The controversial activity of shale gas fracking can be safely undertaken in the UK, if correctly monitored and regulated, a review by top level engineers and academics has found.
The report by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering
found the risk of earthquakes
and the contamination of drinking water
as a result of fracking
were both "very low risk". But it called for strong regulation
and robust monitoring systems to be put in place and raised particular concern about the safety of shale gas wells, which it said posed an environmental risk that would require "extensive inspections and testing" if shale gas was allowed to go ahead in the UK.
Fracking is the process of injecting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure, into deep natural gas wells. The pressure fractures the shale and props open fissures that enable natural gas to flow out of the well.
It has been suspended in Britain following the earthquakes near Blackpool in Lancashire last year where Cuadrilla Resources, the British company exploring for shale gas in the UK, has been carrying out fracking.
Today’s report, which was financially supported by the Government, examined the scientific and engineering evidence relating to the environmental and health and safety risks associated with the onshore extraction of shale gas.
It concluded the risks of contamination of aquifers from fractures is "very low" so long as shale gas extraction takes place "many hundreds of metres" below ground. It also found that earthquakes caused by the activity were smaller in magnitude than those relating to coal mining activities.
However, it warned that "poor cementation and casing failures" of wells could lead to leakages and wider environmental contamination and ensuring the integrity well throughout their lifetime should therefore be made a priority. At Cuadrilla's fracking site near Blackpool, one of the wells was damaged by the earthquake, while in, the US, where fracking is widely undertaken, poor regulation and monintoring have been blamed for contamination of surrounding soil and water supplies.
"There has been much speculation around the safety of shale gas extraction following examples of poor practice in the US," Professor Robert Mair FREng FRS, chair of the review's working group said. "We found that well integrity is of key importance but the most common areas of concern, such as the causation of earthquakes with any significant impact or fractures reaching and contaminating drinking water, were very low risk.
"This is not to say hydraulic fracturing is completely risk-free. Strong regulation and robust monitoring systems must be put in place and best practice strictly enforced if the Government is to give the go-ahead to further exploration. In particular, we emphasise the need for further development and support of the UK's regulatory system, together with Environmental Risk Assessments for all shale gas operations and more extensive inspections and testing to ensure the integrity of every well."
The report made a number of recommendations to strengthen regulation around fracking in the UK, including establishing a single regulator for shale gas; ensuring that well designs are considered not only from a health and safety perspective, but also from an environmental perspective; and undertaking appropriate well integrity tests as standard practice.
It also called for methane levels to be robustly monitored in groundwater and where there were leakages during and after hydraulic fracturing. Studies suggest methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, escapes much more abundantly during shale gas fracking than in conventional gas extraction. Methane is 25 more potent than carbon dioxide when contributing to climate change.
A recent report
published by Scottish Widows Investment Partnership, a leading investor in gas, called into question shale gas fracking because it said companies were failing to take action to capture methane.
Friends of the Earth, which is concerned about the effects of fracking on the environment and climate change, said today’s review was a "stark warning" that the UK wasn’t ready to extract shale gas.
"Experts say we need much tougher regulations to reduce the risk of earthquakes and pollution of our water supplies," Energy campaigner Tony Bosworth, said.
"The Government’s obsession with shale gas is completely misguided. Overwhelmingly the public want more of their electricity powered by our sun, wind and waves."
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