Best practice will minimise risks to shale gas exposure

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The risks to public health from exposure to emissions from shale gas extraction are low if operations are properly run and regulated, according to a new report from Public Health England (PHE).

Published today, the review of scientific literature focussed on the potential impact of chemicals and radioactive material from all stages of shale gas extraction, including the fracturing - fracking - of shale.

As there is no commercial shale gas extraction in the UK, the draft report drew information from countries where it is taking place.

Dr John Harrison, director of PHE’s Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards, said: ‘The currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health from exposure to emissions associated with the shale gas extraction process are 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.

‘Good on-site management and appropriate regulation of all aspects of exploratory drilling, gas capture as well as the use and storage of fracking fluid is essential to minimise the risks to the environment and health.’

Most evidence from other countries suggests that any contamination of groundwater, if it occurs, is likely to be caused by leakage through the vertical borehole, making well construction and maintenance essential to reduce the risks of ground water contamination.

The report adds that contamination of groundwater from the underground fracking process itself is unlikely because of the depth at which it occurs.

Commenting on today’s report, Prof Quentin Fisher, Professor of Petroleum Geoengineering, Leeds University, said: ‘This is yet another study suggesting that contamination of the groundwater due to the hydraulic fracture process itself is unlikely.

‘The two main risks identified are surface spills and leakage along boreholes. These risks can be dramatically reduced by the development of a robust regulatory framework.

‘I think it’s particularly important for the public to understand that leakage along boreholes is far less likely in the UK compared to the USA because we have never had a large onshore petroleum development program so pre-existing boreholes close to the shale gas resources are not a significant issue.

‘Overall, the report provides even more evidence that production of gas from shale can be made very safe.’

Prof John Newton, chief knowledge officer at PHE, said: ‘In due course it will also be important to assess the broader public health impacts such as increased traffic, the impact of new infrastructure on the community and the effect of workers moving to fracking areas.’