Fracking study in the balance

C&I Issue 2, 2015

Plans by the British Geological Survey (BGS) to provide unique real-time data from a shale gas operation over its whole life-cycle hang in the balance as programme managers await key planning permission decisions on two potential shale gas sites in Lancashire as C&I goes to press.

The researchers plan to monitor a wide range of environmental factors before, during and after hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

Lancashire County Council (LCC) was set to decide on 28 January 2015 on the application by UK energy firm Cuadrilla to extract shale gas using hydraulic fracturing. Fracking is a technique in which water and chemicals are pumped into shale rock at high pressure to extract gas.

A week before the meeting, a LCC planning officer’s report recommended turning down the application for Little Plumpton due to concerns over noise; and for Roseacre Wood over increases in traffic. However, a Cuadrilla spokesperson believes that these were ‘limited grounds’ for refusal and could be satisfactorily resolved. Cuadrilla also notes that the report concludes that properly regulated fracking is ‘very low risk’ and is satisfied with all other aspects of the applications. The UK Environment Agency has already granted Cuadrilla a permit to explore for shale gas at Little Plumpton.

The BGS’ planned research is innovative for two reasons, says Mike Stephenson, director of science and technology. The team would collect data during a shale fracking operation as well as before and after, which Stephenson says has not been done in the UK or the US before; and the work would include a much wider range of monitoring than ever before, for example, testing groundwater contamination at a distance from fracking sites, ground movement, seismicity and air quality.

‘There is public unease about fracking so monitoring is important not just to find evidence of an effect but also to find there is no evidence of an effect,’ says Stephenson. ‘For example, it is unlikely that there would be ground movements near a site but the BGS plans to study this anyway to establish whether or not it is happening.’

Under the planned work, the BGS will enhance existing research programmes that include seismic and groundwater monitoring in selected areas where shale gas resources have been identified to gain vital ‘baseline’ information. The expanded programme is led by the BGS with the universities of Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Loughborough and Manchester.

‘We will have to think about what would happen if the planning permission is refused,’ says Stephenson. ‘The BGS has been monitoring data such as groundwater for the past few years anyway so it already has some baseline data. Perhaps we should still step this up anyway to broaden the baseline in case fracking were to go ahead in the future in northwest England.’

Research like this is important for several reasons, says Peter Styles of the University of Keele. ‘It is essential to set up controlled experiments in geology to assess the use of underground space, not just for shale gas but also for carbon sequestration or geological disposal of radioactive waste amongst other things.’

Environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, say fracking is harmful to the environment, and a local Lancashire residents’ group has been very active in campaigning to halt any shale gas developments. The technique was suspended in the UK in 2011 after fracking of shale gas deposits near Blackpool was linked to two minor earthquakes.

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