First the Royal Wedding, Now the Royal Report on HF

A new report by an official, House-of-Commons-appointed agency of the British government shows what all of us interested in the facts have known for some time: the use of hydraulic fracturing technology to stimulate the flow of much-needed energy is “as old as Moses,” as one reviewer put – and does not in any way constitute a danger to public health.

Tim Yeo, chairman of the Committee (made up of folks from both major political parties in the UK) and lead author of the report, finds that concerns about hydraulic fracturing are mostly “hot air,” adding: “There appears to be nothing inherently dangerous about the process of ‘fracking’ itself and as long as the integrity of the well is maintained shale gas extraction should be safe.” This mirrors what experts have been saying for years about responsible natural gas production from shale.

Here are a few of the key findings from the report:

  • Contamination Issues are Unrelated to Hydraulic Fracturing: From the report, p. 40: “During our visit to the US, we heard little concern from environmental groups, state or federal regulators, or academics on the environmental impacts of the hydraulic fracturing process itself.” Instead, the authors note, methane contamination was attributed to factors other than hydraulic fracturing, including notably the many instances where methane concentrations “were thought to pre-date any hyrofracing [sic] activity.” This is an almost identical conclusion made recently by researchers from Duke University (though you wouldn’t be able to tell from the numerous and erroneous news reports mischaracterizing that study.)
  • No Threat to Water Supplies: The authors found that “hydraulic fracturing itself does not pose a direct risk to water aquifers, provided that the well-casing is intact before this commences.” In the report summary, the authors conclude that the risk to water supplies from hydraulic fracturing is “hypothetical and unproven” (p. 10). As for claims about contamination in New York specifically, the British Geological Society adds that there is “no recorded evidence of this [contamination], and [they have] good reason to think it untrue, since the process takes place at depths of many hundreds of metres below the [water] aquifer” (p. 40). New York regulators made the exact same conclusion in 2009: “No documented instances of groundwater contamination” from hydraulic fracturing or horizontal drilling in the state.
  • Only a ‘Small Risk’ for Water Depletion, Problem is Easily Offset by Recycling: “It is possible to offset the large water requirements for hydraulic fracturing by recycling the fluid that flows back up from the well (known as “flowback” fluid)” (p. 41). The report finds only a “small risk” of hydraulic fracturing putting undue stress on water supplies (p. 44). It’s important to note that natural gas producers in the United States are ahead of the game on this issue: Pennsylvania regulators say that companies are currently recycling more than 70% of the wastewater they produce. According to hydrologist Dave Yoxtheimer of Penn State University’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, the “majority of companies are working toward reusing 100% of their flowback water” because doing so is both better for the environment and more cost effective.
  • The U.S. Regulatory System – Where the Emphasis is on States, not EPA – is the Model for Safely Advancing Hydraulic Fracturing: “We recommend that the Environment Agency and the Department of Energy and Climate Change take lessons from unconventional gas exploration in the US, especially at the state-level where much of the expertise lies. The US has a great deal of regulatory experience of dealing with the issues of water contamination, the volume of water required, waste water treatment and disposal, air pollution, and infrastructure challenges. The UK Government must use this experience to ensure the lowest achievable environmental impacts from unconventional gas exploitation here” (p. 49). Indeed, the impeccable safety record of hydraulic fracturing is clear evidence that state-based regulation (not EPA control) is the best course to take.
  • Bans on Fracking are ‘Not Justified’: While some in Albany have lined up to support ill-informed legislation calling for a blanket ban on well stimulations across the entire state (even though it’s been done there for more than 60 years), the British report finds that such a ban would be the wrong decision: “[A] moratorium [on hydraulic fracturing] in the UK is not justified or necessary at present,” a conclusion the authors reached after carefully assessing the costs and benefits of shale gas (p. 55).

This report is a welcome addition to the myriad studies, reports, and other analyses showing that fracturing technology is and has always been safe – notwithstanding the best efforts of some groups to re-write that fundamental history, prevent these resources from ever being produced, and raise a little money for themselves while they’re at it.

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