For a nation that’s only drilled three shale gas wells, and only hydraulically fractured (‘fracked’) one of them, the UK is remarkably engaged in the shale gas debate. The reasons for this are manifold, but two seem particularly salient. Firstly, the UK’s lone instance of fracking for shale gas was responsible for inducing minor earth tremors in the Blackpool area. Secondly, environmental concerns raised in the US (the world’s shale gas trailblazer) have reached British eyes and ears, and heightened scepticism. The Oscar-nominated film Gasland provides an obvious example, but there have been numerous other anecdotal reports of environmental contamination following fracking in US shales.
Admittedly, the Blackpool tremors would have seemed, to anyone exceptional enough to have felt them, broadly equivalent to the passing of a truck. And investigations into alleged fracking-induced groundwater contamination have generated next to no corroborating evidence. But this has done little to dampen debate in the UK. Fracking is very much a hot topic, ripe for further public deliberation.
With this debate simmering, and with the Government poised to decide whether shale gas extraction should go ahead, the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering’s new report Shale gas extraction in the UK: a review of hydraulic fracturing couldn’t be more timely. The report examines these two key areas of concern – groundwater contamination and seismicity (earth tremors) – and finds them to pose a low risk. It also concludes that these risks can be managed effectively in the UK, with two important provisos: 1) that operational best practices are implemented, and 2) that these are enforced through effective regulation. Professor Robert Mair CBE FREng FRS, Chair of the review, elaborates on the key findings here.
The report is by no means exhaustive: it doesn’t examine, for instance, the carbon footprint and climate change implications of shale gas extraction and use. Nor is its assessment of risk wholly comprehensive: while natural science and engineering evidence can tell us whether events are severe or mild, likely or unlikely, it can’t tell us whether those events are acceptable to different sectors of society. And so, while the report confidently busts some of the myths surrounding shale gas extraction, whether it serves to quell people’s concerns or add fuel to their fire remains to be seen. Either way, we hope it constitutes a useful contribution to a multifaceted and nationally important debate.