What we should be doing about fracking and pollution

fracking protestThis post is by Gwynne Lyons, director of CHEM Trust.

Fracking has brought environmental activism out onto the streets of the home counties, with a protest movement unprecedented since the days of Swampy. The concerns of residents living near proposed drilling sites are many, but particularly include the potential for water contamination. Should people be worried about this pollution?

Water pollution could occur from wastes getting into water courses or from the fracking process itself. Toxic chemicals are used at every stage of the process and chemicals used in the fracking fluid injected underground, under high pressure, have the potential to contaminate groundwater if the fissures accidentally propagate to reach aquifers. There is also a possibility that not only the fracking fluid, but also natural gas (methane) might leak into the aquifer.

The government is sweeping concerns under the carpet
The government appears hell bent on giving fracking the go ahead and seems to want to sweep such concerns quickly under the carpet. In July, Michael Fallon, BIS minister of state and DECC minister of state, said on Radio 4 “there is no evidence that hydraulic fracturing has contaminated water.” Only later, when we challenged him, did his department confess that “reports from US regulators and review bodies do confirm that gas developments there have, on occasion, led to water contamination.” (DECC letter to CHEM Trust, 7 August 2013)

DECC suggests that such incidents of contamination in the US merely “confirm the need for the industry to consistently apply good practice; as well as the need for proper scrutiny and oversight of the industry to ensure that this good practice is actually being carried out.”

But can we be sure, in the current climate, that the necessary oversight will happen or will some chemical exposures be inadequately documented and prevented? Clearly, the Environment Agency can’t rely only on monitoring data provided by industry. It needs sufficient resources to take a proactive role.

Locals need to have a say in the permit process
By the end of 2013, the Environment Agency will finalise technical guidance to clarify which environmental regulations apply to the onshore oil and gas exploration sector and what operators need to do to comply with them. But other stakeholders also need guidance, such as farmers, landowners and the public. There is, for example, a lack of clarity over the timescales for permitting and thus the ability of stakeholders to engage in and comment on the process. The mineral planning authorities are responsible for deciding if an environmental impact assessment is required, but transparency and debate about the possible pollution impacts should be a necessary part of the decision to permit such a significant, and potentially impactful, industrial process.

It is always very difficult to predict accurately the health and environmental effects from exposure to several pollutants at the same time. And, if and when earthquakes happen and cracks develop, or a water supply is tainted, or cattle grazing nearby fall sick, who will be responsible and foot the bill?

Five actions to deal with fracking pollution
To protect the wider environment, wildlife and public health, CHEM Trust has called for the following:

  1. A moratorium on fracking in the UK, until there has been full public disclosure of all the chemicals used and the companies involved have provided adequate data on their hazard profiles, and undertaken a full assessment of all the potential health and environmental effects. Unfortunately, since full disclosure isn’t required in the US, there is a lack of information about the full range of dangerous chemicals which may be used.
  2. No fracking near potable groundwater sources, in National Parks, or on or near environmentally sensitive areas or sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs).
  3. Extensive air, land and water monitoring in the vicinity prior to and during operation, including vigilance for emerging health effects in residents, livestock and wildlife.
  4. Detailed and ongoing inspection of operations by experts in geology and ground water protection to ensure proper disposal of all chemicals, including contaminated water, muds and other wastes.
  5. Companies undertaking fracking should have to deposit bonds sufficient to cover any future compensation claims. Measures to enforce the polluter pays principle are necessary to ensure that the proper checks and balances are in place.

Read more in CHEM Trust ‘s paper on fracking

Green Alliance’s annual debate Can fracking be sustainable? will be on 11 November 2013, with Caroline Lucas MP; Michael Liebreich, CEO of Bloomberg New Energy Finance; David Kennedy, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change; and Lord Smith, chair of the Environment Agency. Chaired by Zoe Williams of The Guardian. Find out more

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