Why Britain should continue the search for shale gas

Published on Monday, 16 June 2014 09:14
Written by Lee Petts

Shale gas is particularly newsworthy at the moment. Developments in recent weeks have upped amount of coverage, often focusing on the risks of fracking.

Yes, there are risks. After all it's an industrial process, but those risks aren't as significant as some might think, I believe this is largely because the concept of risk is often misunderstood and misrepresented.

One of the striking features of conversations about risk in the wider public - and not just about shale gas extraction - is just how many people automatically think that an activity with a high consequence in failure is a high risk activity, but this isn't necessarily so:

Risk=LxC

When L is the Likelihood of harm occurring x the Consequence if harm does occur.

Whilst we can't always influence the consequence of failure we can do a lot to reduce the likelihood of something going wrong by implementing risk control measures.

Most experts agree that the biggest environmental risks associated with shale gas extraction are at the surface. A spill of the additives used in the hydraulic fracturing fluid or of wastewater or the release of fugitive methane.

Whilst these are real risks, they're manageable provided that shale gas explorers use recognised good practice and comply with the legislation that exists to protect us all.

Take wastewater management as an example. In the US, this has been associated with spills, groundwater pollution and airborne emissions. But it's because of the way it's been handled. For a start, it's often been stored in impoundment ponds dug in the ground which if they leak, provide a sure and certain route to nearby groundwater features. The airborne emissions appear to be mostly linked to the use of these impoundment ponds not just as temporary storage but also to evaporate the liquid portion to leave behind a solid that can eventually be scraped out and taken to landfill.

I'm sure most people will agree that these methods of handling wastewater are crude and primitive. The good news is these practices simply won't be permitted in the UK as the Environment Agency does not tolerate the use of evaporation pits

Instead, wastewater will be temporarily stored in above-ground steel tanks which are provided with secondary spill containment or 'bunding' which captures spilled fluid. These are subjected to regular inspections to check for leaks.

Ultimately, while a sizeable spill of wastewater could have a potentially significant consequence, the likelihood is reduced which makes it a low-to-modest risk.

The direct environmental risks of shale gas exploration are reduced by operators following good practice and complying with robust regulation. The UK has a long history of successfully regulating onshore hydrocarbon extraction and there's no reason to suspect it will be any different in the case of shale gas.

Unfortunately, it hasn't always been clear what regulations apply or how. For instance, I had cause to check with the Environment Agency if and how the Environmental Permitting Regulations apply to the management of wastewater that picks up Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM) because the rules say the regulations only apply to waste arising in the "production" of oil and gas, whereas companies are currently only "exploring" for natural gas in shale rock, and it was necessary to seek clarity on this matter.

This sort of ambiguity hasn't helped operators or the public understand the legislation which governs onshore shale gas exploration. I described it as "clunky" in my House of Lords evidence session in December 2013 and welcomed the publication by Government of the 'Regulatory Road Map' last year, which sets out much more clearly what rules exist and what they are intended to protect.

As can be seen from the road map, we have strong regulation that governs everything from how wells are built to ensure well integrity, right through to the Mining Waste Directive that dictates how waste must be safely handled. Additionally, the DECC 'Traffic Light System' for mitigating seismic risks will mean a repeat of the tremors experienced in Lancashire during 2011 will also be less likely.

In summation, there are a number of legitimate environmental risks associated with exploiting our domestic shale gas resources. But respected bodies such as the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering have all concluded that these risks can be adequately managed.
Government, regulators and operators all have a responsibility to make sure these legitimate risks are properly identified, the correct controls are implemented in conjunction with robust regulation and that these risks and controls are adequately communicated to relevant stakeholders - especially the public living in areas where shale gas extraction is to take place so that they can understand how their local environment will be safeguarded.

Government also has a responsibility for ensuring the UK meets its carbon reduction targets, something the IPCC, Committee on Climate Change and Professor David McKay have all said is possible with shale gas, which is why the search for shale gas should continue.

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