Fracking and the Environment – What we know and what we don’t know

On 11 December, PhD Researcher Jenna Brown, Associate Professor Chad Staddon and Senior Research Fellow Enda Hayes, presented at a joint UWE / CIWEM / RGS event entitled: ‘Fracking and the Environment – What we know and what we don’t know‘.

The event was attended by around 70 people including water sector professionals, environmental consultants, engineers, academics, local politicians and interested members of the community. The discussion covered energy security, resource extraction, environmental legislation, water demand and air and climate impacts.

Jenna started with an introduction to UK natural gas energy security, explaining that in 2011, the UK imported more natural gas than it produced. This is important, as natural gas is projected to deliver up to 70% of UK electricity by 2030 (DECC, 2013). To meet the demands placed upon natural gas supplies, unconventional sources – including shale gas – are being actively explored. For example, the British Geological Society has estimated that Bowland-Hodder in Lancashire has nearly 1,400 trillion cubic feet GIP (gas in place), which could equate to 15 years of gas demand.

The UK has a well-established regulatory system and many risks associated with shale gas extraction (wastewater management, site health and safety) are not unique to the practice. The UK government has founded the UK Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil (OUGO) to continue to research and revise regulations. This is supported by continued examination by the Environment Agency, Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Health and Safety Executive.

Chad discussed the use of water – for exploration, development, remediation and energy generation – in the shale gas extraction process. Maps of the UK’s (relative) water scarcity and areas of shale gas interest showed an overlap in Hampshire and Sussex. Could this be a limiting factor for the industry? Could we ultimately trade energy security for water insecurity? It was argued that water availabilities should be a factor in adjudicating on any application for unconventional gas exploitation. Each well requires approximately 24 megalitres of water. While acknowledging most water is used in the first six months of development, cumulatively this could have an impact on local water supplies if not managed responsibly. This is why the Environment Agency will not enable a developer to explore or develop a well without an abstraction permit – although this process is contested.

Concerns about water contamination are frequently raised. In the US, the standard industry answer is to dismiss any link by explaining case studies linking the two show poor practice, naturally occurring methane present in the water prior to nearby well stimulation or that wells are too deep. However, Robert Jackson at Duke University has linked fracked layers to groundwater layers in Pennsylvania using GCMS – a ‘fingerprinting technology’ that proved that a relationship does exist. DECC, the UK government and Cuadrilla (the only company to drill in the UK so far) cite regulatory requirements that will mitigate groundwater contamination and water stress, although this has been of little comfort to environmental campaigners and concerned local residents.

Enda examined the potential implications of air pollution from shale gas. A 2012 report by AEA noted that whilst releases to air had a moderate impact at individual sites, cumulatively they had high impact. Contribution to background concentrations could come from various sources including an increase in traffic movements and the re-suspension of dust from unpaved work areas. Therefore, public exposure has the potential to be a factor in subsequent health impacts.

In a review of the potential climate change impacts, MacKay and Stone (2013) found that shale gas has a lower carbon intensity than imported liquid natural gas and coal, but higher than conventional native natural gas (assuming that 90% of fugitive gas is captured). However, they conclude that developing unconventional gas could increase our global emissions if the displaced fossil fuels (i.e. coal) are used elsewhere.

Download the presentations here: Jenna BrownChad Staddon / EH-Fracking-v2 Enda Hayes 

Update: Such was the interest in the event that the presentations have been repeated at South West Water (Exeter), the Institution of Civil Engineers (Cheltenham and Gloucester) and Mott MacDonald (Bristol).