Key arguments in the complaint against the Friends of the Earth leaflet


DrillOrDrop has compiled these arguments made by Friends of the Earth and Ken Wilkinson about statements in an FOE fund-raising leaflet. The source was documents submitted in a case to the now-defunct Fund Raising Standards Board. Links to supporting evidence used by the two sides are in red.

“Fracking involves a toxic cocktail of chemicals”

Friends of the Earth: A British Geological Survey study noted:

Groundwater may be potentially contaminated by extraction of shale gas both from the constituents of shale gas itself, from the formulation and deep injection of water containing a cocktail of additives used for hydraulic fracturing and from flowback water which may have a high content of saline formation water”.

Ken Wilkinson: FOE fundamentally misunderstand the meanings of the words ‘toxic’ (a poison) and ‘hazardous’ (presenting danger). ‘Potentially’ does not mean it will happen. It means engineers will take care, as they recognise the risk. That’s why planes do not fall on our heads (often). Treatment of flowback water is covered under EA [Environment Agency] licensing.

FOE: Hazardous substances” are defined in Article 2(29) of the EU Water Framework Directive (2000/60) as substances which are “toxic, persistent and liable to bio-accumulate”. It follows that, as a matter of law, a substance which is merely toxic will not necessarily be hazardous to groundwater (as it must also be persistent and liable to bio-accumulate). The Environment Agency has a policy against the use of hazardous chemicals in fracking. There is no Environment Agency policy on the use of toxic chemicals in fracking. The ASA has already ruled that Cuadrilla cannot say “fracturing fluid does not contain hazardous or toxic components”.

KW: It is clear in UK law that hazardous materials are not permitted. Nor are ‘toxic’ (poisonous) and carcinogenic materials as the law clearly states. The EA make it clear that they will evaluate each chemical, and it can be permitted as long as it does not present a ‘hazard’ to groundwater. The use of the word toxic conveys the ability to cause harm to an environment/life, and would be a combination of the nature of the material and its concentration.

FOE: Fracking companies will use toxic chemicals to frack. For example, Cuadrilla has permission from the Environment Agency to use polyacrylamide to frack at its two fracking sites in Lancashire. It is established that polyacrylamide is a source of acrylamide, which is a probable human carcinogen – and therefore toxic. Polyacrylamide is used as a grouting agent in reservoirs and the US Public Health Service Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) has made clear that this can lead to exposure to acrylamide. It has been demonstrated that this use of polyacrylamides can result in release to drinking water supplies. Acrylamide does not bind to soil and thus moves rapidly through the soil (which may result in increased risk of surface or groundwater contamination). The analogy with fracking is seepage of acrylamide through faulty well casings or natural faults in rock into groundwater which may be used to provide drinking water for local people (source).

KW: It is difficult to see how any members of the public would come into contact with this common chemical due to drilling, as the material will not be released into the environment. The Environment Agency have approved polyacrylamide for use underground as a ‘non hazardous pollutant’. Polyacrylamide is sold as a children’s toy (described as non toxic and environmentally safe), is used in babies nappies to absorb urine, in many face creams, and contact lens solutions in high concentrations. It is also used in potable water treatment and is a food additive. It is not scientifically valid to look at minute concentrations of chemicals such as acrylamide, especially as acrylamide is highly biodegradable. Many foods contain minute quantities of nasty chemicals.

FOE: The Advertising Standards Authority ruled in 2013 that Cuadrilla could not say that “fracturing fluid does not contain hazardous or toxic components”, even if Cuadrilla itself had not used toxic chemicals to date, on the basis that these substances could be used in the future, and during drilling the well.

KW: This ASA judgement is incorrect. I have asked the ASA numerous times to review this. Dilute hydrochloric acid is not toxic. It is corrosive or irritant. It is also food additive E507, and used in school science lessons from age 10.

FOE: Cuadrilla has been granted permission to use oil-based ‘muds’ to drill wells in Lancashire. These are classified as ‘hazardous’ in the permit. Permits granted by the Environment Agency in respect of Cuadrilla’s two frack sites in Lancashire also recognise that the company may seek fresh permission from the Agency to use other chemicals in connection with fracking in future.

KW: Oil based mud is a standard technique. The Environment Agency will have assessed the risk using UK law.  If they do drill through any water bearing rocks (and drilling in SPZ1 s is not permitted) they may well use water-based mud. The EA look at all aspects of this and will not permit anything that presents a hazard to groundwater.

The use of silica

FOE: Both Cuadrilla in Lancashire and Third Energy in Yorkshire have permission to use silica sand in fracking – the UK Health and Safety Executive says this is known to be linked with lung cancer. Academics also wrote to The Times in support of this evidence in October 2015.

Silica used in fracking in the US has been shown to pose a silicosis and lung cancer risk, leading the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue a hazard alert. It is clear that silica is a toxin. Indeed, the complainant links to the Health and Safety Executive’s document outlining the health hazards posed by the inhalation of silica dust (including, potentially, cancer) yet notes it makes no reference to this risk as regards fracking. At the time the leaflet was published it was therefore not clear to FOE that silica dust was on the HSE’s radar as a risk from fracking.

KW The HSE wrote to me and indicated there were no issues with this. Chemical handling like this has gone on in the N Sea for decades with no issues and workers are not exposed to silica dust. The hazard is still there but the risk is reduced to zero by preventing exposure. If the workers are not exposed, how will the public be? The silica referred to here is the dust that could arise from normal sand. Cuadrilla used locally-mined sand in their first well. As such, it is used in building/glass manufacture and numerous other industries, with no risk as long as it is handled correctly. The HSE would not permit operations that would involve risk to workers, let alone the public.

“25% of chemicals used in the fracking process could cause cancer”

FOE: This is derived from the work of Dr Theo Colborn of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange. A peer-reviewed study by Colborn et al (2011) found that 25% of identifiable fracking chemicals could cause cancer and mutations. Dr Colborn’s work is also cited by the United Nations Environment Programme in its report on shale gas and environmental impacts “Gas fracking: can we safely squeeze the rocks?” The use of carcinogenic chemicals in connection with fracking is well documented. Members of the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce found that

between 2005 and 2009, the oil and gas service companies used hydraulic fracturing products containing 29 chemicals that were harmful including on the grounds that some were known or possible human carcinogens”.

KW: Public Health England warn against comparing the US experience with what the UK proposes. If chemicals are classed as hazardous, they will not be permitted under EU and UK law. FoE have shown little understanding of the words, ‘toxic’ (ie poisonous at a particular concentration) ‘hazardous’ (a potential danger) and ‘risk’ (the chances of a hazard becoming an event). It is required that the chemicals are disclosed and the Environment Agency will permit, or not, depending on the nature of the material. It is required in UK and EU law that the substance will be ‘non-hazardous. This claim is based on US regulations and has no relevance in the UK and as such has no basis in science.

FOE: The Health and Safety Executive accepts silica exposure is responsible for several hundred lung cancer deaths in the UK each year. Silica-related lung cancer is a UK government recognised prescribed industrial disease. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) notes: “Crystalline silica in the form of quartz or cristobalite dust is carcinogenic to humans”. In the US, the safety regulator acknowledges the lung cancer association and says there is more limited evidence of associations with laryngeal, stomach and oesophageal cancers.

KW: There are regulations concerning the transport and usage of silica/sand, and there is no reason to see why operators would not follow this basic regulation. In addition, the HSE have been regulating the N Sea for over 50 years, and there is no indication that any workers have suffered from exposure to any airborne dusts. Many N Sea wells and 200 onshore wells have also been fracked using sand.

FOE: Workplace silica exposure can cause potentially fatal cancers and lung and kidney diseases, and may lead to arthritis and other chronic health problems37. As set out above, silica is used widely in connection with fracking and will be used in this connection in the UK also. The Health and Safety Executive (“HSE”) accepts silica exposure is responsible for several hundred lung cancer deaths in the UK each year38 . Silica-related lung cancer is a UK government recognised prescribed industrial disease39. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) notes: “Crystalline silica in the form of quartz or cristobalite dust is carcinogenic to humans .” In the US, the safety regulator acknowledges the lung cancer association and says there is more limited evidence of associations with laryngeal, stomach and oesophageal cancers.

KW: There are regulations concerning the transport and usage of silica/sand, and there is no reason to see why operators would not follow this basic regulation. In addition, the HSE have been regulating the N Sea for over 50 years, and there is no indication that any workers have suffered from exposure to any airborne dusts. Many N Sea wells and 200 onshore wells have also been fracked using sand.

FOE: There is substantive evidence that chemicals which Cuadrilla and Third Energy intend to use, or are seeking permission to use at sites in England could have the consequences identified in the leaflet.

Fracking is also associated with significant levels of carcinogens accumulating around sites. There is also substantive evidence of elevated levels of benzene around fracking sites (eg: in the United States), in some cases in exceedance of legal standards (example source) and at levels of concern. (A study by the University of Colorado and the National Oceanographic Administration found that frack sites emit “high ratios” of benzene). The link between benzene and cancer is well recognised. The WHO makes clear that no safe level of exposure to airborne benzene can be recommended, although it has set levels for drinking water. In the European Chemicals Agency study of chemicals used in connection with fracking previously referred to, the Agency found that 9 substances have been classified in the hazard class carcinogenicity.

KW: This is irrelevant in the UK regulatory context. Benzene is classed as ‘hazardous’ chemical in the Water Framework Directive and as such and is not permitted. Benzene does not exist in significant quantities in shale gas. Shale gas is chemically the same as the gas the millions cook with every day.

FOE: Highly elevated levels of formaldehyde have also been found around frack sites. Studies indicate that these levels can be linked to the use of flaring and compressors. Flaring is expected to be used in the UK – for example Cuadrilla has permission to flare significant quantities of gas at its two frack sites in Lancashire. Formaldehyde is recognised as a carcinogen. In one study, seven air samples contained formaldehyde at levels up to 60 times the level known to raise the risk for cancer.

KW: Flaring is done in the UK only under licence from the EA, using high efficiency enclosed burners. These would destroy materials like formaldehyde, and enclosed flares are regularly used in industry. In addition, one of the recommendations of the 2012 RAE report was that air pollution monitoring would be required in case there were any issues. Third Energy propose to do a ‘green completion’ which means no gases are released. Cuadrilla propose to use burners, approved by the EA.

“Up to 80% never returns to the surface and could end up in your drinking water.”

FOE: FOE believes that the claims are true and not misleading because they are based on substantive evidence of impacts of this kind abroad as well as expert assessment of the risks in this country. FOE also points to substantive flaws in the regulation of risks to drinking water from fracking in this country which are recognised by various bodies.

KW: FoE may well believe it, but this is not the case. Any spare water is sequestered (absorbed) into the shale matrix. In fact, water would not magically rise up against gravity, as noted by the Royal Academy of Engineering report 2012, except during the fracking process. CIWEM have no issues, and neither do Water UK.

FOE: The Environment Agency estimates flowback of 10-40% at Cuadrilla’s two proposed fracking sites in Lancashire (meaning that 60 – 90% of the fluid is expected to remain underground).

KW: Saline polluted water remains underground, and does not rise up to pollute aquifers, thousands of feet above them, defying gravity, when there is no driving mechanism. This demonstrates a lack of knowledge about how wells flow.

FOE: There is substantive evidence of pollution of drinking water linked to fracking and related activities where this technology has been used more widely. [FOE quotes research at Pavilion, Wyoming, studies by Duke University and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and enforcement proceedings against a fracking company for pollution of a drinking water aquifer with surfactant chemicals]. In December last year, the US Environmental Protection Agency identified cases of impacts on drinking water at each stage in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle.

KW: These examples are nothing to do with fracking. It is precisely these type of problems that the Royal Academy of Engineering identified in its 2012 report. The HSE rewrote the regulations to ensure proper sealing of wells. This refers to many aspects, water acquisition, and surface spillage. There still has not been single case of the fracking process causing pollution, even when done badly. The EPA cite, ‘insufficient evidence’ after more than 1 million wells. In the EPA press release, only bullet point 3 is ‘fracking’. The rest is fluid management.

FOE: FOE notes that some of the US regulatory standards regarding well design have been applied in practice in this country too eg: by Cuadrilla at the Preese Hall well. It is therefore truthful for FOE to point to issues about groundwater contamination based (partly) on evidence from the United States, given that some of the same standards have been applied in this country too (alongside UK standards).

KW: The regulatory processes have all been thoroughly reviewed and best practice is a requirement. The recent regulations cover all aspects of environmental protection. There have been very few pollution incidents in fact, and none recently, and all of these involve poor design or poor practice. They involve practices that would not be permitted in the UK.

FOE: In Australia’s Queensland gasfields, BTEX chemicals were found in 5 out of 14 monitoring wells in Arrow’s gas fields, with benzene at levels 6 and 15 times the Australian drinking water standard.

KW: Queensland’s gas is coal seam gas. It’s a totally different technique to shale gas. Again, BTEX would not be permitted in the UK.

FOE: At EU level, a report published by the European Commission in 2012 made a number of findings regarding the risks which fracking poses to groundwater including the following:

“The study found that there is a high risk of surface and groundwater contamination at various stages of the well-pad construction, hydraulic fracturing and gas production processes, and during well abandonment. Cumulative developments could further increase this risk.”  (Source)

KW: Many of these issues, such as surface leaks, and soil contamination are mitigated by the requirements to ‘protect the environment’ (Cuadrilla policy document). If the operator does not do this the Environment Agency will not provide a licence to drill.

FOE: Lord Chris Smith, Chair of the ASA, former chair of the Environment Agency, and current Chair of the industry funded Shale Gas Task Force said in 2013 that groundwater contamination is the “biggest environmental risk” from fracking.

KW: True, but a risk does not mean something will happen. We are surrounded by risks, and keep them low by care and technology. The HSE have reviewed well design requirements requiring an extra layer of casing.

FOE: The [then] Department of Energy & Climate Change seems to have conceded that fracking poses a “significant risk” to drinking water, since it put forward proposals to prohibit fracking in the most sensitive drinking water protection area.

KW: Drilling is not allowed in potable aquifers, known as SPZ1s. These restrictions are in line with other industries, such as the chemical and nuclear industries. This indicates a precautionary approach.

FOE: Maintaining well integrity is key to preventing groundwater contamination and wider contamination, but leading studies indicate considerable uncertainty about the incidence of well failure (from 1.9 – 75%). Research undertaken by BrightAnalysis and published by FOE indicates that unconventional wells fail at a rate of between 5 – 9% owing to the use of fracking and horizontal drilling. Findings of a causal link between well failure and groundwater contamination are set out in certain analyses, including one analysis of impacts in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania:

Our data clearly show that the contamination in these clusters stems from well-integrity problems such as poor casing and cementing” (See this example)

KW: [Based on a response to an Freedom of Information request] currently there are no production wells leaking in the UK, out of a total (onshore and offshore) of nearly 9000 wells. The FoE figures combine internal leaks (well barrier issues) with well integrity (an external leak). Well leaks to the environment in the US are now very infrequent, and are fixable.

FOE: In the UK, a well drilled by Third Energy at Kirby Misperton in North Yorkshire in 2013 passes through a number of groundwater bodies, at least one of which is classed by the Environment Agency as a “secondary aquifer”.

KW: Drilling is not allowed in potable aquifers, known as SPZ1s. These restrictions are in line with other industries.

FOE: Groundwater is also at risk from other substances which are mobilised from the rock in connection with fracking which are toxic (source). Friends of the Earth contends that the average reader would not discern a difference between chemicals used to frack and chemicals released by fracking, so far as they pose the risks to health and the wider environment referred to hence it is justifiable to point to the impacts of chemicals which fracking can release in this manner. Fracking mobilises Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material which comes to the surface with the flowback fluid and is required to be managed. It is clear that NORMs are hazardous and therefore toxic.

KW: The water can be described as ‘radioactive’ but not toxic, and needs treatment under licence from the Environment Agency. This is common with many industries. They are required to follow licence conditions for safe disposal. It’s the EA’s day to day work.

FOE: Fracking also mobilises other substances previously contained within the rock which may pose a risk to groundwater too. These include arsenic, cadmium and lead as demonstrated by Environment Agency analysis of flowback fluid from Cuadrilla’s Preese Hall site which found levels many times in excess of drinking water standards. Arsenic is a known carcinogen that causes bladder, lung and skin cancer (source). Both arsenic and lead are classed as pollutants under EU water legislation. The Environment Agency regards cadmium as a toxin. The US EPA states that lead can be toxic to humans too.

KW: The reference to drinking water is irrelevant. It is industrial waste that needs correct disposal.

FOE: Groundwater is also at risk from spills at the surface from, for example, large volumes of waste (which are likely to contain NORMs and other pollutants) which accumulate there and are required to be managed.  This fact is recognised by Water UK, the water industry body among others.

KW: Water will be stored in steel tanks. A secure storage system is required for a licence to drill. There is potential for pollution, which is why a chemical proof well pad and bunding drainage is required by the EA.

FOE: FOE argues that regulation of these risks is flawed in a number of respects. For example, while health and safety legislation requires “independent” inspection of wells, a House of Lords Committee has pointed out that this does not prevent the inspector from being an employee of the drilling company. We contend that such a person could not possibly offer an “independent” view of the robustness of the well design and construction which is so important to ensuring protection of groundwater. Public authorities have failed to stipulate how long fracking wells must be monitored after they are closed. Post closure monitoring is a key part of the EU mining waste regime and water can take years to flow through rock. In Lancashire, Cuadrilla failed to submit an effective “closure plan” in respect of its fracking wells as part of its environmental permit application, despite being required to do so by EU law (EU Mining Waste Directive, Article 5(3).

KW: The ‘independent’ well inspector is a possible source of concern in my opinion. The rest of FoE’s claims are incorrect. The ‘licence’ can only be surrendered after the EA and HSE are satisfied that the well has been abandoned safely. That means the company is liable until all is safe. Even badly abandoned wells in the UK have few issues, as identified in the recent ReFine report.

FOE: Our claim is expressed in conditional language (that is that pollutants “could” end up in drinking water) which reflects both the contested nature of the debate as well as our view, based on the evidence, that there is a risk that this could occur. FOE believe the claim is true and substantiated because of the evidence that links pollution of groundwater to fracking abroad; the risks identified in this country by various experts including government; and the requirement to adopt a precautionary approach to environmental protection in accordance with international and EU law where uncertainty about impacts arises.

KW: There is no evidence that fracking has polluted wells. There is evidence that poorly drilled and cemented wells and other issue have caused a small number of surface water well issues. That is not fracking (source).

“The leaflet implies that fracking is dangerous, has serious consequences, or poses a health risk”

FOE: We contend that there is a strong and growing body of evidence of the potential health risks from fracking.

KW: These reports have been carried out by anti-frack campaigners, peer reviewed by other campaigners and supported by anti-carbon foundations, such as the Sierra Club, the Park Foundation, the Heinz Foundation. When subject to scientific scrutiny these studies are found to have no foundation, as recently confirmed in the 2016 Medact Report.

FOE: We note that the Public Health England report concluded that:

the potential health impact from single wells is likely to be very small, but the cumulative impacts of many wells in various phases of development in relatively small areas are potentially greater and will need careful scrutiny”.

KW: This would be subject to planning limitations, and Environmental Impact Assessments which would assess the impact using expert knowledge. There is no reason that this cannot be carried out if needed, as Environmental Impact Assessments would be required that would evaluate these issues.

FOE: PHE also finds the risks are only low if fracking is properly regulated. However, regulation is being weakened by the Government, and a report by FOE has found that much of England’s regulation of fracking is inadequate, flawed or ineffectively applied and enforced.

KW: Fracking has been performed offshore and onshore frequently, for decades in the UK, and there is no reason to think that the experienced regulators at the HSE will not be able to cope with any slight differences. The FoE reference was written by an activist. The final regulations were only published in 2016 after many years of consultation.

FOE: Many eminent medical experts including a former Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners and a former Deputy Chief Medical Officer, wrote to the British Medical Journal that “the arguments against fracking on public health and ecological grounds are overwhelming”.

KW: This was based on the Medact 2015 report. The updated 2016 report states ‘Based on current evidence it is not possible to conclude that there is a strong association between shale gas related pollution and negative local health effects.’ [The press release on the report does, however, state ‘there is clearly potential for negative health impacts’ – editor]

FOE: In addition, in December 2014, New York State Department of Health concluded that fracking should be banned due to the “significant public health risks” following a two year study. The research concluded that:

“Until the science provides sufficient information to determine the level of risk to public health from HVHF [High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing] to all New Yorkers and whether the risks can be adequately managed, DOH recommends that HVHF should not proceed in New York State”.

KW: Public Health England warn against looking at foreign jurisdictions with different regulations and chemicals. These moratoria do not follow scientific recommendation from expert groups. The NY ban was a celebrity affair.

FOE A letter from 18 UK health professionals including Dr Adam, former Deputy Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Health, and Dr Gerarda, former chair of the Royal College of GPs, says that “the arguments against fracking on public health and ecological grounds are overwhelming”.


FOE: The research institute PSE Healthy Energy published a major peer-reviewed study, in an academic journal which assessed peer-reviewed scientific literature from around the world on the health impacts of unconventional natural gas development over 2009–2015 and found that 87% of air quality studies indicate elevated air pollutant emissions and/or atmospheric concentrations which are linked to asthma.

KW: The PSE Healthy Energy is the type of publication that Public Health England would reject. Shale gas (which is clean burning) has displaced coal and public health has improved massively, as many nasty pollutant levels have dropped.

FOE: An article in the peer reviewed journal of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics (Warneke et al) shows that smog levels are high around areas where there is a high level of fracking.

KW: This is in a jurisdiction that permits fugitive VOC emissions and as such is irrelevant in the UK context where gas emissions are not permitted. The UK regulation of the N Sea has to have a leak-free environment as otherwise this would be a massive health and explosion risk in the confines of offshore platforms. We have managed to produce, compress and pump gas perfectly safely for decades. These claimed negative experiences of some US areas is irrelevant in the UK. Planning laws would prevent dozens of wells drilling at once.

FOE: A study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 2016, found fracking Industry wells are associated with increased risk of asthma attacks in Pennsylvania. There is evidence of high levels of formaldehyde, a known asthma sensitiser, around fracking wells in the US. The source for the claim is a study published by the University of Austin, Texas.

KW: This was completely contradicted by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. It found a reduction in asthma of 26% as the fracking boom took place. In fact, the reduction in the use of coal (due to shale gas) in the US has led to largescale reductions in many airborne pollutants, and an improvement in public health.

Fracking and falling house prices

FOE: Analysis in a study by academics from LSE, University of Bristol and Duke University found that house prices fell by 2.7 to 4.1% in the area of Cuadrilla’s fracking site in Lancashire, which caused two earthquakes in 2011.

KW: The Bristol University study is not a published study. JLL (a professional house price forecasting organisation) concluded that there was no evidence of any properties around the Preese Hall-1 well (where the seismic events occurred).

FOE:  Research from leading market research agency Redshift found that estate agents in 3 areas of the UK effected by fracking, estimated the possible loss to house prices at 8-11% or more.

KW: The Redshift research was based on estimates. The JLL study was based on data after the event.

FOE: In 2015 the government were forced to publish a DEFRA draft report through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request that found that “there could potentially be a range of 0 to 7% reductions in property values within 1 mile of an extraction site”.

KW: The DEFRA report was preliminary study that had many flaws.

Climate change

FOE: We know that if we’re to deal with climate change, fossil fuels must stay in the ground. Fracking just isn’t compatible with that.

KW: I agree, we need to reduce GHG emissions. The trouble is that the big culprit is coal. There are plans to build new coal fired power stations in Asia.  That’s the real issue. US CO2 has reduced massively due to shale gas. There is, of course, the issue of methane but UK regulations are clear on this. No venting. The science is clear. Properly produced shale gas is a positive help to reduce CO2 emissions as agreed by the Climate Change Committee recently.

Link to background documents on the Fund Raising Standards Board case over Friends of the Earth’s leaflet