Evidence from the US prompts calls to stop fracking
Scientists are warning that plans to use a new method of gas drilling in the UK could contaminate water supplies.
A report released today from Manchester University’s Tyndall Centre calls for a moratorium on shale gas drilling until further research is done.
Mining company Cuadrilla Resources is preparing to carry out drilling that could involve ‘fracking’ – fracturing rock with water and chemicals to release gas trapped inside – following initial tests at a site near Blackpool, Lancashire.
The call to halt operations follows controversy in the US, where shale drilling has already taken off but where the state of New York recently introduced a temporary ban on the horizontal fracking techniques typically used.
‘Evidence from the US suggests shale gas extraction brings a significant risk of ground- and surface-water contamination,’ said the report, funded by the Co-operative.
‘Until the evidence base is developed a precautionary approach to development in the UK and Europe is the only responsible action.’
It adds that there is little evidence shale gas will act as a transition fuel in the move to a low-carbon energy production and that instead it will increase net carbon emissions and could delay investment in zero-carbon technology.
Hydraulic fracturing or fracking involves drilling a well generally 1.5 - 6km below the surface and pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the shale at pressures up to 100MPa (145,000psi).
The technique has been used since the 1940s but its recent expansion comes from horizontal drilling methods that reduce the number of wells needed.
The Tyndall report warns that horizontal fracking carries risks of contaminating groundwater and surface water with the fracturing chemicals and with methane, as well as putting pressure on water and land resources in the UK.
It adds that there is little publicly available information on these risks or the chemicals used in fracking, but notes that substances stockpiled in the US for the process include toxins and carcinogens such as naphthalene and benzene.
‘If we are serious in our commitment to avoid dangerous climate change, the only safe place for shale gas remains in the ground,’ said the Tyndall Centre’s Professor Kevin Anderson.
Cuadrilla’s chief executive, Mark Miller, told the BBC that any chemical leakage would be due to poor well design rather than the fracturing process and the company had taken steps to ensure this would definitely not happen in its UK operations.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) appears unlikely to introduce a moratorium in the UK.
A DECC spokesman said: ‘We support the industry’s endeavours in pursuing such energy sources, provided that tapping of such resources proves to be economically, commercially and environmentally viable.
‘All onshore oil and gas projects, including shale gas exploration and development, are subject to a series of checks, including local planning permission before they are able to move ahead with drilling activities.’
Innovations in extraction and geology mean that shale gas is easing concerns over energy security in the US. But as exploration spreads, engineers are facing the environmental challenge of extracting the gas from deep rock. Click here to read more.