Fracking - is it safe? - Peter McCusker exmaines the impact of fracking in the UK

With Prime Minster David Cameron signalling the Government's intent to go all out for shale gas, Peter McCusker examines the safety concerns of its opponents

A general view of the Cuadrilla exploratory drilling site in Balcombe
A general view of the Cuadrilla exploratory drilling site in Balcombe

Durham University is currently leading the biggest European-wide project of its kind into the risks associated with fracking for shale oil and gas.

In partnership with other national and international bodies, including Newcastle University, its ReFINE (Researching Fracking in Europe) project aims to create a library of independent research to help inform public awareness of the relative risks associated with the industry.

Its findings are being published in 13 languages including Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish and French.

This research is timely as earlier this week David Cameron said: “We’re going all out for shale. It will mean more jobs and opportunities for people, and economic security for our country.”

Cameron is keen to see the UK replicate the United States where the shale gas has led to a two-thirds fall in the price of natural gas, helping businesses and households slash fuel bills.

The Government wants to see around 40 exploratory UK wells drilled by the end of 2015 – and its commitment has this week seen French oil major Total invest in the UK shale industry.

However, last year’s protests in Balcombe, Sussex, indicate the strong feelings of those against further fracking in the UK – and it has been banned in some countries including France.

To date ReFINE has published papers on the risks of water contamination and earthquakes, with further papers coming on well integrity, disposal of fracking fluid and gas emissions.



Simon Bowens, North East and Yorkshire regional campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth, said: “We know that fracking can trigger earthquakes. The only test-fracking to date in the UK in Lancashire in early 2011 triggered earthquakes. We need to know more about how it happens.

“But we also need to know about the impacts, not just above ground but also below ground.

“The Lancashire earthquakes distorted the casing around the fracking well. Such problems can increase the risk of leaks of methane and polluted wastewater, threatening groundwater.” 

A spokesman for the United Kingdom Onshore Operators Group (UKOOG), which represents shale gas companies, said: “Once hydraulic fracturing commences, real-time seismic monitoring will be used to operate a traffic-light warning protocol under which operations will be halted and pressures immediately reduced if a seismic event of magnitude greater than 0.5 above background seismic activity is detected.  This magnitude is well below the energy level that could be felt at the surface.”

Durham University, through its world-renowned Energy Institute, has researched hundreds of thousands of fracking operations and found that the process only caused earth tremors that could be felt on the surface in three places (including Preese Hall, Lancashire in 2011).

Its findings for the ReFINE project say the size and number of felt earthquakes caused by fracking is low compared to other manmade triggers such as mining, geothermal activity or reservoir water storage.

It went on to say that the energy released in a fracking event is usually “roughly equivalent to, or even less than, someone jumping off a ladder on to the floor”.

Prof Richard Davies of Durham University, who is leading the ReFINE project, said the claims that the Lancashire earthquake had distorted the well-casing were unproven, saying such incidents are not uncommon.

He said: “The incident in Lancashire was most likely caused by fracking close to an existing fault.

“We are starting two new research projects as part of ReFINE to look into how close to a fault it is safe to drill and which faults in the UK should be avoided because they could shift if fracking occurred near to them.”


The ReFINE research has concluded that it is “incredibly unlikely” that fracking at depths of 2-3km below the surface, where most operations take place, would lead to the contamination of the shallow water aquifers which lie above the gas resources.

Bowens said: “Water contamination from fracking is routinely denied by the industry and its supporters, but evidence from the US suggests problems.

“US authorities investigated complaints of polluted groundwater near the town of Pavillion, Wyoming, and came to an initial conclusion that this was likely to be the result of fracking – but then decided not to complete the investigation.”

Prof Davies said: “Fracking is not the cause of the contamination. In Pavillion the wells were not cemented effectively. So it’s not the fracking itself but often the other associated operations that need to be focused on.”

A spokesman for UKOOG said: “Shale gas formations are typically found much deeper underground than conventional oil and gas sources. In the UK, hydrocarbon extraction will therefore be taking place at a depth sufficiently distant from groundwater to ensure that the possibility of any fractures extending into aquifers is negligible.”


Fracking operations require between 10-40m litres of water (equivalent to between four and 16 Olympic-sized swimming pools) although in the major Texas shale plays this is still less than that used by either golf courses, power generators or households.

The fracking fluid is made up of water and sand with 0.5% chemicals. Around one-third of this returns to the surface with the shale gas where it can be treated with fresh water on site and used for another well, or transported for treatment and disposal in permitted deep injection wells.

There are more than 50 known chemicals that may be added to the water including acids and nitrates. Such chemicals avert micro-organism growth, prevent corrosion of metal pipes, and maintain fluid viscosity.

The remaining water stays underground in the shale formation.

A UKOOG spokesman said: “Wastewaters are stored in closed metal tanks before being treated in accordance with strict environmental regulation as used extensively across many industrial processes.

“Wastewaters are considered to be an extractive waste and so are regulated under the Mining Waste Directive. This requires operators to formulate waste management plans that identify how wastes are to be minimised, treated, recovered and dispensed of.”

Bowens said: “There are strong suspicions that many contamination cases have been settled out of court with confidentiality clauses. We need independent analysis that cuts through the industry’s weasel words.”

Richard Davies said: “If fracking is ever to be used on a large scale in Europe, research must be conducted into effective and efficient ways of dealing with flowback water.”

Flowback water also picks up natural contaminants from underground such as radioactive Radium-226 and the ReFINE project will look at the potential concentrations of these compared to other fossil fuels and the nuclear industry.


Bowens said: “Air pollution from fracking wells can pose a health risk, as research from the US again shows. Public Health England recently said there was a low risk of health impacts, while admitting that there was little evidence. But lack of data doesn’t mean an absence of harm.

“Air emissions don’t just pose health problems. The methane that the fracking aims to produce is a very powerful greenhouse gas. If large amounts of methane escape to the atmosphere rather than being captured, then any claimed climate benefits of gas over coal can be reduced or eliminated. Monitoring in the US shows those levels of these ‘fugitive emissions’ could be significant.”

UKOOG highlights that methane is a natural product of hydrocarbon fields, it contends emissions are not significant and says venting, the process, where gas is burned, will not take place in the UK when a well has started producing.

The ReFINE project highlights that there is no existing consensus on the amount of fugitive emissions.


One area of keen focus for the ReFINE projects is the integrity of the wells. Prof Davies says that if the UK shale industry gathers momentum hundreds of wells will be drilled every year.

Durham University has discovered that since onshore drilling began in the UK over a century ago, two-thirds of the 2,000-plus drilled wells cannot be found.

Prof Davies said: “Steel corrodes and cement cracks. Once the wells have been completed, who will check them? We have an opportunity to up our regulatory regime.”

The UKOOG spokesman said: “When all of the oil or natural gas that can be recovered economically from a reservoir has been produced, the land is returned to the way it was before the drilling operations started.

“Wells will be filled with cement and pipes cut off 3-6ft below ground level. All surface equipment will be removed and all pads will be filled in with earth or replanted. The land can then be used again by the landowner for other activities, and there will be virtually no signs that a well was once there.”

Bowens concluded: “The UK needs a national debate before deciding whether fracking for shale gas is the answer to the UK’s energy problems. Key to this national debate is accurate, unbiased information and the ReFINE initiative can help provide this.

“But we need answers to other vital questions, and also critically a Government that hasn’t made its mind up already.”

:: Map reveals potential fracking sites across the North of England - click here to view

:: Joanne Leng deputy chief executive, NOF Energy, gives her views on the fracking debate - click here to read


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