An opportunity to shape a constructive way forward

The Infrastructure Bill is finishing its journey through Parliament with a debate in the Commons this afternoon. A large part of that debate is likely to focus on hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’) for shale gas in the UK.

In 2012, I chaired a review of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas on behalf of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering that concluded that the health, safety and environmental risks can be managed effectively in the UK as long as operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation.  We consulted widely with academia, government, industry and environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and WWF-UK.

A major theme of today’s debate will be how fracking might fit within the UK’s, and the global, energy mix 

The Environmental Audit Committee’s report out today (to which the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering submitted evidence) recommends that there should be a moratorium on fracking until further assessment has been made of the impact on climate change, the environment, health and safety and the economy. Members of the Committee will be calling for a moratorium on fracking in the debate about the Infrastructure Bill.

Important research has already been undertaken to look at these issues. The implications of the use of hydraulic fracturing on the UK’s carbon emissions reduction obligations have been explored by Professor David MacKay FRS and Dr Tim Stone in their report Potential greenhouse gas emissions associated with shale gas production and use. They concluded that the overall carbon footprint of shale gas is comparable to gas extracted from conventional sources (i.e. natural gas) and made a number of recommendations to minimise the environmental impact of shale gas extraction.  In 2013, the Climate Change Committee (the independent body established under the Climate Change Act 2008 to advise the Government on emissions targets, carbon budgets and progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions) stated that UK shale gas production could be compatible with meeting our emissions targets but it should not mean a ‘dash for gas’ in the power sector. Gas could still play a significant role in the UK's future energy mix, according to The Carbon Plan, published in 2011 (p16).

The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee stated that shale gas could bring the UK economic benefits, but these could not be quantified until exploratory drilling and appraisal show what the UK’s economically recoverable reserves of shale gas are.  

Today’s debate provides an opportunity to ensure the UK’s regulatory framework is effective

The government have accepted all the recommendations of our review on how to manage health, safety and environmental risks. However we cannot properly evaluate these measures until we see them in operation. If fracking goes forward in the UK, the public will need evidence that the necessary protections are in place and that they are effective. 

A number of amendments for debate today focus on the regulation of hydraulic fracturing, several of which address issues highlighted by our review.

Ensuring the independence of well examiners

Ensuring the integrity of wells must remain the highest priority to prevent contamination. Well examiners are highly specialised experts and play an important role in scrutinising the design and implementation of wells to ensure they are safe. Currently there are guidelines in place to determine who can act as a well examiner but it remains possible for an examiner to be employed by the well operator’s organisation.  Our review (page 26, Recommendation 2) recommended that these guidelines should be clarified to ensure the independence of the well examiner. The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee echoed this recommendation in their 2014 report when they called for regulations to make this explicit.

Site-by-site measurement and monitoring

Our review (Recommendations 1 and 3) also recommended operators should conduct site-specific monitoring of methane and other contaminants in groundwater before, during and after shale gas operations. Seismicity should similarly be monitored to mitigate any tremors such as those experienced in the North West in 2011 (although the review concluded that seismicity induced by fracking is likely to be of even smaller magnitude than coal-mining related seismicity). In Committee stage of this Bill, the Government did confirm that the Environment Agency will now require operators to undertake at least three months’ baseline monitoring of methane in groundwater before hydraulic fracturing can commence.

The cumulative impact of hydraulic fracturing activity

Shale gas extraction in the UK is presently at a very small scale, involving only exploratory activities: only one well in the UK has been fracked for shale gas in the UK.  Uncertainties currently can be addressed through the robust monitoring systems and research activities we identified in our report, but there remains greater uncertainty about the scale of production activities should a future shale gas industry develop nationwide. Attention must be paid to the way in which risks scale up (See page 5 in our review) and mechanisms to share information, learn from and adopt operational best practice will allow us to proceed cautiously, effectively managing risks and informing debate. It will also be important to build regulatory capacity which may be needed should production activities take place at scale many years from now (Recommendation 8).

When Parliament debates this afternoon, I would urge them to consider the most constructive way forward. The UK has been fracking and directional drilling for non-shale resources for many years; fracking is not new to the UK but is being newly applied to shale gas. Our review has shown that exploratory fracking in the UK can be managed effectively. Proceeding cautiously, and ensuring that there is a regulatory framework within which fracking can be safely undertaken, will allow us to gather further evidence to inform the way forward. Such an approach will be crucial in ensuring that people have the evidence they need to decide if we want to carry on down the shale gas route.

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