Environmental risks of fracking - Environmental Audit Contents


Exploratory drilling for shale gas has begun in the UK and the Government is encouraging fracking. It has introduced tax concessions and is seeking through its Infrastructure Bill to ease the process for fracking operations, including through proposals for an automatic right of access to "deep-level land" for exploratory drilling and extraction.

Extensive production of unconventional gas through fracking is inconsistent with the UK's obligations under the Climate Change Act and its carbon budgets regime, which encompasses our contribution to efforts to keep global temperature rise below two degrees. Shale gas, like 'conventional gas', is not low carbon, and the objective of government policy should be to reduce the carbon intensity of energy whatever its source. Shale gas cannot be regarded as a 'transitional' or 'bridging' fuel. Any large scale extraction of shale gas in the UK is likely to be at least 10-15 years away, and therefore cannot drive dirtier coal from the energy system because by that time it is likely that unabated coal-fired power generation will have been phased out to meet EU emissions directives. It is also unlikely to be commercially viable unless developed at a significant scale, to be able to compete against a growing renewable energy sector, but large-scale fracking will not be able to be accommodated within still tightening carbon budgets. There is in any case little evidence to suggest that fracking could be undertaken at the scale needed to be commercially viable in the UK or that it will bring gas prices down significantly.

Despite the assurances from some that environmental risks can be safely accommodated by existing regulatory systems, an extensive range of uncertainties remains over particular hazards—to groundwater quality and water supplies, from waste and air emissions, to our health and to biodiversity, to the geological integrity of the areas involved, and from noise and disruption. Uncertainty about their significance is in part a reflection of the fact that fracking operations have yet to move beyond the exploratory stage in the UK. It is imperative that the environment is protected from potentially irreversible damage.

·  Fracking must be prohibited outright in protected and nationally important areas.

·  Full containment of methane must be mandated.

·  Fracking should be prohibited in all water source protection zones.

We identified necessary safeguards in these risk areas, but also a need for a more coherent and more joined-up regulatory system, and one that needs to be put in place before further fracking activity is contemplated. Permit appraisals must consider the cumulative impacts of fracking. Environmental impact assessment must be mandated for all fracking activity. Attention must be paid to the way in which the industry and the risks might scale up in future. The necessary regulatory arrangements must be determined and put in place before any further expansion of the industry. There should be a consolidated regulatory regime specifically for fracking.

The current debate on fracking reveals a lack of public acceptance, or 'social licence', for it.

A moratorium on the extraction of unconventional gas through fracking is needed to avoid both the inconsistency with our climate change obligations and to allow the uncertainty surrounding environmental risks to be fully resolved. We have resolved to publish this report to inform the Report-stage and Third Reading debates of the Infrastructure Bill on 26 January. Members might consider an Amendment to the Bill, which we discuss in our report, which would allow such a moratorium.

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Prepared 26 January 2015