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Fracking safe if guidelines followed, says review

The technique of fracking, hydraulic fracturing, which triggered two earthquakes near Blackpool last year, has been deemed safe for the UK if guidelines are followed.

The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering conducted a joint review that concluded that operational best practices must be implemented and robustly enforced through regulation. 

“There has been much speculation around the safety of shale gas extraction following examples of poor practice in the US,” said professor Robert Mair, chairman of the review’s working group. “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. 

The review examined the scientific and engineering evidence relating to the environmental and health and safety risks associated with the onshore extraction of shale gas.

Mair added that the review was not an “exhaustive analysis” of all the issues associated with shale gas, which meant there were a number of issues highlighted that merit further consideration, including the climate risks associated with the extraction and subsequent use of shale gas, and the public acceptability of hydraulic fracturing.

The review can be found here.

Conclusions

  • Hydraulic fracturing is an established technology that has been used by the oil and gas industries for many decades in the UK; 
  • The risks of contamination of aquifers from fractures is very low provided that shale gas extraction takes place at depths of many hundreds of metres;
  • Seismicity (or earth tremors) induced by hydraulic fracturing is likely to be of a smaller magnitude than the UK naturally experiences or than is related to coal mining activities, which are, of themselves, low by world standards;
  • Open ponds for storing wastewater (which have been historically used in US fracking operations and carry a possible risk of leakage) are not permitted in the UK and there are numerous facilities in the UK for the treatment of similar wastes from the industrial sector;
  • Well established procedures have been developed for the disposal of naturally occurring radioactive materials (which are present in the hydraulic fracturing wastewaters) by the UK’s extractive industries.

A particular cause for concern is that that poor cementation and casing failures of wells could lead to leakages and wider environmental contamination, as they have in some cases in the US. The review therefore concludes that the priority must be to ensure the integrity of every well throughout its lifetime.  

Recommendations

  • Strengthening the UK’s regulators, including providing additional resources as needed;
  • Allocating lead responsibility for regulation of shale gas extraction to a single regulator;
  • Strengthening the system of well inspections to ensure that well designs are considered not only from a health and safety perspective, but also from an environmental perspective;
  • Undertaking appropriate well integrity tests as standard practice;
  • Mandating and enforcing Environmental Risk Assessments for all shale gas operations, which should be submitted to the regulators for scrutiny
  • Ensuring robust monitoring of methane in groundwater, seismicity and methane leakages before, during and after hydraulic fracturing;
  • Establishing integrated management processes to ensure water is used sustainably and to minimise wastes

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