Shale gas: independent planning is key to reducing environmental impacts of fracking

Funding for scientists, planners and inspectors should be available before any

shale gas development begins, a new review recommends. As revenue for such

staff is often provided by the development itself, planning, which is vital to provide

immediate environmental protection as well as monitoring long-term impacts, is

neglected. The researchers also advocate the use of ‘adaptive management’ as a

decision-making framework for this complex issue.

Impacts on water resources form the main concerns around shale gas developments. In

this review the researchers first discuss the impacts and risks of shale gas developments on

water resources. They then examine the value of ‘adaptive management’: a framework

designed to address such complex environmental issues.

Fracking requires large amounts of water, between approximately 10 000 and 30 000 m3

,

depending on the local geology and size and type of the well. Research from the Marcellus

shale in the US, which relies mainly on surface water, has shown that small streams are

especially sensitive to these water withdrawals, with knock-on effects for the aquatic

ecosystem if withdrawals are not managed properly.

The Barnett shale, US, uses mainly groundwater, placing strain on aquifers that already

struggle to meet demand. Careful monitoring of rivers, streams and groundwater is

therefore needed, the researchers say. They also highlight adjustments that could reduce

these impacts, such as the use of undrinkable, brackish groundwater if available, and

seasonal timing of water extraction when river flows are high.

Wastewater produced by fracking can potentially also have significant environmental

impacts. Between 2010 and 2011 the section of the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania alone

produced 5 million cubic metres of wastewater. Studies in Texas have shown that discharge

of fracking wastewater without treatment significantly lowers water quality in the

surrounding surface and groundwater and has a negative impact on vegetation.

Fracking wastewater can contain high concentrations of chemicals such as chloride, bromide

and radium, and requires specialised treatment before being released into the environment.

Some facilities which have been used to treat fracking wastewater, including public sewage

works, are not designed for this and US studies have shown increases in chloride

concentrations and build-up of radium in sediments downstream from such plants.

Other potential impacts of fracking on water resources include possible seepage of methane

or fracking fluids into aquifers, erosion due to construction of wells and infrastructure and

accidental spills of waste water or chemicals.

The researchers advocate the use of adaptive management as a decision-making cycle: 1)

Acknowledgement of the risks involved in shale developments. 2) Initiation of studies to

assess such risks. 3) Development of regionally appropriate management policies and

practices. 4) Enactment of policies. 5) Monitoring and recording data of shale gas impacts.

6) Analysing data. 7) Adapting policies and practices using new data.

The researchers stress the importance of good planning. They caution that, as a result of

the controversial nature of fracking, the process can stall at step 1 and, by the time step 2

is reached, development has already begun. This is problematic because it can mean that

no pre-development baseline data is collected, which are crucial to assess subsequent

impacts. They highlight the fact that funding to hire planners, scientists etc. is often

generated by shale developers themselves. As a result, development can begin before the

‘planning’. The researchers strongly recommend that funding is available for such staff

before development begins and that they have appropriate enforcement and compliance

tools to ensure best practices.