Environmental risks of fracking - Environmental Audit Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  Any large scale extraction of shale gas in the UK is likely to be at least 10-15 years away. It is also unlikely to be able to compete against the extensive renewable energy sector we should have by 2025-30 unless developed at a significant scale. By that time, it is likely that unabated coal-fired power generation will have been phased out to meet EU emissions directives, so fracking will not substitute for (more carbon-intensive) coal. Continually tightening carbon budgets under the Climate Change Act will have significantly curtailed our scope for fossil fuel energy, and as a consequence only a very small fraction of the possible shale gas deposits will be burnable. (Paragraph 26)

2.  A moratorium on the extraction of unconventional gas through fracking is needed to avoid the UK's carbon budgets being breached in the 2020s and beyond, and the international credibility of the UK in tackling climate change being critically weakened—already a prospect if the provisions in the Infrastructure Bill aimed at maximising North Sea oil extraction are passed. (Paragraph 27)

3.  The Infrastructure Bill should be amended to explicitly bar fracking of shale gas. This could be done through an Amendment to Clause 37, to qualify the provision in the Bill which seeks to introduce a strategy to maximise the economic extraction of 'petroleum' (which includes natural gas) reserves, so that the "principal objective [of the strategy] is not the objective of maximising the economic recovery of UK petroleum but ensuring that fossil fuel emissions are limited to the carbon budgets advised by the Committee on Climate Change and introducing a moratorium on the extraction of unconventional gas through fracking in order to reduce the risk of carbon budgets being breached." (Paragraph 28)

4.  It remains to be seen whether [the existing regulatory regime] will ensure effective regulatory co-ordination across all the relevant bodies and departments. A joint strategy concerning the regulation of unconventional oil and gas signed by all relevant national and local departments and agencies must be developed and published. (Paragraph 64)

5.  The Government must ensure adequate numbers of skilled and experienced staff are in place to regulate unconventional oil and gas now and in the future.
(Paragraph 65)

6.  Work to determine the baseline status of the environment, including baselines related to methane in groundwater and fugitive emissions, and subsequent monitoring requirements must be completed as soon as possible and the findings used to inform fracking permits and permissions. (Paragraph 66)

7.  The UK has complex geology and more effort is required to understand and map specific local geological conditions and the influence of historic mining activity. (Paragraph 67)

8.  Fracking must be prohibited outright in protected and nationally important areas including National Parks, the Broads, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and ancient woodland, and any land functionally linked to these areas. (Paragraph 68)

9.  Venting of methane emissions is not acceptable. Full containment of methane must be mandated in all fracking permits and permissions. (Paragraph 69)

10.  It is crucial that groundwater is protected and the restriction on fracking in water source protection zones 1 is welcome. However, fracking should be prohibited in all source protection zones and all fracking activity must require a groundwater permit when wells extend under aquifers. A minimum vertical separation distance between shales being fracked and a groundwater aquifer should be defined and mandated. (Paragraph 70)

11.  There must be clear and accessible public disclosure on the chemicals used in the exploration and production of shale gas, and the risks they potentially pose. (Paragraph 71)

12.  Automatic right of access to "deep level land" is not supported by the majority of the public and is not considered necessary by the industry. It should be removed from the Infrastructure Bill. (Paragraph 72)

13.  Changes to the regulatory system identified above, though essential, do not address the fundamental need for a more coherent and more joined-up regulatory system, and one that needs to be put in place before further fracking activity in contemplated. First, the Strategic Environmental Assessment of the Licensing Rounds, Environmental Impact Assessments, planning and permit appraisals must all consider the cumulative impacts of fracking. Second, environmental impact assessment must be mandated for all fracking activity. Third, attention must be paid to the way in which the industry and the risks might scale up. There is the prospect that a regulatory regime for operational extraction would be applied without the same rigour that had been applied to the exploration phase. It is important that the necessary regulatory arrangements are determined and in place prior to the expansion of the industry. Finally, there should be a consolidated regulatory regime specifically for fracking. (Paragraph 73)

14.  We welcome the Environment Agency's inclusion of mandatory conditions for baseline monitoring in the draft permits for the two sites currently pending planning permission. Mandatory baselines and continued monitoring, covering all relevant indicators, must be conducted. (Paragraph 74)

15.  It is unacceptable that there are no monitoring requirements for abandoned wells and this should be remedied immediately. We agree with the Environment Agency that it is "essential that [commercial operators] take responsibility for their work" and conduct their own monitoring "in accordance with the standards that are set in [the Environment Agency's] monitoring certification scheme", and welcome the Agency's recognition of the "the desirability of some independent monitoring at this stage of the industry's development." Monitoring by the commercial operator should be supplemented with such independent monitoring in all cases to increase public confidence in the results. The regulators must conduct regular unannounced spot checks and audits of all fracking sites, and facilitate a clear and accessible public disclosure of all monitoring data. (Paragraph 75)

16.  It is imperative that commercial operators have sufficient resources and insurance to cover full liability in the event of a pollution incident. Licences, permits and permissions must not be issued if this cannot be demonstrated. We welcome the industry's efforts to develop an insurance mechanism: this must be in place in advance of any fracking activity. (Paragraph 76)

17.  Public acceptance—what Tom Burke called a 'social licence'—is critical in determining whether fracking should continue in the UK. We can envisage the development of a regulatory regime fit for the purpose of fracking but we are unable to see at this stage how the crucial 'social licence' can be established when the debate around fracking is so polarised. The openness of all involved is vital. Publishing only a redacted report on Shale Gas Rural Economy Impacts has not been helpful in this regard. We asked Defra for an un-redacted version of the report during our inquiry, and this should now be published as soon as possible. The Government and industry must be transparent and make publicly available all other information relating to fracking as a matter of course. (Paragraph 79)

18.  This proposed change in trespass law has serious implications for citizens' rights which could unnecessarily undermine the democratic process for objecting to development. On this issue, the public have spoken and the Government must listen. (Paragraph 80)

19.  The Government must fully engage with the work of the Task Force [on Shale Gas] on the climate change and environmental risks, and await its findings before proceeding further with fracking in the UK. We called for a moratorium on fracking because it cannot be accommodated within our climate change obligations. A halt is also needed on environmental grounds, and it is essential that further independent studies into the impacts of fracking in the UK are completed to help resolve the environmental risk uncertainties. It is vital that the precautionary principle is applied. Until uncertainties are fully resolved, and the required regulatory and monitoring system improvements we identify are introduced, there should also be a moratorium on the extraction of unconventional gas through fracking on environmental grounds. (Paragraph 83)

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Prepared 26 January 2015