for 20-25 years.
Decommissioned wells Asked who was responsible for wells after they were abandoned, Tony Almond, of the Health and Safety Executive, said abandoned sites were no longer workplaces and so these wells were not a responsibility for his organisation. None of the witnesses would comment on how integrity problems in an abandoned well would be detected.
Viability of shale during low international prices Ken Cronin said the oil and gas industry did not expect to make much money during the exploration phase and was looking at prospects over the long term.
Extra Government funding to help planning authorities with shale gas applications Asked if this was available to help councils deal with the first few applications only, Emily Bourne of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, said: “It is very early days. We only have a very limited number of sites in the planning process. We will keep it under review.”
Bonds for clean-up costs The Environment Agency confirmed it had no powers to require companies to pay a bond for clean-up costs if something went wrong. However, Ken Cronin said operators needed three types of insurance, covering third party liability, environmental liability and loss of well control. Planning authorities do have a power to require bonds from operators.
Environment Agency funding The EA said that while staff numbers had fallen at the organisation, the Government had given it an extra £3.1m last year and £2.5m this year. This was for work on the exploratory stages of shale gas. Of this year’s 2.5m, 24% went to the EA’s Yorkshire area, reflecting the number of exploration licences in the area.
Private boreholes Yorkshire Water said private boreholes had their own Special Protection Zone 1 area and companies would not get permission to carry out fracking within these areas.
Fracking on the edge of National Parks The meeting heard that fracking was banned at the surface of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Emily Bourne said the government had not defined a minimum distance that fracking could take place from the boundaries of National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Written answers Witnesses offered to give written responses to questions on the level of typical lorry traffic generated by fracking sites (Ken Cronin) and the comparative greenhouse gas contributions of shale and conventional gas (Emily Bourne).
The meeting heard comments and questions from 19 members of the public, including the local MP, Kevin Hollinrake. Another four people sent in statements.
People opposed to fracking raised concerns about health and environmental risks, waste disposal, air and water contamination, economic viability, impacts of extra traffic on roads, adequacy of regulation, long-term cumulative impacts, spacing of wells and the effects on landscape and local tourism, .
A supporter of fracking, Lorraine Allanson of Friends of Ryedale Gas Exploitation, asked a series of questions about how shale gas compared with other industries and how fracking companies proposed to mitigate any impacts.
Link to webcast of the meeting here
In order of appearance at the meeting
Friends of the Earth
Naomi Luhde-Thompson (planning advisor)
UK Onshore Oil and Gas
Ken Cronin (chief executive), Steve Thompsett (director), and Dr Andrew Buroni (consultant)
Department of Energy and Climate Change
Emily Bourne (Head of Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil)
Oil and Gas Authority
Toni Harvey (Senior Geoscientist)
Ben Hocking (programme manager) and Martin Christmas (area manager)
Public Health England
Greg Hodgson (Head of the PHE Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards) and Simon Padfield (consultant in communicable disease control)
Health and Safety Executive
Tony Almond (Oil and Gals policy team)
Mark Morton (senior hydrogeologists)