New Reports Raise EU Health and Environmental Concerns About Fracking

James Murray
Wednesday, 12th September 2012

The EU raises fresh concerns over environmental impact of Shale Gas as a series of major new reports underline potential health and environmental dangers associated with this growing enterprise

The EU-commissioned reports from the EU Joint Research Centre and environmental consultancy AEA assessed the risks shale gas projects pose to the environment and human health, their likely impact on greenhouse gas emissions, and their effect on gas markets and energy security.

The reports argue that projections for the development of the shale gas industry in Europe are dogged by uncertainty, but they also warn that fracking presents a 'high risk' to human health and the environment and as such the sector is badly under-regulated.

The EU Joint Research Centre said the study on the impact on gas markets predicted that even under a best-case scenario, for shale gas in the EU an increase in domestic natural gas production would only "help the EU maintain energy import dependency at around 60 per cent", adding that there is "considerable uncertainty about recoverable volumes, technological developments, public acceptance and access to land and markets".

Similarly, the report on climate change impacts raises questions about predictions from the shale gas industry that the sector could help deliver deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, calculating that shale gas produced in the EU "causes more GHG emissions than conventional natural gas produced in the EU, but – if well managed – less than imported gas from outside the EU, be it via pipeline or by LNG due to the impacts on emissions from long-distance gas transport".

Finally, the report on the environmental impacts of fracking identifies eight areas in which the practice could pose a 'high risk' to the environment, raising concerns over air pollution, ground water contamination and biodiversity impacts.

Fracking Data Only Collated for the First Time

"We've drawn together all the literature on shale and environmental risks in one place," report co-author and AEA analyst Mark Broomfield told BusinessGreen. "None of the issues are new, but by bringing the research together we can highlight where there are questions that still need answering.

"One of the main issues is that the risks are cumulative as shale gas reserves can cover a very wide area. The industry has made good progress with multi-head wells at single sites, but for a large area you will still need a significant number of drilling sites and then you get issues with the amount of traffic and infrastructure you need."

EU regulation of a currently under-regulated industry is urgently needed

Currently, there are no specific EU-level regulations governing shale gas projects in the same way that there are directives governing other forms of fossil fuel extraction. Member states are developing their own regulatory approaches with some countries, such as France, imposing a moratorium on shale gas projects while others - including the UK, Germany and Poland - are planning to move forward with projects.

The Environment and Industry Committees of MEPs are currently working on new papers that are expected to raise the prospect of either new shale gas regulation or a major overhaul of existing regulations to take account of shale gas. However, the energy directorate within the European Commission is said to be pushing for a lighter touch regulatory regime that would enable the rapid expansion of shale gas projects.

New Regulations slowing shale gas projects likely to face opposition

Meanwhile, any attempt to introduce demanding new regulations is likely to face opposition from a number of member states. Most notably, Polish officials were quick to criticise the new EU reports, while a number of British ministers, including newly appointed environment secretary Owen Paterson, are understood to be opposed to measures that could slow the development of new shale gas projects.

The latest developments came as three green groups, WWF, Friends of the Earth and the RSPB, today announced that they have written to energy and climate change secretary Ed Davey arguing that the UK should not proceed with shale gas projects until the environmental risks associated with fracking are better understood.

The Future of Fracking in Britain Remains Uncertain

"The government must halt shale gas drilling to properly assess the risks - including the impact on climate change," said Friends of the Earth's Andy Atkins. "With big changes to our electricity system due in the months ahead, Ed Davey must resist calls to hook the nation on polluting gas that has been the main drive of rising energy bills, and instead back a switch to home-grown clean energy. Britain has some of the best wind, wave and tidal resources in Europe - developing them will bring in investment and create thousands of jobs."

A spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) said the government was continuing to take a cautious approach to new shale gas projects.

"There are no fracking activities for shale gas anywhere in the UK at present," he said. "Fracking remains suspended at Cuadrilla's drilling sites near Blackpool while we consider the comments received on the independent report into seismic activity and the recent comprehensive report of the Royal Society into the risks of fracking for shale gas.

"Current proposals are only for exploration, and it is too soon to predict the impacts of any possible future production. The Government has made clear that shale gas operations, if given the go-ahead, will have to meet the same high standards of safety and environmental protection as all other industries or forms of energy production."

This excerpt was taken from Business Green Online.