New Study Finds Low Health Risk from Shale

A new draft report published this week by Public Health England (PHE), an executive agency of the UK’s Department of Health, has concluded that the public health risks from shale development are low.

Ironically PHE’s report comes just months after anti-fracking activists in the UK staged a summer of aggressive protests. They camped out for days at an exploratory drilling site in Balcombe, got themselves arrested, paraded around with face masks and pipeline costumes, and displayed signs exclaiming “Fracking kills: Don’t bore Balcome to death” and “Fracking jobs are grave digging for our children.” Turns out, the UK’s agency responsible for maintaining the health and well-being of the UK’s citizens begs to differ.

Specifically, the PHE report finds:

The currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health from exposure to the emissions associated with shale gas extraction are low if the operations are properly run and regulated.  Most evidence suggests that contamination of groundwater, if it occurs, is most likely to be caused by leakage through the vertical borehole.  Contamination of groundwater from the underground fracking process itself (i.e. the fracturing of the shale) is unlikely.  However, surface spill, of fracking fluids or waste water, may affect groundwater; and emissions to air have the potential to impact health.

Where potential risks have been identified in the literature, the reported problems are typically a result of operational failure and a poor regulatory environment.  Therefore, good on-site management and appropriate regulation of all aspects including exploratory drilling, gas capture, use and storage of fracking fluid, and post operations decommissioning are essential to minimize the risk to the environment and public health. In the UK, shale gas developers and operators will be required, through the planning and environmental permitting processes, to satisfy the relevant regulators that their proposals and operations will minimize the potential for pollution and risks to public health (p. iii-iv).

The report points out that air pollutants can come from a number of sources involved in shale gas development, such as engines powering the drilling operations, and fugitive emissions from leaks – yet it still concludes:

However, on a site by site basis, these emissions are relatively small, intermittent and certainly not unique to shale gas extraction and related activities (p. 7).

PHE also spends considerable time evaluating a study done by researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health, a report that has received wide criticism for its manifold flaws. As PHE notes, the Colorado paper “has a number of limitations and uncertainties,” including a small sample size, limited accumulation data, and of course, the fact that it had no way to determine where the pollution was actually coming from.

So PHE says the health risk from emissions is low and certainly manageable. But what about water issues, which anti-fracking groups have made the cornerstone of their opposition? PHE provides some more important context:

Contamination arising from the actual fractures does not appear to be a significant issue since the length of the fracture is relatively short compared to the depth of the well and overlying rock […] The likelihood of fracking fluid reaching underground sources of drinking water through fractures is reported to be remote where there is a separating impermeable layer of at least 600 metres between the drinking water sources and the production zone (AEA Technology 2012).  Contamination from the fractures is not expected to be a viable risk to groundwater and there is no unequivocal evidence of chemicals entering local aquifers and groundwater from the actual fracturing process” (pp. 25-26).

This PHE study is the latest in a long string of analyses – including ones from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Pennsylvania and West Virginia Departments of Environmental Protection – that have all found no credible health risks associated with shale development. In fact, many studies have concluded that shale gas development is helping to clear the air of pollutants, which is a boon to public health.

The crux of PHE’s report is that hydraulic fracturing is safe as long as “operations are properly run and regulated” and the risks are managed.  Given the fact that Ernest Moniz, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, has echoed that the risks involved in shale development are “all manageable,” this latest analysis from the UK shows once again that people claiming “fracking” is inherently risky simply do not know what they’re talking about.

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