Digest Index

A Big Setback for Fracking?

24th August 2015

In January 2014 the EC Commission agreed a number of recommendations on how member states should control fracking. This might have become legislation were it not for some intense lobbying, not least by the UK government. The EU recommendation of minimum principles became guidance rather than law, stated to be guidance only at the time because of the “urgency of the situation”.

Nevertheless the Commission made its recommendations and requested member states to act within six months. There was to be a review of member states’ progress after 18 months - i.e. now - in order to determine whether EU legislation was needed. The Commission said it would “closely monitor the Recommendation’s application by comparing the situation in Member States in a publicly available scoreboard.” I have seen no such scoreboard.

One of the recommendations related to setback distances of fracking sites from property.

”3.2 Member States should provide clear rules on possible restrictions of activities, for example in protected, flood-prone or seismic-prone areas, and on minimum distances between authorised operations and residential and water-protection areas. They should also establish minimum depth limitations between the area to be fractured and groundwater."

Needless to say, the UK government has not complied, particularly on the setting of minimum distances between frackpads and residential property. No minimum has been set. In my opinion this is a major scandal.

At Preston New Road Cuadrilla intend to establish a four well production pad within only 270 metres (885 feet) from people’s homes.

The situation in the USA varies from state to state. Some states have setback distances from water sources e.g. wells, but not property. Some states have no setback distances. Some do. And some leave it to become a county or town decision.

For example - (e&oe)

Colorado ban sought 2,000 feet, but unable get industry agreement. Was 350 before review, currently 500 feet from houses and 1,000 feet for schools or hospitals.
Elbert County - proposed 1,320 feet (1/4 mile)

Texas - setbacks by local zoning with 1,500 feet being the norm.
Dallas 1,500 feet
Flower Mound 1500 feet
Denton - Current setback 1,200 feet (although a loophole for old wells drilled under old law may make it 250 feet.)
Fort Worth 600 feet.
Southlake 1000 feet

Maryland - 1,000 feet from a home, 2,000 feet from a well
North Carolina. 650 feet from BOTH homes and wells.
New York 2,000 feet
Pennsylvania 1,000 feet for buildings or water sources, local cities can set their distances above this.
Wyoming 350 feet under review
Illinois 500 feet

The background to many of these setback distances is that they evolved from a situation of uncontrolled drilling. They represent an attempt by residents to express concern about fracking near their homes, the efforts of a powerful industry to resist any attempt to restrict its freedom, and the local decisionmakers making political decisions. There was little scientific justification for these setback distances, based on evidence of noise or air pollution.

A first conclusion from this might be that the UK is not only in breach of European guidance, but the absence of setback distances make any claim to a world-class regulation system a laughable deceit.

Recently emerging reports of health issues within larger distances of well pads (see e.g. our recent comment on heart disease Kiss of Death )indicate that it would be wholly wrong for fracking to go ahead in the UK without a serious evaluation on the wider health impact concerns and in particular emerging evidence regarding health and proximity to wellpads. This is particularly vital for the reason that even the rural UK is packed so densely that any health issues would impact a far greater number of people than in the US.

A reminder from The Kiss of Death “ the three Borough areas of PEDL 165, Fylde, Wyre and West Lancs, have an average population density of around 375 per sq km, in comparison the Bradford and Susquehanna average density is just over TWENTY. The boroughs’ population is around 300,000, the total population of Bradford and Susquehanna is in comparison under 105,000, including urban areas.”

A 2014 Maryland health report points out the various considerations which build up to a powerful argument for setback distances to be established. They say the authorities should ” Require a minimal setback distance of 2000 feet from well pads and from compressor stations not using electric motors.”
Setback distances should be flexible to take into account local factors e.g. prevailing winds.

Note the concern regarding compressor stations. This has gone largely unremarked on so far in the UK, the need for noise-producing and polluting compressor stations to feed gas to the gas mains.

”…evidence from traffic-related air pollution studies indicated that the concentrations of traffic-related pollutants drop to the background level beyond 500-700m (1640-2296 feet). Likewise, a study from Colorado reported air pollution levels significantly higher within 0.5 miles (2640 feet) of UNGDP facilities compared to >0.5 miles. “

The cumulative health effects of air emissions, noise, traffic, and stress points to a raft of good reasons for banning fracking in the UK rather than restricting it, in my view, but we certainly have to widen the arguments against fracking beyond earthquakes and water quality.

It is worth reproducing a longer paragraph from this report “Potential Public Health Impacts of Natural Gas Development and Production in the Marcellus Shale in Western Maryland” in full

”Exposure does not happen in vacuum. Community members impacted by UNGDP will be exposed to multiple chemical hazards (VOCs, PM, PAHs), physical hazards (noise, radiation), and a host of psychosocial stressors including those related to public safety, potential loss of property values, disruption of existing social fabric, crime, among others. In addition, such developments also disproportionately impact underserved communities such as those with low SES, and without a strong political voice. The question of combined effect of these cumulative exposures, as well as the interactions between chemical and non-chemical stressors needs to be considered. While there is strong agreement in scientific community that the traditional single chemical centric risk assessment methods are inadequate in dealing with such issues, the emerging field of cumulative risk assessment is still in its infancy. Epidemiological and clinical evidence from other disciplines document: 1) interactions between chemical hazards, 2) interaction between chemical and physical hazards, and that 3) psychological stress increases susceptibility to respiratory infections that are known to be major drivers of asthma morbidity. Furthermore, significant evidence suggests that disadvantaged communities are disproportionately exposed and are more vulnerable to the effect of these hazards. Based on this, it is reasonable to assume that the combined effect of UNGDP related hazards described in this report may be higher than the simple sum, and that the impact will be more pronounced in disadvantaged communities and will be disproportionately felt by vulnerable subpopulations such as property owners without mineral rights, elderly, children, and individuals with pre-existing diseases.”

It is also noted that other commentators call for even greater protection, for example this comment from a paediatrician.

The message is clear. The government’s pursuit of shale gas without application of the precautionary principle with regard to health impacts on communities, and without waiting for scientific consensus on emerging US experience is foolhardy. Moreover, I suggest that if fracking goes ahead the government will be in breach of human rights. I believe already by pushing ahead with shale without public consultation and consent its policy is in breach of the UN Aarhus Convention. And as we opened this report with, it is already in breach of European Commission guidelines on shale gas.

We know exactly why the government refuses to determine setback rules. Any science-based setback distance, on this densely-populated island, would effectively ban fracking.

You can find details of the EC recommendations here
If you think it would be helpful to feed into the EU process with examples from your experience or points of concern, the email address to send material to is: ENV-SHALE-GAS@ec.europa.eu

Another reminder of the North-South divide - health and mortality