Fracking: the water industry clarifies its position

The UK water industry’s position on shale gas fracking – that there are risks but they can be mitigated – has led to both dismay and delight on each side of the debate.

In the pro-shale gas extraction camp, there are some who believe we have given ‘a green light for fracking’ while others have appreciated the caution in our message.

In the anti-camp, some believe the risks we have highlighted are enough to prove fracking should not happen, while again there are others who are more towards the middle ground.

So let me try to clarify our position.

The UK water industry acknowledges the risks of the country’s growing dependence on imported gas. This is why we recognise the arguments for government policy on shale gas extraction.

But we have a duty to protect the public water supply – in terms of both quality and quantity. We believe there are inherent risks with fracking and they need to be fully understood, regulated and mitigated.

This is why we have worked closely with the UK Onshore Operators Group (UKOOG), to develop a Memorandum of Understanding, which we both recently signed. This ensures members of both organisations will cooperate throughout the shale gas exploration and extraction process.

One of the key aims of the agreement is to give the public greater confidence and reassurance that everything will be done to try to ensure fracking is made as safe as possible.

Another factor that gives the public confidence is a robust framework of planning, environmental permitting and health and safety regulation in place.

We believe this framework is in place in the UK as are appropriate enforcement measures.

As for the potential risks or impacts of shale gas on water and waste water services, they can be considered in three broad categories – water quality, water quantity and waste water management.

The extraction of shale gas poses possible risks to the quality of the water environment, particularly groundwater, from three sources: the surface spillages of chemicals, diesel and other materials at a drilling site; poor well design and construction with subsequent failure; and the hydraulic fracturing process, including the use of biocides and chemical friction reducers in fracturing fluid.

The report by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering concluded that risks can be managed given a properly implemented and enforced regulatory framework. In particular it said the probability of well failure is low if it designed, constructed and abandoned according to best practice and that the risk of fractures propagating from shale formations to reach overlying aquifers is very low. In addition, chemicals added to the fracking fluid (for example biocides and friction reducers) are subject to approval by the Environment Agency.

A greater risk would appear to be from surface spillages of chemicals and other

materials. It is will be vital that on-site storage of chemicals is managed by proper site practices.

On water quantity, demand could have an impact on local water resources. This demand may be met from a number of sources including from the public water supply, from direct abstraction, from water transported by tanker from other areas or from recycling and reuse of treated flowback or produced water.

The pressure on local water resources will depend in part on the pace and extent of shale gas extraction, although the potential to reclaim and reuse large proportions of water from each site promises to significantly mitigate the risks to local water resources.

However, where water is in short supply there may not be enough available from public water supplies or the environment to meet the requirements for hydraulic fracturing. The MoU should ensure shale gas companies engage with water companies as early as possible to ensure their needs can be met without reducing the security of supply to existing customers.

Waste water companies may also be asked to accept discharge of effluents recovered from the process for treatment at waste water treatment works. This

flowback water can contain minerals, high concentrations of salinity and low amounts of naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM). The feasibility of treating this water at a waste water treatment works will depend on the volume and concentration of the flowback in relation to the size of the treatment works and the concentrations of NORMs present. This matter is currently being explored in further water industry research due for conclusion early in 2014.

Jim Marshall, Water UK



This Perspective was published in the January issue of New Power.  For more information and a sample copy contact [email protected]