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Fracking pollution: A response to the claims made by the UK fracking industry

CHEM Trust yesterday launched a new report “Chemical Pollution from Fracking” and briefing “Fracking pollution: How toxic chemicals from fracking could affect wildlife and people in the UK and EU“. The report was the result of months of research and was written by a very experienced technical journalist [1].

Fracking report image

It’s worth noting that CHEM Trust’s view that the current regulatory system is not adequate is supported by a detailed analysis undertaken by the European Commission, which concluded that a new comprehensive regulatory approach to fracking was the most beneficial option.

However, the trade association for the UK Fracking industry, UKOOG, released a response that was very critical of CHEM Trust’s work. The Daily Telegraph has published a story based on this response, with additional quotes from the UK Conservative Member of Parliament Peter Lilley. His comments, and the UKOOG response, contain major inaccuracies and vague claims, and so we thought that it was important that we reply to it.

A brief response to UKOOG’s main points

” The report has clearly been issued at a time to try and influence local decision makers with respect to planning applications.”

The report was commissioned in Autumn 2014, with the original publication date planned to be around February 2015, before the European Commission published its assessment of the regulatory actions of EU governments on Fracking (this EU assessment was published on 27th February). The report was the result of months of detailed research and conversation with experts, and in the end the report was longer than originally planned (56 pages), and became too long to be the main output of the project.Fracking Briefing image - medium

We therefore decided to produce a shorter and more accessible briefing, which would also update some of the information in the report, as fracking is a fast moving field. This briefing was mainly written by myself, as is clearly stated on the inside of the front cover, though it was checked by the author of the main report. In the end we managed to finish the briefing in time for a launch last weekend, but our original intention was for a much earlier launch.

“It should also be noted that a sponsor of Chemtrust is Greenpeace and the report makes use of reports either directly written by Friends of the Earth or by well-known activists.”

CHEM Trust is interested in evidence, rather than just arguing on the basis of who people are or who they are affiliated with. The report and briefing both have many references to different documents, many from regulators or academics. We are a UK registered charity who aims to “To promote for the benefit of the public the protection of human health and the environment from the effects of noxious chemicals“. We are transparent about the backgrounds of our staff, and the main report was written by by Philip Lightowlers, a technical journalist on the highly respected journal ENDS Report for over 20 years, including 6 years as its Deputy Editor.

“The report, however, does not include a detailed review of UK regulations…”

The full report does include a detailed review of major UK and EU fracking regulations – pages 27-35 for UK regulations, pages 36-41 for EU regulations.

“…which is borne out by a number of recommendations it makes that are already covered either by existing regulation or stated industry best practice.”

The experience with fracking regulation in the UK and abroad is that regulation is not always carried out effectively (see page 29 of the full report for UK examples). Industry best practice is not legally obligatory and many companies fall well short of such standards. Our recommendations cover all actions which we believe to be essential to minimise the significant health and environmental risks posed by fracking.

It’s important to note that our briefing and report aim to look at the current situation in the UK and EU, and what could happen in the future if fracking becomes extensive. It also aims to address the issues around capacity of regulators – now and in the future – in an environment of reducing resources for public authorities.

In addition, as we make clear, we use the term ‘fracking’ to cover the entire process of shale gas exploration and production, as this is what will have impacts on the environment and local people. Others sometimes use fracking to refer only to the process that fractures rock, not initial drilling, waste disposal etc – this can cause confusion.

“The report includes a number of recommendations that are already part of industry common practice or regulation in the UK:

-All fracking operations are subject to an environmental impact assessment.”

An Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) is not a legal requirement. Only UKOOG members have agreed to prepare environmental impact assessments for their fracking sites. Future entrants to the market may not take up this voluntary commitment.

The difficulty with this commitment is that (a) it’s unenforceable (as it’s only voluntary) and (b) our understanding is that it only applies to the fracking process, so it does not cover all other activities which do not fit this description, such as drilling, testing, flaring, abandonment.

We recommend compulsory Environmental Impact Assessment across the EU, to ensure effective coverage and a level playing field.

“- The quality of wells in the UK is regulated by the HSE through Borehole regulations that have been in place for nearly 20 years.”

Modern fracking wells are recognised as posing a higher threat of leakage into groundwater due to the range of pressures they experience. There are also concerns that the inspectors of the wells can be connected to the company.

“- Inspectors also have the authority to come whenever they please and do so on a risk basis” 

Both the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency have been subject to severe staff cuts in recent years and are pressed to fulfil their existing duties. Monitoring fracking sites will come on top of their existing commitments. Both agencies are inexperienced in monitoring fracking, which is effectively a new industrial process; the Environment Agency has just completed a consultation which will reduce the regulatory work it has to do in order to authorise drilling and testing at new fracking sites.

“- Disposal and treatment of water is covered by Environmental permits under the jurisdiction of the Environment Agency (and SEPA and NRW in Scotland and Wales).”

The only fracking fluids which have been disposed of so far in the UK were from Cuadrilla’s Preese Hall site. These were discharged from a sewage treatment works into the Manchester Ship Canal. The agency has recognised that the discharge would now need to be revised to consider potential human exposure to radioactivity in the waste fracking fluid (see page 18 of full report).

“- Financial liability is already fully covered by the Oil and Gas Authority.”

Long term liabilities are hard to determine, as has been found in Scotland with the abandonment of open cast mines. We do not have confidence in the current approach in the UK or in other parts of the EU, which is why we recommend improvements.

“-There is already full chemical disclosure of fracking fluids in the UK.
– The Environment Agency would not authorise the use of a hazardous substance for an activity, including hydraulic fracturing.”

The current regulations allow companies to conceal the identity of chemicals if they can argue that they are commercially confidential.

As our report states, if a substance has been deemed hazardous to groundwater by the UK Joint Agencies Groundwater Directive Advisory Group then the EA would not permit it “where they would or might enter groundwater”. However, it is highly questionable if this process would catch all chemicals of concern, particularly given that there is often considerable dispute as to whether a particular chemical is hazardous, and also many chemicals lack good quality safety data. This is one reason why we include specific recommendations for improvement of the way in which the EU’s REACH chemicals regulation addresses chemicals used in fracking.

“- In the UK baseline monitoring, operational monitoring and post decommissioning monitoring are all standard practice and are now covered additionally by the Infrastructure Act.”

The problem is the scope of this monitoring – for example the infrastructure act monitoring is mainly focussed on methane, not other chemicals. The scale of fracking that could occur – with hundreds of wells or more – will create a major challenge for monitoring and regulation.

“- Health is already addressed through the regulatory assessment and permitting process in the UK.”

“- The report also ignores the fact that environmental permitting exists to regulate industrial processes to ensure that they operate within defined environmental standards and a raft of wider regulations set to protect health.”

CHEM Trust’s view that the current regulatory system is not adequate is supported by a detailed analysis undertaken by the European Commission, which concluded that a new comprehensive regulatory approach to fracking was the most beneficial option.

“- Regulators in the UK have made statements that they are sufficiently resourced.”

During the current parliament the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that non-protected departments such as the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which funds the Environment Agency, will have their budget cut by at least 15%. Therefore we can expect new cuts at the Environment Agency, which is already stretched by the need to invest in flood control, and 15% job cuts that happened in 2014.

“- Groundwater protection zones are already subject to Environmental regulation by the Environment Agency.”

The EA has permitted drilling and testing in groundwater source protection zone 2 (SPZ2). It intends to allow this routinely in SPZ3 under proposals it is currently consulting on.

“- For planning purposes, the approach to unconventional hydrocarbon development in sensitive areas, like National Parks, are set out in planning practice guidance published in July 2013 (1).”

As we discuss in the briefing, the Infrastructure Act 2015 (which post-dates this planning guidance), leaves many issues unresolved, and seems to permit drilling under national parks.

“- Local communities are involved in the process through:

– Industry engagement as per UKOOG community engagement charter;

– Environmental permitting public consultation;

– Local planning consultation.”

The EA has just finished consulting on the second round of proposals to remove the need for any consultation with local people for drilling and testing, except in cases of “high public interest”.

“- The industry has agreements with Water UK and British Water to work together on common issues. Water companies are also statutory consultees to the planning process.”

It’s worth noting that EUREAU, which represents the EU-wide water industry, has called for increased regulation of fracking.

Within the UK, we are concerned that there is no overall strategic consideration of demand and more of a free for all in which fracking companies do individual deals with water companies to get what they need (as anticipated through changes made in the Water Act 2014).


[1] The full report was written by Philip Lightowlers, a technical journalist on the highly respected journal ENDS Report for over 20 years, including 6 years as its Deputy Editor.