Risks from fracking to be studied by top UK research team

A BGS-led research team is setting out to define the combined environmental and health risks over the whole life cycle of shale gas operations in the UK.

Natural seismic event

The team has been awarded a grant as part of the £8 million Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) research programme on unconventional hydrocarbons in the UK energy system. The team will investigate the surface and near-surface processes that affect pollutant behaviour in water and air, and earthquake hazard associated with shale gas development in the UK. It will consider not just the effects of a single well or well pad, but will for the first time examine the potential impacts of cumulative and long-term (multiple well) development across a region.

Why is this research needed?

With approvals given for the first shale gas exploration wells and hydraulic fracturing ('fracking') in England in 2011, when operations were suspended following earthquakes, understanding and managing the risks associated with fracking is essential.

Poor regulation in other countries where shale gas is well established has resulted in environmental problems and led to understandable public concern. These problems have arisen as a result of not fully understanding the environmental risks and not designing, constructing and/or operating shale gas wells in a safe way. If significant shale gas development and fracking goes ahead in the UK we need to be confident that all risks have been identified and can managed safely over the whole lifetime of the operation, and not just at its start.

The EQUIPT4RISK project

Sampling of groundwater from a borehole

The BGS-led project 'Evaluation, quantification and identification of pathways and targets for the assessment of shale gas risk', or EQUIPT4RISK, will look at all the hazards in an integrated way and over the whole life cycle of shale gas development, from drilling, to fracking, to production and then decommissioning and abandonment. This will allow the relative risks from the different hazards to be assessed and help us to understand how they will change over the several decades of lifetime for a shale gas well. It will allow regulators to develop clear, risk-based regulations that make it easier for the public to understand and the industry to comply with.

The project will build on a number of current, internationally leading activities being carried out by the research partners to maximise the impact of the science. These include the long-term environmental monitoring that has been taking place around the two approved shale gas sites in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The research will define the properties, parameters and processes of the shallow subsurface and atmosphere that are most important for characterising movement of pollutants and human/environment exposure. It will quantify the contaminant (pollutant) fluxes and physical hazard characteristics (earthquakes and ground motion) and define the critical parameters that need to be measured as early–warning indicators of impact.

The new knowledge will be used to develop a risk assessment model to examine the potential effects of shale gas development in England and how the risks will change over the lifecycle of operations. For example, seismic risk is greatest during the short period of hydraulic fracturing, whereas groundwater pollution and atmospheric emissions are much longer term risks. Considering risk in such an integrated way will ensure their management can be much more effective and the issues communicated more clearly to the public, the industry and government.

Rob Ward, director of groundwater science at the BGS, said, 'This research is innovative and world-leading. It will contribute to a better protected environment in the UK if a shale gas industry becomes established.'

Research team

The consortium research team will consist of the following lead scientists:

  • Prof Rob Ward, Dr Pauline Smedley, Dr Brian Baptie, Dr Marco Bianchi and Dr Andrew Hughes, BGS
  • Dr Max Werner, University of Bristol
  • Prof Fred Worrall, Durham University
  • Dr Chris McDermott and Dr Stuart Gilfillan, University of Edinburgh
  • Dr Grant Allen, University of Manchester
  • Prof Euan Nisbet, Dr David Lowry and Dr Rebecca Fisher, Royal Holloway University of London
  • Prof Mat Evans, University of York
  • Prof David Manning and Dr Jean Hall, Newcastle University

Contact

For further details, or to arrange media interviews, please contact:

Clive Mitchell, BGS Press Office, Keyworth, Nottingham, NG12 5GG
Office: +44 (0)115 936 3257
Mobile: + 44 (0)7815 537 439
Twitter: @CliveBGS

Sarah Nice, BGS Press Office, Keyworth, Nottingham, NG12 5GG
Office: +44 (0)115 936 3605
Mobile: +44 (0)7989 115657
Twitter: @Sarahnice1

Notes for editors

The following are available for interview:

  • Prof Rob Ward, director of groundwater science, British Geological Survey
  • Dr Brian Baptie, head of seismology, British Geological Survey
  • Dr Grant Allen, University of Manchester
  • Dr Andrew Hughes, British Geological Survey

For additional information go to: www.bgs.ac.uk/research/groundwater.

See also
Funding
Research partners