Imminent dash to frack means it is time to talk sense

Mott MacDonald director oil and gas Azfar Shaukat

Perception rather than fact is currently influencing the national discussion on shale gas exploitation and we need to get a more informed debate going. There is a lot of information but there is also misinformation and some very specific and technical issues that need to be addressed with the proper facts.

 For example, water used for hydraulic fracturing needs to be treated before it is discharged. It is automatically assumed that this is to take out the chemicals that are added for fracking but that is not necessarily the case. Chemical additives are included in water injected as part of fracking. Developers often do not want to identify what is added but research in the United States has identified toxic and carcinogenic substances used as additives. However, the Environment Agency in England and Wales will require developers to use only non-hazardous additives as they will have to comply with EU legislation on groundwater protection and the Water Framework Directive. This gives confidence that it is unlikely hazardous pollutants will be included in the injected water.

 The water needs to be treated because when it comes out of the ground it is highly likely to have petroleum products in it. The challenge is ensuring that these naturally occurring hydrocarbons are not transported into any water sources. Most of the time groundwater is a few hundred metres down and the shale rock can be two or three kilometres down so there won’t be a direct interface. But some of the wells will be shallower and you don't have full control on the extent of the fractures and how far up they go. The integrity of the well is the most important issue for water resources. This is a more likely source of contamination then from the shale formation itself. This can be managed with best practice and by a monitoring process which should be in place to make sure contamination is not happening. This would check the composition of the water coming back up.

"The water needs to be treated because when it comes out of the ground it is highly likely to have petroleum products in it.....This is a more likely source of contamination then from the shale formation itself." 

Development of the monitoring regime requirements for UK shale gas wells are ongoing but energy companies are on familiar territory here. They use well established techniques to provide 24 hour monitoring and reporting, so there is an audit trail as well.  Applications for environmental permits to the Environment Agency would have to ensure that the risk of groundwater contamination is identified, and mitigated. If any issues are not concluded to EA satisfaction, then contractors won’t get a permit.

 An additional consideration is engagement between water companies and shale development companies. Water companies have large monitoring networks and an interest in checking their sources aren’t impacted.

As part of the permitting process the Environment Agency, amongst others, would look at the composition and integrity of the well. This has been the biggest concern to date with leakage from shale gas wells occurring when fracking was a nascent industry in the US and unconventional onshore drilling techniques were still being developed. Stakeholders now need to be reassured that this will not be an issue in the future. Environmental protection in the UK is likely to be more rigorous than in some places where historic problems relating to shale gas extraction have occurred.

 Another issue often raised is the fears over methane leakage. Methane needs to be handled with care. The industry does its best to protect against leaks. The well pad is designed to ensure gas doesn’t escape, pumps, compressors and valves will only emit gas if there is an emergency situation.

Finally there are the seismic risks to consider. The magnitude of such events will be low – similar to an underground train passing beneath a building. The Department of Energy & Climate Change will review all permit applications which will have to identify how seismic risks would be mitigated. This upfront risk assessment and planning will reduce risks to a minimum from induced seismicity

As far as the industry is concerned it can’t answer every single question and no one can guarantee that there won’t be any incident. However, the combination of over three decades of development in the US, where Mott MacDonald is very active, and the tighter controls and monitoring that we have in Europe, should mean that the industry is more mature and able to anticipate and deal with these kinds of issues. For shale gas to develop it is imperative that we get informed debate going.

 Azfar Shaukat is director oil and gas, Mott MacDonald