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Talking ‘Fracking’: A Consultation on Unconventional Oil and Gas - Analysis of Responses

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8. Potential environmental impacts (Q5)

8.1 This chapter discusses respondents' views relating to the potential environmental impacts of unconventional oil and gas, including seismicity.

8.2 The final section of Part 2 of the consultation paper (pages 46–53) focused on environmental considerations. Specifically, this section summarised and discussed the studies which the Scottish Government had commissioned in 2016 to examine climate change, decommissioning and the risks of induced seismicity. The section also discussed regulation and how it could be strengthened.

8.3 It should be noted that no environmental impact assessment was commissioned by the Scottish Government to examine (specifically) the potential environmental impacts of an unconventional oil and gas industry in Scotland. However, as highlighted in the consultation, the Independent Expert Scientific Panel considered the evidence on environmental impacts. In the section of the consultation paper on 'Scottish Government observations on the evidence' (page 53), it was noted that:

'In respect to environmental regulation, the research project findings are broadly consistent with the findings of the Independent Expert Scientific Panel, which concluded that "The regulatory framework is largely in place to control the potential environmental impacts of the production of unconventional oil and gas in Scotland, although there may be gaps to address".'

8.4 Thus, the Scottish Government did not comment on the wide range of potential environmental impacts per se, simply on the extent to which regulation was in place to control or mitigate any potential impacts.

8.5 The section on 'Scottish Government observations on the evidence' also highlighted that (i) the seismicity study had concluded that the risk of felt earthquakes from unconventional oil and gas developments is low and that (ii) the Scottish Government would undertake all necessary relevant statutory assessments in coming to a final position on unconventional oil and gas, including undertaking a strategic environmental assessment, which would be required regardless of the form of a final decision.

8.6 Question 5 invited comments about the potential environmental impacts of an unconventional oil and gas industry in Scotland.

Question 5: What are your views on the potential environmental impacts of an unconventional oil and gas industry in Scotland?

8.7 Altogether, 21,939 respondents addressed this question. This comprised 120 organisations, 14 discussion groups, 5,402 individuals and 16,403 standard campaign respondents.

Overview of responses to Question 5

Almost all respondents agreed that there was the potential for negative environmental impacts to result from an unconventional oil and gas industry in Scotland; just a handful said there would be 'no environmental impacts'.

The predominant view was that the potential negative environmental impacts far outweighed any benefits that might accrue from developing an unconventional oil and gas industry. Respondents thought that there were substantial risks involved and they thought the environmental impacts, especially the potential contamination and pollution of water, soil and air, would be extremely serious. Respondents did not think that the current – or any future – regulatory framework could address the potential environmental impacts, and they therefore wished to see an outright ban on fracking in Scotland.

There were two alternative views offered. First, respondents who were in favour or broadly supportive of the development of an unconventional oil and gas industry suggested that any potential negative environmental impacts could be controlled, mitigated and minimised through a robust regulatory framework. Second, respondents who were not wholly against unconventional oil and gas or who thought the evidence was insufficient to proceed at present thought that some exploratory drilling and limited pilots should be undertaken, with proper monitoring and assessment in place; this would help to address perceived gaps in the current evidence base on the environmental impacts and would help guide decision making in the future.

8.8 In their comments on this issue, respondents not only discussed the potential environmental impacts of unconventional oil and gas extraction, but also the scale and consequences of these impacts, and the implications for decommissioning. There were also comments on the nature of the current evidence available to guide decision making in this area as well comments specifically on the research on seismicity commissioned by the Scottish Government. Each of these topics is considered below.

Potential environmental impacts

8.9 There was widespread agreement that the development of an unconventional oil and gas industry could result in a wide range of negative environmental impacts. Respondents repeatedly used terms such as 'catastrophic', 'disastrous' and 'devastating' to describe the potential environmental effects. The impacts mentioned most frequently were in relation to: groundwater (and drinking water) contamination; air pollution; soil pollution; CO2 and methane emissions; impacts on the underlying geological structure; impacts on wildlife and habitats; impacts on agriculture; impacts on the visual landscape; and impacts associated with noise, traffic and light pollution.[15] These potential impacts are described in further detail below.

8.10 Respondents commented that pollution and contamination of groundwater (and drinking water) could arise from: accidental surface spills and underground leaks of toxic fluids (including methane) and other chemicals; leaks in (or from) well casings; and leaks from pathways created as a result of hydraulic fracturing. Moreover, contaminated wastewater from the hydraulic fracturing process could also result in soil pollution, which could in turn contaminate food crops grown in the soil. Emissions of CO2 and methane would also result in pollution, and would contribute to climate change. This latter point is discussed further in Chapter 9.

8.11 In addition, respondents identified a range of potential impacts relating to the underlying geological structure of the earth. They discussed increased seismic activity, earthquakes, cracks, fractures, and subsidence. Respondents also pointed to potential negative impacts on Scotland's hydrogeology, particularly in the context of the likely location of any drilling sites in densely populated areas.[16]

8.12 Respondents also highlighted the possibility of impacts on wildlife and habitats – which could in turn have adverse effects on biodiversity, flora, fauna, aquatic life, and areas of special ecological importance. Such impacts were seen to be a likely consequence of competing land use requirements in densely populated areas, with some respondents also noting that unconventional oil and gas extraction would potentially take agricultural land out of production.

8.13 Respondents argued that the development of an unconventional oil and gas industry would also have a variety of negative impacts on the visual landscape – for example, through the industrialisation of the countryside, through the destruction of the natural beauty of the countryside, and through the creation of holding pools for wastewater prior to its removal.

8.14 Finally, repeated reference was also made to other environmental impacts such as increased noise, increased traffic (and associated pollution) and increased light pollution – all of which have already been discussed in detail in Chapter 4.

8.15 In general, respondents did not see the impacts discussed above as occurring in isolation. On the contrary, they saw them as highly inter-related. For example, groundwater pollution would also put soil quality at risk; increased traffic would not only cause an increase in air pollution, but it would also adversely affect wildlife and habitats, and the visual landscape.

8.16 Occasionally, respondents identified potentially positive environmental impacts from the development of an oil and gas industry. These were largely seen to be generated through increased job opportunities which had the potential to provide opportunities (due to additional wealth creation) for positive environmental developments.

Scale and consequences of potential environmental impacts

8.17 Respondents differed in their views on the scale and consequences of these potential environmental impacts. There were broadly three groups as follows:

  • Those who thought the potential environmental impacts were likely to be highly damaging; could not be managed, mitigated or controlled through regulation; were not 'worth the risk'; and who therefore were opposed to any development of an unconventional oil and gas industry. This was the predominant view.
  • Those who thought the potential environmental impacts (and the attendant risks) could be managed, mitigated and controlled through the rigorous application of an (updated and strengthened) regulatory framework; and / or who thought the risks of an unconventional oil and gas industry were minimal / no more than other industries; and / or who thought there was potential for environmental benefits.
  • Those who were ambivalent, undecided or unable on the basis of the evidence provided to give a view about the scale and consequences of the potential environmental impacts.

8.18 Respondents who thought the scale and consequences of the potential environmental impacts were likely to be highly damaging (often described as 'catastrophic' or 'devastating') often made one or more of the following points:

  • Evidence which they considered to be important and credible from elsewhere (principally from the United States but also from other countries such as Australia and Canada) indicated that there are serious and damaging consequences to the environment from developing an unconventional oil and gas industry. In discussing the evidence, respondents most often highlighted: (i) the bans on hydraulic fracturing introduced in other countries and states as a consequence of chemical spills and land and water pollution (ii) the link between disposal of wastewater by reinjection into a hydraulically fractured well and the increased risk of earthquakes, and (iii) the reports of 'flammable tap water' from the United States.
  • The environmental changes and impacts which would result from the development of an unconventional oil and gas industry were perceived to be far-reaching and irreversible, thus compromising the safety and wellbeing of future generations, as well as the viability of the planet itself.
  • The environmental impacts were thought to be unpredictable and uncontrollable and the risks unknown or not (yet) well understood. Respondents therefore thought it was not possible to manage or mitigate them, even with a strengthened regulatory framework.

8.19 By contrast, those who generally supported the development of an unconventional oil and gas industry, or who felt the impacts were minimal or no worse than other energy industries, or who thought there was potential for environmentally positive impacts argued that:

  • The UK has a far stronger and more robust approach to regulation than other countries (including the United States) and there is an opportunity to learn from experience elsewhere. Moreover, there is already evidence available about the extent of the potential environmental impacts and this can be used to good effect in strengthening the regulatory framework and addressing current gaps in regulation (as set out in the consultation paper). (See also Chapter 10.)
  • All (energy) industries have environmental impacts. Those identified in relation to unconventional oil and gas are no worse than those of other energy projects. There were repeated references, in particular, to the negative visual impact on the landscape of windfarms.
  • Unconventional oil and gas is the best energy option available to Scotland at the present time and could help provide a transition to a fossil fuel free future. It would save money in the medium term – by displacing other more expensive imports of gas – and give Scotland greater control over its production standards.
  • Many of the negative environmental impacts, especially those related to the development phase – for example, noise or traffic pollution – would be only temporary. The longer term benefits outweigh these short-term impacts.

8.20 Respondents who were unsure or ambivalent about the potential environmental impacts wanted to see firmer evidence before reaching a conclusion about whether or not an unconventional oil and gas industry should be developed. Some of the respondents in this group which included public sector bodies suggested that some small scale pilots might be undertaken in the first instance, with proper baseline assessments and monitoring arrangements, before a firm decision regarding the future of unconventional oil and gas in Scotland was made.

Evidence to guide decision making

8.21 The lack of an environmental impact assessment to underpin the consultation paper was highlighted by some respondents as a serious omission. Those who raised this issue questioned why research on the risks of induced seismicity had been commissioned, but not research on wider environmental impacts. It was also noted that the section of the consultation paper referring to 'environmental considerations' focused mainly on climate change and the regulatory framework. (Respondents who raised this were generally individuals and organisations who did not favour the development of an unconventional oil and gas industry.) It was thought that without such an assessment there was no firm basis on which to make a judgement about the scale and nature of any potential environmental impacts and therefore about whether any potential benefits were 'worth' the potential risks.

8.22 However, other respondents, especially those organisations involved in regulation, or those representing the energy industry or related professional / trade organisations, thought there was sufficient evidence available to guide the development of an unconventional oil and gas industry, to develop a strengthened regulatory framework, and to mitigate and manage any potential risks.

Induced seismicity

8.23 A small number of respondents discussed the evidence on induced seismicity, including the evidence contained in the Scottish Government commissioned report. There was a wide range of views in relation to the general topic and in relation to the commissioned research. The predominant view was that there was insufficient evidence to guide decision making. Points made included that: 'it would be more appropriate to focus on the additional risk arising from adding fracking to the existing coal-mining related risk'; that 'the long-term impacts are unknown'; and that 'given the lack of historical data it is hard to identify which areas might be affected'. Less commonly, respondents said they were generally content that the impacts of induced seismicity were likely to be small or negligible.

8.24 Given the recent research which has linked increases in earthquakes to disposal of wastewater by injection into deep wells, respondents thought a formal prohibition of this practice was required.

Decommissioning and aftercare

8.25 The consultation paper contained a summary of the findings of research commissioned by Scottish Government to investigate 'potential environmental risks, industry best practice, and the adequacy of regulatory controls over decommissioning, including for long-term monitoring'. This research concluded that 'with appropriate regulatory oversight and monitoring, the framework is sufficient to manage risks of well leakage consistent with the aim of providing suitable protection for communities and the environment'.

8.26 A small number of respondents raised points in relation to decommissioning and aftercare, and how this might impact on the environment. There was scepticism on the part of those who were opposed to the development of an unconventional oil and gas industry that the regulatory framework could be enforced or could ensure safe decommissioning. There were also concerns that drilling sites and the surrounding areas would not be returned to their previous state, or made fully safe, and that environmental problems may continue to arise in the future. These respondents described the conclusions of the commissioned research (described above) as 'wishful thinking'. They focused on the high costs of restoration, and said that, given the previous history of oil and gas companies in avoiding clean-up and restoration costs, the financial liability would ultimately be borne by the taxpayer. By contrast, those in favour of establishing an unconventional oil and gas industry in Scotland agreed that the regulatory framework, as long as it was properly resourced and companies adhered to it, would ensure decommissioning was undertaken safely.