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Ban on UK shale gas drilling operations 'unnecessary'

Concerns over shale gas drilling has led to calls for a moratorium on UK operations, but the company bringing the controversial technique to Britain says its methods are much safer than those coming under scrutiny in the US and such a ban is not needed.

Researchers at Manchester University’s Tyndall Centre this week released a report highlighting possible health risks associated with hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’, which uses chemicals and millions of gallons of water to release gas trapped deep underground.

As well as pointing out the environmental impact associated with the technique, the report drew attention to the lack of publicly available information on its safety and stressed that more research was needed.

The report was funded by the Co-operative, which offers green investment funds and is campaigning against the expansion of ‘toxic fuels’ such as oil from tar sands.

One of the key potential hazards the report identifies is the risk of ground- and surface-water contamination by gas and chemicals, based on evidence gathered from the US where tens of thousands of shale gas wells are now thought to exist.

What chemicals are actually injected into the ground is not publicly available information, the report says, but it identifies 58 out of 260 chemicals held in large quantities by shale gas operators in New York State that are potentially toxic, carcinogenic or mutagenic, which can alter DNA.

Between 15 and 80 per cent of the injected fluid returns to the surface as flowback, potentially bringing with it heavy metals, radioactive materials and hydrocarbons, the report says, and this would likely be seen as hazardous waste in the UK.

The report identifies multiple ways these chemicals could enter underground aquifers that provide drinking water, including through the wellbore should it lose integrity, through the fractures created in the ground or through natural cracks. Chemical spillage could also pollute land and surface water.

While shale gas production in the US has grown dramatically in the last decade, almost tripling between 2007 and 2009 according to government estimates, the technique is relatively new to Britain. Private company Cuadrilla Resources, founded in 2002, recently completed the first exploratory drilling in Lancashire.

But chief executive Mark Miller told The Engineer that while he would always welcome more research, a moratorium was unnecessary because the company was drawing on decades of personal experience from the US.

He said Cuadrilla had a substantial number of procedures and processes in place to prevent the examples of drilling problems mentioned in the report.

An impermeable ground layer was installed under the company’s site to protect against spillage, and fracking takes place 1,000ft below the estimated depth of the Sherwood aquifer in Lancashire to avoid potential contamination.

The drilling procedure uses a kind of mud to hold back the well’s pressure, as opposed to the faster method of air drilling that can lead to more problems with cementing the well.

An intermediate layer of well casing is installed between the top and bottom levels of the well to help keep it more securely sealed, as well as a safety valve that monitors pressure at the surface – a requirement in the UK but one that Miller said probably no company in the US uses for shale drilling.

‘Between the standard we’re setting right now that is being recognised by the government agencies and what’s already in place right now, I think things are in really good shape,’ said Miller.

‘Most of your land regulations here are really extracted from your offshore regulations and the North Sea safety regulations are indisputably the best in the world.’

Despite the decades of industrial experience and knowhow, one point that keeps re-emerging is the lack of information on the reports of associated health and environmental risks and how strong the link is with fracking.

Dr Andrew Aplin, a professor of petroleum geosciences at Newcastle University who has been involved in several industry-sponsored shale gas research projects, told The Engineer that while appropriate regulation was necessary to ensure good practice, it wasn’t obvious there was an inherent problem with fracking itself.

‘Yes there are reports of problems of contamination, obviously a very small fraction of the total wells that have been drilled,’ he said.

‘There have been some problems where aquifers have been contaminated, whether that be with gas or frack chemicals, but exactly how that water supply has been contaminated isn’t clear.’

This uncertainty even emerges from the documentary Gasland – released in the US last year and now distributed in the UK by the Co-operative – that investigates the effects of shale drilling on local communities.

Footage of one resident able to ignite the water in his tap due to its contamination with methane is being used to promote the film, but is itself subject to debate.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) ruled that this gas was biogenic (formed from decomposing matter in the ground). But Gasland’s writer/director Josh Fox has since responded that fracking can also disturb biogenic gas deposits and cause them to enter wells.

Readers' comments (10)

  • This is truly a sign of desperation. To inject chemicals down a hole in a way that has already damaged underground water in the US - and the damage is effetively irreversable - is utterly irresponsible.

    The gas that is produced will not be green, it will not be sustainable, and it will cause environmental damage.

    This energy source might well be a stop-gap while we find a sustainable source of energy - but no government plans have yet been published to show how we plan to do this.

    No doubt criticism like this will be countered with claims that the alternative to this sort of energy search is that the lights will go out.

    No - not if the UK joins the large-scale solar power generation project in N Africa - at least that promises true renewable energy, on the scale that is needed, with negligable environmental damage, and at an affordable cost.

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  • Sun powering the UK? Come on, be serious, and be rational :) You guys spend most of your year under a cloud and rain.

    Almost all of the products you use in your life, daily, come from, or are in part made with petroleum derived materials. This is a chemical process to produce them.

    Are you also arguing that this is an unnecessary process?

    And you are right in responding that it is necessary. And we do so because it is a chemical process that is carried out responsibly. Much the same way that hydraulic cracking of the shale is carried out, and much the same way that Gallium, Aresenide or Silicon are used to dope and manufacture Solar Cells.

    I am all for Solar Power as a (renewable energy engineer), but some facet of realism, not sensationalism needs to be brought to the argument.

    The gas that is produced will most definitely be less carbon intensive than the coal substitute, and it will most definitely be cheaper, and far more reliable.

    If we are to act responsibly, we have some hard choices ahead of us, because our impact on mother Earth is felt in every which way we choose to step for our energy needs.

    Society needs fuels like natural gas, coal, nuclear, solar and wind. There is no magic bullet - we need to work on a transition to responsibly evolve our energy sources from their current state.

    You dont need a 'government plan' to tell you what is going to happen. The people decide and vote - and the sooner that the negative externality that carbon is, is brought to bear on its producers, the better.

    The Engineer, I thought it was a excellent article.



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  • People who oppose fracking for natural gas are hypochondriacs, uninformed, and hypocritical. I'll explain all of these.

    You believe that the ground water is being contaminated, you should do some research. Many drillers have begun releasing documentation on the chemicals they use in fracking. Range Resources has released this document:

    All the chemicals used in fracking are chemicals that we are already exposed to everyday. They are used in our water treatment facilities, food packaging (plastics), toys, etc. So if you fear contamination of your drinking water, you should look more closely at the chemicals our municipalities are using to treat and reprocess water. You should also look at the dangers we are exposed to in everyday household products, including BPA (the white lining inside canned foods), Teflon on our cookware, carpets and furniture, volatile chemicals in the paint on your walls, drywall and insulation in your house which may off-gas for decades, aspartame in our diet soda (proven in rats to cause cancer), and don't forget pesticides on our fruits and vegetables...the list goes on and on. The possible exposure to chemicals used in fracking is miniscule compared to what the FDA approves companies to expose us to every single day in virtually every single product we consume or use.

    Lastly, those who contend fracking is not safe are just plain hypocrites. The oil industry (who is also using fracking methods), has an enormous record of contamination, millions of barrels leaked in to the ocean (Exxon Valdez, Deep Horizon). In fact, most oil wells have a set threshold of "allowable" leakage. They leak crude from the get go, into the ocean and onto the ground, both instances whereby humans are more likely to gain direct exposure or contamination of groundwater. Let's not stop there! Let's take a closer look at the sludge and chemical waste produced by coal mining, its long history of contaminating groundwater, rivers and lakes. Tens of thousands of tons of radioactive nuclear waste produced each year by nuclear power production, a waste we have no scientific method of safely disposing. Because we have no solution for what to do with nuclear waste we keep in infinitely stored in special cooling facilities in attempt to prevent another Chernobyl type contamination or we bury it in Yucca Mountain. We don't know what the long term effects of storing this waste that takes thousands of years to decompose. Yet we allow all of these contaminating industries to exist in the name of energy production, while at the same time condemning fracking in the natural gas industry which 60 years of evidence suggests has much less risk of human contamination and exposure to harmful chemicals than oil, coal, or nuclear production.

    If you believe these types of claims, that natural gas fracking is somehow less safe than other types of energy production, you are indeed naive and you are being feed lies by the big oil and big coal lobbies.

    I do agree that the natural gas industry needs to be regulated, its methods observed, and its outcomes studied to avoid any Deep Horizon type catastrophes. It should NOT be shut down, as there exists no evidence of an outsized harm to the environment or humans in comparison to other energy producing industries.

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  • PV cells are not pollution free despite environmental rhetoric.

    PV cells require rare earth elements (REE) of which China has a 97% monopoly. The manner in which China mines and refines REEs is extremely toxic, and much of the waste flows down the Yellow River to the Pacific.

    And most 'green' technologies require REEs from wind turbines, electric cars, advanced batteries, computers, etc.

    There is a cost to everything.

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  • Mark Miller says that a moratorium is unnecessary because the industry is drawing upon decades of personal experience in the U.S.
    I live in one of the shale gas drilling zones in the U.S. People are sick. Animals have died. Our water is contaminated with acrylonitrile, arsenic, strontium, barium, methane, ethane, to name only a few. Our air is polluted with benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, formaldehyde, among others. Children are sick. Several have had lungs removed. These are people I personally know. The gas industry does not want this negative information to get out either in the U.S. or elsewhere, even though it is happening in most of the states in the U.S. In the U.S. corporations wield enormous control over the political process. Even our government leaders are not protecting us.

    U.K., please be more intelligent that we have been here in the U.S. Do not believe the propaganda put forward to you by the petrochemical industry. They only want to make a profit for themselves - at your expense. At the cost of your lives, your health, and that of your children, pets, livestock and wildlife.

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  • From Pittsburgh and originally rural PA, with love, I have to say watching fracking expand all around the places I love and live, a ban is the only way to fully protect yourselves from the risks to life, the environment, and property values. God bless and solidarity.

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  • We aren’t suggesting the planet go dark. Yes, renewables have associated costs, but they are not dirty and toxic comparable with fossil fuel extraction. There has not been 60 years of experience with the new hydrofracking process that uses high pressure, chemically altered water forced into deep, long lateral borings with multiple wells per pad. This has only about a five year history with the first exploratory wells drilled this way in Pennsylvania in about 2005.

    Natural gas drilling often takes place in residential areas with landowners holding leases making small fortunes while neighbors’ property values are slashed in half or more, have the peaceful enjoyment of their homes under assault, and their drinking water sources sometimes permanently ruined as in Dimock, PA.

    We already have huge infrastructure investments in coal and oil. Cornell scientist Robert Howarth has a peer-reviewed article pending publication that shows little if any difference in the total greenhouse gas emissions between coal and natural gas obtained by hydraulic fracturing. Why shift to natural gas? To do so, we have to dig more pipelines, drill more shales, truck out billions of gallons of fresh water from lakes and rivers that then needs to be scrubbed before being dumped back in our waterways and all this at the cost of a considerable carbon footprint. We have no comprehensive methods for scrubbing the frack water that comes back up after a well is drilled. Woefully underprepared water treatment facilities do not have a means of clearing the high salt content and radioactive elements that come back up from the finished borings. All these new costs will be transferred to customers and tax payers. Huge global companies make billions from this industry. What’s the benefit for the rest of us such that it overrides the fact that ordinary citizens don’t want this; communities are made uninhabitable; foreign investors are buying into the companies so that there is no such thing as energy independence, and the primary work force are not local, workers, but transients from oil and gas company headquarters.

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  • I live in Hickory, near Pittsburgh, PA in the US - Somewhere over 200 families in the township around me have already signed away their first amendment rights - signing nondisclosure agreements after experiencing contamination of their water supplies in order to settle with the gas companies. Their animals are dying left and right, their families are sick, the dogs won't even drink the water - they wake up with nosebleeds from the emissions from compression stations next to their homes, they find toluenes and other chemicals in their blood and water. They rapidly convert beautiful rural areas into industrial zones, with constant truck traffic and noise and giant 70 foot wide pipelines cut through the woods in every which direction, leaking pipes, gas smells everywhere. They come in like thieves in the night, and then take over like a military occupation.
    Don't listen to anyone telling you that regulating the industry properly will protect you. It won't. And be careful about a moratorium - they often work in the industries favor. People hear "moratorium" and think "ban," and stop fighting, meanwhile the industry is setting up well pads, leasing land, and drilling downwards waiting for the "moratorium" to end so that they can drill sideways.

    Please UK, don't let your beautiful lands be turned into an embarrassment. They talk a good game, but now it's time for you to see who has more power - the people who will be effected by this devastation, or some board of directors who views the damage they do to all of your lives and futures as "necessary risk."

    Ban it. Don't let them "regulate" how much damage they do to your lives. Don't let some number cruncher that works for the industry decide what numbers of endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, etc. they can subject your children to.

    Learn everything you can about it. Act quickly. Don't hesitate. If you wait a few years it will be too late.

    This message might seem melodramatic, but if you had lived through this and seen the way they work, you would speak with urgency too.

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  • watch the movie "gasland" it is shocking what fracking does to the enviroment i'm telling you we will destroy the uk if fracking is done.

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  • Anyone who is in any doubt about the negative effects of fracking should watch Gasland. Only an idiot could argue that fracking is not environmentally detrimental and dangerous to the public. An idiot or someone in the pocket of the fracking lobby that is...

    Here's a simple message to those individuals and companies that want to bring this dirty and destructive practice to the UK - frack off!

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