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Fracking poses little health risk to UK public, says report

Shale-gas development poses little risk to public health, according to a new report by the UK government

The report, published by Public Health England (PHE) on 31 October, examined the potential impacts of chemicals and radioactive material from all stages of shale-gas extraction, including hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

It said as long as shale-gas operations are “properly run and regulated” there should be little risk to either human health from emissions or to groundwater supplies.

Good on-site management and appropriate regulation of all aspects of exploratory drilling, gas capture and storage of fracking fluids are essential to minimise the risks to the environment and human health, the report said.

The report recommends environmental monitoring at shale-gas development sites to provide a baseline ahead of commercial-scale shale-gas extraction, so that any future health or environmental risks can be assessed.

Shale-gas developers in the UK will need to satisfy planning and environment regulators that their operations will pose minimal pollution risks to public health. PHE said it will work with regulators to ensure health and environmental risks are assessed appropriately.

 John Harrison, director of PHE’s Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards, said the risks to public health from exposure to emissions from shale-gas extraction would be low if operations are properly run and regulated. “Where potential risks have been identified in other countries, the reported problems are typically due to operational failure,” Harrison said. “Contamination of groundwater from the underground fracking process itself is unlikely because of the depth at which it occurs.”

Harrison added that evidence from other countries, where shale-gas extraction takes place, suggests that any contamination of groundwater is likely to be caused by leakage through the vertical borehole. Good well construction and maintenance is essential to reduce the risks of ground water contamination, he said.

John Newton, Chief Knowledge Officer at PHE, said it would also be necessary to assess the broader public health effects of shale-gas development, such as increased traffic, the impact of new infrastructure on the community and of workers moving to fracking areas. The report did not examine greenhouse-gas emissions, sustainable use of water resources, or the potential socio-economic benefits of shale-gas development. 

As there is yet no commercial-scale shale-gas production in the UK the report used data from countries such as the US, where fracking is widespread and has transformed the energy industry and parts of the economy.

In the UK, several companies have been eyeing potential development, spurred by large estimates of recoverable reserves and generous tax breaks from the government.

GDF Suez signed an agreement with Dart Energy on 22 October to buy a 25% stake in 13 UK onshore licences located in Cheshire and the East Midlands, overlying the Bowland Shale. The play, in northwest England, is thought to hold 2,281 trillion cubic feet of shale gas.

Cuadrilla Resources, which has carried out exploratory drilling in northwest and southeast England, met some public opposition over environmental concerns.

Both the industry and the UK government’s energy ministry welcomed the report. “The UK has among the highest standards for onshore oil and gas extraction in the world, backed up by the industry’s own stringent shale-gas well guidelines,” Ken Cronin, chief executive of the UK Onshore Operators Group, said. “We hope that the PHE findings will reassure communities up and down the country that shale gas can be extracted with minimal risk to their wellbeing.”

UK Energy Minister Michael Fallon added that the country had “the most robust regulatory regime in the world for shale gas and companies will only be granted permission to frack for shale if their operations are safe”

Report recommendations 

- Baseline environmental monitoring to assess the impact of shale-gas development on the environment and public health. Consideration of emission inventories as part of the regulatory regime;

- Environmental monitoring of shale-gas sites throughout their lifetime in development, production and post-production;

- Each site to be assessed on a case-by-case basis;

- Assessment of broader public health effects, such as increased traffic;

- Public disclosure of fracking chemicals and assessment of risks before their use;

- Maintenance of well integrity and safe storage of fracking fluids and wastes; and

- Characterisation of natural contaminants, such as naturally occurring radioactive materials. 

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