The Task Force, which aims to assess the impact of shale gas and the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, claims shale drilling is safe, providing it is subject to “rigorous regulation and monitoring”.

The report demands full disclosure from shale gas operators of the chemicals being used in operations and an industry commitment to the highest standards of construction, safety and transparency.

It also calls for a national advisory committee to independently monitor future data from fracking operations. Mandatory independent inspection was originally rejected in legislation.

The report also recommends changes in planning regulations to allow drilling at sites to begin water monitoring before planning permission is granted. 

The Task Force was set up in September 2014 to provide independent information for the public about shale exploration.

The group’s funding companies include Centrica, Dow Chemical and Cuadrilla, whose application to frack in Lancashire was recently turned down by Lancashire County Council.

Stringent regulation

Task Force chair Lord Chris Smith said: “Only if the drilling is done properly and to the highest standard, and with rigorous regulation and monitoring, can shale gas fracking be done safely for local communities and the environment.”

The report said many of the concerns raised from previous instances of fracking in the USA could be mitigated with better construction and regulation.

“The evidence shows that many of the concerns associated with fracking are the result of poor practice elsewhere in the world, such as poorly constructed wells,” said Lord Smith.

“It is therefore crucial that stringent regulations are established in the UK, as set out in our recommendations, in order to meet these legitimate concerns.”

The Task Force is set to publish two further reports, one covering the shale gas’s potential impact on climate change and a second examining its economics.

Creating understanding

United Kingdom Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG), the body representing the industry, welcomed the report, claiming it created a public understanding of the risks of drilling and how they can be addressed.

UKOOG chief executive Ken Cronin said: “I was pleased that the report highlighted a number of areas that we have already considered and have taken action on. The tone of the report is geared towards creating a better understanding of hazard and risk which I think will be invaluable for those coming to this subject for the first time.

“I was particularly pleased to note that the Task Force is satisfied that the risk levels associated with public health hazards are acceptable provided that the well is properly drilled, protected, monitored and regulated.”

Green response

However green campaigners were harder to satisfy. Friends of the Earth said committing to drilling for fossil fuels put the UK’s fight against climate change at risk.

“This report recognises the struggle to make controversial fracking technology acceptable to the British public,” said Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Tony Bosworth.

“But people know that fracking threatens local pollution and public health, and that it is crazy to be digging up more fossil fuels when we need to leave four fifths of reserves in the ground to avoid runaway climate change.”

Bosworth added: “The report also confirms what we have been saying – despite reassuring words from a Government and industry desperate to get fracking, UK regulations are not tough enough.
“But tougher rules can only make fracking safer, not safe. This dangerous technology will always carry risks for the local environment and people’s health, as well as adding to climate change – so no amount of regulation or industry-funded task forces will make people embrace fracking.”

Greenpeace head of energy Daisy Sands said the report should be taken with “a truck load of salt” and added it was “worrying as other administrations such as in the Netherlands and New York are putting a halt on fracking, but the UK is fast tracking fracking.”

Local risks

The Task Force report follows the release under freedom of information requests by Greenpeace of a DEFRA report suggesting fracking operations could increase house prices and create serious risks of environmental damage.

The new report also goes against claims in a report by Medact that drilling for shale would pose a serious risk to public health, with the Task Force suggesting providing drilling is properly “protected, monitored and regulated” the health risks are acceptable.

The Task Force called for Public Health England to monitor future fracking for its health impact.

Previous reports have also suggested that fracking poses a risk to drinking water, however the risk in the UK is lower than in parts of North America.

Matt Field

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