Health data essential to judge impacts of fracking – councillors

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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).

Public comments

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

Witness list

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)

Environment Agency
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)

Yorkshire Water
Mark Morton (senior hydrogeologists)

18 replies »

  1. It is interesting to note that there seems to be an assumption of difficulties in the future that require baselines to be created for comparative purposes. Surely the onus should be on industry representatives to provide proof that the practices are safe? Similarly there is no definitive answer to the monitoring of decommissioned wells and this may well prove to be the single biggest difficulty in years to come and No one takes responsibility for any failure, health issue or other ecological damage.

    • Did you write this Mr Roberts? If you did please can you show me where Friends of the Earth said that children playing on the beach would get cancer? As the article seems to imply this.

      Or was this not the case?

      I assume they were referring to fine sand particles that may be used in industry, which does lead to silicosis and lung cancer? Indeed sand is used in the fracking process.

  2. Asked the same thing of Welsh Government Health Minister (see for more info)
    The PHE report lacks credibility and is discredited by peer reviews.

  3. Some of the comments by the experts don’t go far enough – for instance Mr Cronin – shale gas wells will produce for 20 to 25 years, but at what level? Some of the best producing wells in the Marcellus shale are running at 50% after four years, but most are running (individually) on an uneconomic/non commercial amounts of gas. What Mr Cronin failed to say that whilst shale produces a lot of gas initially the Type Curve follows a quick decrease in flow rate – so the cumulative curve i.e. the amount of wells producing is critical. Which basically means thousands of wells if the industry is to produce enough gas to have any meaningful impact on UK consumption.

    The industry is not being entirely honest with the UK public about the scale of this industry – Mr Hollinrake MP keep saying “if we were to recover just 10% of our available receives we would be self sufficient” Anybody who knows anything about shale knows that 10% recovery would be your thousands of wells scenario.

    They are very selective in their choice of words.

    If they can’t be completely honest and open at a scrutiny hearing – when will they?

    The British people when they look into the facts of shale are not reassured and new evidence emerges from the US clearly stating that more research is required (despite what the pro industry supporters say) this is fact. It is not only the fracking itself but the traffic and infrastructure that must also be considered on health, the environment and landscape.

    And without the actions of the motivated public and those brave enough to speak out – this level of challenge and scrutiny would not have taken place.

    And I for one say thank you.

  4. KT – gas currently producing 42% of UK electricity, coal 10%. And it is quite a windy day. So when all coal is phased out gas will be higher. The question I asked the other day is still valid, please advise where you wish the UK to get its gas from? And do you have gas central heating? UK conventional gas supplies are dropping as you know. So imports are increasing. Should we take shale gas (LNG) from the US or increase our LNG shipments from Qatar – or assess the feasibility of using our own shale gas reserves by drilling and testing a few exploratory wells in the different UK basins?

    Any shale gas development scenario in the UK will go back to planning and will include the number of wells, surface locations and be subject to full public and statutory consultation as before.

    And finally, who would you believe, Friends of the Earth, an anti industry, anti carbon but offering no viable alternative entity, or the Environment Agency and Health and Safety Executive?

    I see now that FOE et al having accepted that there are no nasties in UK approved frack fluids they are harping on about the sand again. Are they (you?) also trying to shut down the UK construction industry, glass industry…… because sand / silca is used? I thought not!

    • Six rhetorical questions in such a short comment.
      Thousands of shale wells are required to produce a significant amount of gas.
      Thousands of shale wells.
      Thousands just in Ryedale.
      Only a fool or a liar would overlook the issue of thousands of shale wells and instead resort to a slew of rhetorical questions.
      It’s clear that the investment chain of oil and gas exploration leads to a propensity to bluffing and hyperbole. This business culture doesn’t excuse complete departures from reality in engaging with the public and its democratic institutions.

      • Thousands of shale wells onshore England will not happen. If you are correct on the numbers then there won’t be any shale gas development – planning will refuse development on all manner of surface issues. PINs will throw out appeals and the SOS will not overturn these decisions . Traffic, noise, visual impact etc. But the industry (and you) do not yet know the well counts. This why the exploration test wells are required. The Bowland shale for example is apparently very sandy. If this is correct then well spacing will be much greater than if it was predominantly shale. And it is possible that some wells / fields may not require huge stimulations.

        By the way, you do post some strange comments mixed in with some sensible stuff. I am neither a fool nor a liar but I am able to make reasonable and experience based comments regarding most of the issues raised on here having worked in the upstream industry all my working life. Including managing huge fracture stimulations albeit offshore.

    • Only a fool or a liar would pretend or fail to understand the fact that without thousands of shale wells there cannot be significant amounts of gas.

      Please have some self respect. Do some fact checking.

      • Have a look at the productivity of Horn River, Liard Basin and Cordova Embayment well IP / Productivity. Shale wells with decent flow rates and using modern completion techniques. May or may not be comparative to UK – thats why the exploration wells are needed. Cuadrilla’s test is rumoured to be up there with these BC wells.

    • Hello Paul – thank you for your query. I am a realist and very much live in the real world. I appreciate we are not going to phase out fossil fuels immediately. What I don’t agree with is that fracking is the right energy solution.

      As you probably know we import most of our gas from Norway and the Netherlands and the UK currently exports gas – so the North Sea gas is not being reserved even now for our own domestic use.

      I would prefer the UK to continue importing gas from Norway and Europe until we have a sustainable and reliable energy mix. Much of this is being driven by government policy, rather than any scarcity of hydrocarbons. Indeed there is an over supply of hydrocarbons – hence the fall in oil prices.

      We do not need further sources of hydrocarbons.

      There have been many papers published on the economics of fracking, the amount of energy expended to deliver shale gas to the energy provided – which are not favourable. And then there is the climate change issue of leaving 80% of known reserves (not new) in the ground. The stranded assets issue and the over value of hydrocarbon assets that Mark Carney warns of.

      Many of the shale gas producers in the US are massively in debt and smaller operators are already going bankrupt.

      Nations such as Sweden are talking realistically about a carbon zero economy by 2020/30 – and if they can do it other nations will follow, much will depend on investment and political will.

      Remember overall energy consumption is actually falling and the renewable contribution slowly increasing. At some point with various new forms of energy coming online and the new nuclear power plants – there will be a change in what we consume/need today.

      There is a huge oversupply of hydrocarbons, and Iran and the US will be adding to the supply. This will no doubt keep the prices low.

      It is interesting to ponder that we import, always have done and will continue to do so for some time – a huge amount of oil and yet no one seems to be concerned about dealing with Middle Eastern countries and oil security.

      There has been numerous conflicts and unrest in the Middle East and other oil producing regions for centuries but we have continued importing oil.

      We have also always imported food and no doubt will continue from a variety of countries, including many with poor Human Rights and volatile regimes, but again no one seems concerned about food security.

      The reality is gas is traded on the open market like any commodity and the UK has always been an exporter and importer of goods.

      Whilst I appreciate the situation in the world is complex and serious but I believe the focus on energy security is being used in part by the government and unconventional gas industry to push the case for shale gas.

      The offshore industry believe more offshore gas could be obtained but the focus has shifted to shale.

      • Hi KT,

        Thanks for detailed reply. It looks like the only points we disagree on are how long we are going to need gas for and where this gas should come from. Personally I don’t expect shale gas to be viable in UK due to planning issues at the development stage however I believe we need to test the basins and see what the viability is. It is expected that the productivity of the Bowland Shale may be high and therefore less wells, stimulation etc. required. But we don’t know yet.

        Sweden gets over 40% of its electricity from hydropower and about 40% from nuclear. Unfortunately our geography, particularly in England, does not facilitate hydropower and we are probably maxed out with the small amount we have. We are going to bring hydro generated electricty in from Norway via a new interconnector at some stage which will be useful. But we still need to come up with a viable alternative to replace our current fossil fuel electricity generation – and heating. Sweden does not use gas for heating as far as I can tell.

        So we have a long way to go. Gas will replace coal, new nuclear will eventually come on and replace old nuclear. Renewables (in UK biomass, wind and solar with a little hydro) expansion are limited due to their inherent constraints and requirements for demand back up. Biomass is also struggling to grow, we are already importing forests on an annual basis. Replacing gas heating in 20 million homes is a huge challenge both economically and politically.

        We could start using more oil to generate electricity and for heating as the world is awash with it and it is so cheap – but no one wants this, and of course the oil price will start to rise rapidly in the next 18 months again as it always does when exploration budgets are cut.

        Our offshore industry is a dead duck at current prices. The big gas fields have been developed and depleted; the fields that remain are HTHP (high temperature high pressure, and sour) and no company will invest in them. The focus has not really shifted to shale. It is just exponentially more expensive to operate offshore. The UK shale companies are not offshore operators (with the exceptions of Total, GDF and Centrica). Most of them would not get an offshore licence.

    • Hi Paul.
      DECC won’t answer my question on North Sea GAS.What would be your answer?
      On 10/12/2013 Energy Analysts were invited to speak to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee on the future of UK gas security. It was stated that shale gas could not meet base fuel needs and that it was laughable that shale gas could stop the country from brown outs.
      Taxing the offshore industry at 60-80% is obviously going to stunt investment.
      Andrea Leadsom was recently in the North Sea hearing how recent tax reductions and new seismic surveys will see huge growth in one of our biggest industries which she stated employs 375 thousand.
      It is globally accepted that shale gas has no competitive edge over conventional gas. Please explain how it makes more economic sense to start a new onshore Industry with no infrastructure than to expand our well established mighty North Sea Industry with vast proven reserves which will easily meet our needs in the transition to our inevitable renewable future.

      • An explanation is that the opportunity for onshore lies in the financial gains relating to the collateral value of a Petroleum Exploration and Development License (PEDL) after exploration and appraisal but before actual development and production. Those gains can be made irrespective of any gas or oil actually being sold.

      • It might be something to do with the oil price – I recall it was over $100 / bbl in 2013. Now it is $30 / bbl – below production costs for most north sea undeveloped proven reserves. Aberdeen is suffering today. Tens of thousands are being axed. So there will not be much happening offshore for some time. And there are unlikely to be any major gas fields undiscovered offshore (like Leman and Indie which used to produce around 2 billion cubic feet a day in the 1980s). The offshore operators are looking for oil, not gas.

        If Scotland had voted for independence they would now be bankrupt.

        If shale gas happens it will only happen if it commercially attractive i.e. someone will make money from it. I agree with WWW below to a certain extent, it is unlikely that companies like Cuadrilla are in it for the long haul. Explore, prove up reserves and commerciality and sell to a bigger company who has the resources to develop. This is why some companies are farming in Total / Centrica / GDF etc. But they won’t buy if it is not economic for them.

        Those that keep saying shale gas is uneconomic / too expensive etc. may be right. But the operators seem to think that it will work in UK. Otherwise why are they spending money on it?

  5. With 5.2 million homes at risk of flooding in England ( SOURCE, Flood defence spending in England – Parliament breifing paper 19th November 2014 )

    With two thirds of the UK insurance market either refusing cover, or placing special exemptions on the policies of homeowners who live in areas at risk of flooding with fracking sites in close proximity.
    Defra warning of the serious risk to human health from polluted fracking waste.
    ( SOURCE, Independant Newspaper UK, 10th January 2016, headlined Householders Face Double Whammy If They Live Near A Planned Fracking Site )

    What does the fracking industry intend to do about this ???

  6. Some conflicting information given out as Yorkshire Water estimates only 2 per cent of their supplies would be needed, and yet on further questioning about drought and competition impacts, had to confess a plan B is to use Northumberland water….no wonder the Kielder forest needs a motorway extension going all the way north. Odd too Yorkshire Water owned by Kelda….funny use of homonym??

    The conflict arises when Ken Cronin couldn’t answer how many wells and sites were planned, leaving everyone in the dark about full scale industrialisation, over hundreds of square miles, if Cronin doesn’t yet know how many wells and drills are planned, how come Yorkshire Water imagines it somehow can provide for it, when already reservoirs are being over abstracted?

    Well casing failure isn’t just about gas blow outs and explosions far into the future after frackers have gone, it is also about waste arising, and in an area taking pride in the land for future generations, of course mass pollution of soil from groundwater/methane/shale bases migrating laterally and vertically, is not something any council would want to be responsible for. Not to mention a rise in radioactivity and radons in an undertested region where RAF, civil aviation, and European influx pollutants are not being properly measured by DEFRA.

    The Public Health consultant seems to be in need of an update in current quarrying and mining effects on health, and an update on fracking effects otherwise the UK stats for industrially linked diseases will continue to be the poorest collated in the world.

    Of course the issue no one wants to consider, and everyone wishes would be ignored is the fact that much of the radioactive highly polluted waste water IS a problem all would wish go away. Industry wants to leave it in the ground, of course they do, as it costs a helluva lot to process it afterwards, and they can’t get all of it out anyway….more profit for industry…..more pollution for generations to come for the rest of us not living in tax havens.

    Meanwhile sheep bandits got away with it, I fully anticipate water bandits are already on their way here to syphon off more watering places across Yorkshire, with the EA and Yorks Water saying not enough money to monitor or police…..

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