Fracking safety report unlikely to sway opponents

Environmental groups sceptical about disposal of contaminated water

An exploratory drilling site in West Sussex: the PHE review did not consider climate change, sustainable water use, noise or odours. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

An exploratory drilling site in West Sussex: the PHE review did not consider climate change, sustainable water use, noise or odours. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA


Nearly 200 people gathered in the United Church in Winchester earlier this month, concerned about plans that could see dozens of fracking wells in Hampshire in the years ahead.

Licences for exploratory drilling have already been granted for a number of places around the cathedral town, though experts cautioned locals that commercial drilling is five years away, if not more.

Tempers in Hampshire have become exercised by the prospect of drilling, though commercial exploitation there will be years behind Lancashire - where test drilling by one company, Cuadrilla was stopped two years ago after it caused minor earthquakes.

Yesterday’s report from Public Health England (PHE) will be seized upon by British ministers, who see the dramatic impact of fracked gas on US gas prices and want the same.

In essence, the public health body says properly-regulated, properly-run fracking is safe and does not threaten groundwater supplies – a major concern for local groups who have become increasingly vocal.

“The currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health from exposure to emissions associated with the shale gas extraction process are low if operations are properly run and regulated,” said John Harrison, director of PHE’s division for radiation, chemical and environmental hazards.

“Good well construction and maintenance is essential to reduce the risks of groundwater contamination.”

Climate change
Firstly, however, it is important to note what the public health body did not look at: climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, the sustainable use of water, noise, odours or the visual impact of well-heads.

Exploration companies use what opponents regard as a dangerous cocktail of water, sand and chemicals to break apart rock formations underground, though the mixture, according to PHE, is 99.75 per cent water and sand.

However, an analysis of water brought back up to the surface at the Cuadrilla Resources’ well in Preese Hall in Lancashire carried out by the UK’s Environment Agency provides ammunition for detractors.

It “found high levels of sodium, chloride, bromide and iron, as well as elevated values of lead, magnesium, zinc, chromium and arsenic compared with the local mains water that was used for injecting into the shale”, according to yesterday’s report.

Properly done, this water is separated from the gas at surface and recycled, though environmental organisations such as Greenpeace argue that it could be re-injected back into the ground, or disposed of into sewers.

Given that proper regulation and disclosure is stressed so heavily in yesterday’s report, it is noteworthy that figures for air quality around the Elswick well-head in Lancashire – in operation since 1996 – have never been published.

“Similarly no air quality data have been obtained for more recent exploratory drilling for shale gas at [the Cuadrilla site in] Preese Hall,” it notes, though it makes the point that most of the emissions from shale gas could be found in many other industrial settings.

Underground aquifers can be protected as long as the well-head is properly lined to ensure that there can be no leaks, pointing out that the practices necessary have been in operation for decades.

PHE’s report was met warmly by geologists and academics, many of whom have become frustrated that fracking has become such a bogeyman – the research was “well-balanced”, said University of Edinburgh’s Professor Stuart Haszeldine.

However, Professor Richard Davies of Durham University said that, of more than 2,000 wells drilled onshore in the UK over the past century, almost half were buried “and therefore not easily monitored, and 1,138 were drilled by companies that no longer exist”.