The UK should designate "frack-free zones" to protect the countryside from shale gas extraction because of the risk of polluting rivers and fragmenting many of Britain's most valuable wildlife sites, according to a major study conducted for six countryside groups.
More than 500 sites designated by government for their importance to wildlife are located within areas currently under licence to fracking companies and a further 2,500 could be affected in the next licensing round, says the report commissioned by the National Trust, the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, Angling Trust, Salmon and Trout Association and Wildlife and Wetland Trust, which together have more than 6 million members.
Hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – involves pumping sand, chemicals and water underground to extract shale gas trapped in rocks but there is little knowledge about its full effects on underground or surface waters in Britain.
"Contamination of ground and water can occur as a result of contaminants percolating up from the fractured shale seam into an aquifer, as well as leakages of methane as a result of well failure. In the US, methane contamination linked to shale gas extraction has been found in aquifers. Once contamination of groundwater has occurred. The clean up is difficult and may take many years," says the study, which was peer-reviewed by the Centre for Hydrology and Ecology.
"There are already many sources of water pollution in the UK that are detrimental to wildlife and people. Shale gas extraction is likely to add to the problem," says the report, which highlights a lack of regulation around shale gas exploitation and calls for much tighter controls on the industry.
"We found that commercial-scale fracking, which requires considerable development across the countryside, would threaten wildlife and the water environment in a range of ways and that government policy to address these risks was not fit for purpose. Over the coming years, major decisions will be made that will determine whether commercial extraction of shale gas will take place in the UK, how and on what scale. These decisions could have significant impacts on our countryside, wildlife and the climate," said a spokesman for the RSPB.
"We are calling for all protected wildlife areas, nature reserves and national parks to be frack-free zones, for full environmental assessments to be carried out for each drilling proposal, and for the shale gas industry to pay the costs of its regulation and any pollution clean-up," he said.
Although there have been many instances of pollution from fracking in the US, the government has dismissed concerns about water contamination in Britain, arguing that the existing laws are strong enough to control the industry. However, there is mounting concern that the special favours granted to the industry, including tax breaks, a quick route through the planning process and no requirement to take out insurance against pollution, will make it easier for companies to override current environmental protection rules.
The report says that the current lack of regulation around shale gas exploitation could have serious impacts for many threatened species including pink-footed geese, salmon and barbastelle bats. It also raises concerns about the impact of drilling and pollution on chalk streams.
The groups want to see shale gas exclusion zones created in particularly sensitive areas such as the North York moors, the Surrey Hills, south Wales and the Peak District, and shale gas operators made to pay for a greatly enhanced regulatory regime.
Ken Cronin, the chief executive of the UK On Shore Operators Group, said that many of the recommendations were already in place or in the process of being implemented. "The economic and environmental imperative to use the UK's indigenous resources of gas is clear. The US has managed to lower both emissions and energy prices at the same time as maintaining investment in low-carbon technologies such as renewables and increasing investment in manufacturing industries, while in Europe we have increased emissions, increased coal consumption, increased prices and are suffering economically."
Janina Gray, the Salmon and Trout Association's head of science, said: "The water use of the UK shale gas industry could exacerbate pressure on rivers and wetlands, particularly on sensitive water bodies and those already suffering from over-abstraction, such as chalk streams, and this adds yet further pressure on declining fish populations – the Atlantic salmon being a prime example. This, coupled with the risk of water pollution – including groundwater contamination – could, if not correctly managed, be significant – possibly irreversible. Action must be taken now to ensure all necessary environmental protection and regulatory frameworks are in place before extraction goes ahead."
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