Fracking and Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
New research from the United States implicates shale gas extraction in the release of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
Researchers conducted a review of research on health effects associated with so-called Unconventional Oil and Gas (UOG) operations and concluded these activities have potential for environmental release of a complex mixture of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that could potentially harm human development and reproduction.
It’s important to note that this was a literature review and that no primary research was conducted.
Naturally, UK opponents of the fracking process have used the research to suggest we can expect a similar experience here.
But there are a number of strong incentives for UK shale operators to avoid using potentially harmful chemicals:
Firstly, cost. Purchasing, storing and handling hazardous substances is typically more expensive.
Additionally, the presence of hazardous substances when drilling muds and fracturing fluids become waste could then render those wastes ‘hazardous’ in accordance with EU and UK environmental laws, which also has cost impacts.
Given that operators will want to ensure their wells are commercially viable, they will want to keep their costs to an acceptable minimum.
UK and EU groundwater protection rules prohibit the use of substances that are hazardous to groundwater.
The Environment Agency, which in England reviews the substances proposed for use in drilling and hydraulic fracturing, will screen out substances that are deemed hazardous to groundwater ensuring that they are not available for operators to use. We’ve already seen evidence of this, when Cuadrilla was prevented from using Antimony Trioxide during the construction of its Balcombe test well.
There’s another compliance angle too though: worker safety. Handling dangerous substances brings the burden of additional safety controls under the COSHH regulations – if non-hazardous substances can be substituted, this burden is eased.
And, thirdly, public perception
Given the level of public scrutiny that operators are already subject to, it’s hard to envisage a scenario where they would deliberately seek to use substances and preparations that are going to give rise to considerable public anxiety.
Lee Petts, chief executive of the OESG and managing director at the environmental consultancy Remsol, personally reviewed the composition of proposed drilling and fracturing additives for Cuadrilla in Lancashire to assess their impact on waste classification. He says: “I don’t recall any Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals being proposed for use.
“The components of the drilling muds were predominantly water-based, plus inert bentonite clay and food-grade materials such as the thickening agent guar gum. And, as we’ve heard many times before, only water, sand and a small amount of polyacrylamide (used as a lubricant) has so far been required by Cuadrilla, although it also has approval to use a very dilute concentration of a common bacteriacide and also a weak solution of Hydrochloric Acid.”
Because there are significant differences in operating standards and regulations, care must be taken when comparing the experiences of the United States (and elsewhere) with the UK.
So, whilst studies performed in other countries are helpful, there are always going to be limitations to just how useful they can be or how much we can infer from them.
As a result, it would be wrong for fracking opponents to try and persuade communities otherwise.