The controversial extraction of shale gas by hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ can be safe if managed properly, say the UK’s Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering.
The learned societies were asked by the government’s chief scientific officer Sir John Beddington to review the scientific and engineering evidence to determine whether the risks associated with fracking could be effectively managed.
The conclusion, to the disappointment of opponents, is that fracking can be safe but best practices must be implemented and strong regulation is needed to ensure they are enforced.
The review finds that the risk of fractures reaching aquifers and contaminating water supplies is ‘unlikely’, providing extraction takes place at many hundreds of metres or several kilometres.
Faulty wells are more likely sources of contamination, as has been the case in the US, but the review says that the UK’s unique system of examining the design of offshore wells by independent specialist experts could be made ‘fit for purpose’ for onshore wells.
To avoid potential problems, all shale gas operations should assess risks across the entire lifecycle of operations, from water use through to the disposal of wastes and the decommissioning of wells, says the report.
These environmental risk assessments (ERAs) should be mandatory, say the learned societies, and be backed up by ‘robust’ monitoring before, during and after operations to detect methane and other contaminants in groundwater and any potential leaks into the atmosphere.
The ERAs should include assessment of the risk of earthquakes, which the report says are likely to smaller than those typical in the UK or associated with coal mining.
“There has been much speculation around the safety of shale gas extraction following examples of poor practice in the US,” commented chair of the working group Robert Mair today. “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.”
However, he adds:
“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.”
But in a nod to environmental concerns, the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering admit there should be more research into the carbon footprint of shale gas, as well as the ‘public acceptability’ of shale gas, given the UK’s policies and energy and climate change.
The review also has strong advice for the government on regulating the extraction of shale gas including strengthening existing regulators and giving a single regulator lead responsibility for fracking operations.
The conclusions of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering echo those earlier this year of the Environment Agency and the International Energy Agency, which is describing the discovery of shale gas as heralding a ‘golden age of gas’.
For further information:
IEA sets out rules for ‘golden age of gas’ (31-May)
UK Environment Agency gives OK to fracking ‘if safe’ (9-May)
UK looks set to move ahead with shale gas fracking (17-Apr)
UK shale gas deposits twice as large as thought, says IGas (4-Apr)
29 June 2012