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Fracking safe, say UK geologists

Leading UK geologists say hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is “very unlikely” to cause methane contamination of groundwater, adding that two earth tremors triggered by exploration last year were too small to cause damage

Mike Stephenson of the British Geological Survey (BGS) said on Tuesday that most geologists thought fracking was a "pretty safe activity" and the risks associated with it were low. He said the distance between the shale-gas reserves, which lie between 1,500 and 3,000 metres underground, and groundwater supplies, usually found at depths of between 40 and 50 metres, made it unlikely that fracking could allow methane to seep into the water table.

"Most geologists are pretty convinced that it is extremely unlikely that contamination would occur," he added.

Stephenson said the UK had one of the strictest regulatory regimes in the world and that two cases of methane pollution of water in the US, which had been highlighted by anti-fracking protestors there, were the result of mismanagement and were unrelated to the drilling process.

Meanwhile, Peter Styles, a professor of applied and environmental geophysics at the UK’s Keele University, said that fracking is unlikely to trigger earthquakes stronger than magnitude 3.3 on the Richter scale, a level at which little damage is caused, and that most would be even less extreme, at around magnitude 2.

The comments echo the findings of a report commissioned by Cuadrilla Resources – the firm that hopes to exploit shale-gas reserves near Blackpool, northwest Endland – and will be a blow for campaigners pressing for a moratorium on fracking in the UK because of fears over its safety.

Stephenson, who said more research into fracking remained to be done, also said the UK could have far larger shale-gas reserves than previously estimated, prompting the BGS to launch a review of its figures. “There is much more shale gas than we thought under Blackpool,” he told the briefing.

The BGS’ existing estimate is that the UK has 150 billion cubic metres (cm) of onshore shale gas. Cuadrilla has claimed there could be 5.7 billion cm around the two wells it has already drilled.

But experience of drillers in the US shale sector suggests that only a fraction of that could be commercially extractable. The firm hopes to start commercial production by mid-2012.

Other areas of the UK are also being scoured for potential shale gas reserves, including north Wales and central England.

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