Fracking can continue in the UK provided regulations are tightened up to prevent water contamination and earth tremors. These are the results of an independent report looking at the environmental and geological risks of shale gas extraction, commissioned by the government's chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington and conducted by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society.
Professor Robert Mair, chairman of the working group, said: “This is not to say that hydraulic fracturing is completely risk-free. Strong regulation and robust monitoring must be put in place and best practice strictly enforced if the government is to give the go-ahead to further exploration.”
The report recommends that a single body should be appointed to oversee shale gas extraction. Currently, regulation is split among a variety of bodies including the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency.
Dr John Roberts, chairman of the Halite Energy Group and one of the report's authors, said: “We are recommending that a single body should take leadership to maintain the coordination of all these different bodies that are involved in the regulation of shale gas extraction.
“In addition, we believe that this lead body must make sure that additional resources are made available if and when the UK onshore shale gas activity expands.”
The report also proposes that a new obligation should be put on the operators of fracking fields to complete an environmental risk assessment of the site once the tighter regulations are put in place. This investigation would take into account the likelihood of hazards occurring as a result of fracking operations as well as any impact these hazards might have on the local environment.
At the moment, environmental impact assessments only look at the potential impact of any hazardous events and not the likelihood of any hazards occurring.
The report says that one of the most important factors governing the environmental and geological risks of shale gas extraction is the integrity of the well through which the water for fracking is pumped and the gas extracted. If the well is poorly designed and constructed there is a higher chance that groundwater could become contaminated with methane.
In the light of this, the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency should review the guidelines for well design and construction that have been in place since 1996 to see if they are still adequate.
An independent examiner should also be appointed to make sure that wells are constructed according to the agreed designs.
Increased monitoring for methane contamination of groundwater, seismicity and methane leaks at the head of the well should be put in place before, during and after fracking occurs, says the report.