Science, Fracking & the Royal Society

(Sorry for the long post – but its important!) The President of the Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of sciences, has recently written on why evidence rather than rhetoric should guide key public decisions and uses fracking to illustrate his article. He makes the point that good public decision making should be based on evidence not opinions and that debate should be based on “high-quality scientific advice, which is dependent upon high-quality science … taking account of all of the evidence and not cherry-picking data”. On fracking Sir Paul says that we now have an idea of how much shale gas is in the ground but not yet how much can be got out. He goes on to say: “Crucially, we need to assess the health, safety, and local and global environmental risks some of which was done by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering last year“. He says “some of which” because the report’s terms of reference are limited to consideration of  the technical aspects and associated risks only. We are often told that fracking is safe because of this Royal Academy of Engineering report, but what did this report actually say? What is normally omitted is that it says “Most likely causes of possible environmental contamination include faulty wells, and leaks and spills associated with surface operations. Neither cause is unique to shale gas. Both are common to all oil and gas wells and extractive activities.” Including shale gas. Further is says that “The probability of well failure is low for a single well if it is designed, constructed and abandoned according to best practice”. So, the Royal Academy of Engineers say that faulty wells, leaks and spills are common and that for a single well every thing is ok if everything is ok. However, the gas companies are not considering drilling a single well, they are considering hundreds and possibly thousands of wells in Somerset. So what is the probability of well failure for 2,000 wells? One in what?  So far Caudrilla has drilled 4 wells two of which have been abandoned, one deformed by an induced earthquake and apparently not reported in a timely manner. So what are the human and livestock healths risks? Apparently the Health and Safety Executive will only be considering the health and safety of rig crews not the local population. Where is the report on the potential health impacts to residents? What are the global environmental risks? The Department for Energy and Climate Change are preparing a report on the greenhouse gas emissions of shale gas production which should be released during the summer. Where is the assessment of intangible costs to residents and the local authority, including the effect on property prices? The Royal Society’s In Verba Blog points out that the RAE’s report is “by no means exhaustive” and doesn’t examine the climate change implications, “nor is its assessment of risk wholly comprehensive”, and “it can’t tell us whether those events are acceptable to different sectors of society”. The report says virtually nothing about coalbed methane. Sir Paul Nurse goes on to say that these (incomplete) assessments are only the start of the debate and “we need to discuss energy security and affordability” and “Those living in shale gas areas where there might be fracking have a major stake in the decision. They are the ones who will have a big industry moving into their neighbourhoods, and they need to weigh up the disruption and potential risks against the potential economic benefits for themselves locally and for the UK as a whole. These questions are not easily answered, but what is key is to get the science right first before moving on to the politics”. Unfortunately we have had the politics thrust upon us way before the science has been established – all on the basis of the American experience. Enough said. So next time you are told that the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering say that fracking is all ok, ask  for the full evidence and refer them to Sir Paul Nurse the Society’s president – a human biologist who is probably very interested in the potential health impacts.

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