Tuesday, 23 February 2016 12:13

Prestige enviro body reviews UK fracking seeing main risk from water flowback spills

Fracking's status and risks to the water environment have been reviewed from developments over the last two years by the authoritative Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) - with the main risk seen as the management of flowback and spills of returned water.

ciwem fracking copyTwo years on from CIWEM's initial review of shale gas extraction, little exploration has taken place in the UK. The Institution believes that this time has been invaluable for new legislation and guidance to be developed to minimise harm to the environment.

The report supports the new requirements from the Infrastructure Act restricting hydraulic fracturing to below 1200 metres in areas of public drinking water and protected areas for wildlife. It also welcomes the new requirement for a hydrogeological risk assessment to be carried out by an expert to protect groundwater prior to any drilling activity.

With many of the risks to the environment are being reduced through the application of the planning and permitting stages, CIWEM now considers the most significant risks relate to the management of flowback and produced water.

Contamination of soil, surface or groundwater from spills of returned waters is a considerable hazard and could result from any negligence associated with storage, transportation and operations.

Operators will have to use Best Available Techniques to ensure returned waters are appropriately contained, managed and treated prior to eventual disposal. Regulators must ensure that this is being carried out and appropriately monitored.

CIWEM states that it remains concerned over the volumes and nature of the flowback and produced water as it may not be of an appropriate chemical composition to be sent to a typical wastewater treatment works and re-injection for disposal may only be allowed in certain circumstances. Specialist industrial treatment is likely to be needed to meet the UK and EU's robust water regulation regime and an appropriate supply chain to be developed either on- of off-site.

CIWEM Chief Executive Terry Fuller said: "We have been pleased to observe that the UK is moving in the right direction with regulators and stakeholders working together to establish baseline studies, guidance and best practice to protect the water environment.

"Many of the ten recommendations we set out in the first report have now been implemented or are in progress. However, this does not preclude the need for continual scrutiny and diligence by all parties as the industry gets underway."

Alongside the risks to the water environment, the report also considers the political, economic and social limitations to the viability of a successful shale gas industry in the UK.

Whilst public opposition remains high, the industry is also facing greater economic pressures due to high production costs and falling oil and gas prices. Innovation in technologies and the development of a supply chain for wastewater treatment is also likely to be required to bring costs down.

FURTHER INFORMATION: CIWEM’s report Shale Gas and Water 2016: An independent review of shale gas extraction in the UK and the implications for the water environment and a Summary Report is available from

The Environment Agency's onshore oil and gas sector guidance is currently out for consultation until March 3rd 2016. Click here

Cuadrilla’s planning inquiry for its Roseacre Wood and Preston New Road sites. The unedited recordings of all of the sessions of the public inquiry will be loaded onto this website each day. These recordings will be available to view for a period of 30 days.