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

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4. Social, community and health impacts (Q1)

4.1 This chapter discusses the views of respondents on the potential social, community and health impacts of an unconventional oil and gas industry in Scotland.

4.2 The first section of Part 2 of the consultation paper considered evidence related to 'community considerations' – that is, how the development of an unconventional oil and gas industry might affect communities in Scotland. This section acknowledged that the location of shale gas and oil deposits in Scotland in the highly populated central belt meant that, if oil and gas extraction did take place, it would be in close proximity to existing communities. It also acknowledged public concerns about the impact of hydraulic fracturing (fracking)[7], and stated the Scottish Government's commitment to listening to the views of communities and involving people in decisions on this issue. The Scottish Government commissioned two research studies focused on specific types of community impact – these comprised a peer-reviewed health impact assessment carried out by Health Protection Scotland[8] and a study to explore the implications of an increased volume of traffic on roads surrounding drilling sites.[9] The findings of these studies were summarised in the consultation paper.

4.3 Question 1 in the consultation asked respondents for their views on the potential social, community and health impacts of an unconventional oil and gas industry.[10]

Question 1: What are your views on the potential social, community and health impacts of an unconventional oil and gas industry in Scotland?

4.4 Altogether, 22,918 respondents commented on Question 1. This comprised 123 organisations, 14 discussion groups, 6,278 individuals and 16,503 standard campaign respondents.

Overview of responses to Question 1

The predominant view among respondents was that an unconventional oil and gas industry would have significant long-term negative impacts for communities and that any benefits (generally seen in terms of job-related or economic benefits) would be short-term, and far outweighed by the risks to health, quality of life, local amenity, and community resilience and cohesion.

The alternative views were that there would be no impacts, no negative impacts, or only positive impacts. Respondents identifying positive impacts for communities tended to emphasise the potential economic benefits that might accrue from an unconventional oil and gas industry which, in turn, would contribute to enhanced community prosperity and improvements in health and social outcomes. This group of respondents generally saw the risks of fracking as minimal, wholly manageable, or no different to those of other industries.

4.5 Respondents discussed the social, community and health impacts of an unconventional oil and gas industry in Scotland in terms of: health and wellbeing; the local economy; traffic, noise and light; housing; quality of life and local amenity; and community resilience and cohesion. Each of these is looked at in turn below.

4.6 The following should be noted about the analysis presented in this chapter:

  • An important point for those concerned about community impacts was the fact that, in Scotland, any fracking would take place in the heavily populated central belt in close proximity to existing towns and villages. Respondents often also referred to the potential impact on their own community.
  • A significant proportion of respondents provided short answers to Question 1, simply stating that the health, social and community impacts of fracking would be negative, but did not expand on the reasons for their views or provide details of the types of impacts they envisaged.

Health and wellbeing

4.7 For many respondents, particularly individuals, community groups, community councils and third sector organisations, concerns about the impact on human (and animal) health were central to their opposition to the unconventional oil and gas industry. These concerns focused mainly on (i) contamination of drinking water supplies, and the water table; (ii) exposure to air-borne toxins, dust (including silica) or fumes associated with the chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing, and / or released as a by-product; and (iii) the risk of incidents and accidents associated with unconventional oil and gas at all stages of operations (construction, operation and waste disposal, and decommissioning) such as chemical spills, leaks, blowouts, well and equipment failure. (See also Chapter 8 for further discussion of these concerns from an environmental perspective.)

4.8 Respondents noted a wide range of specific health problems which they reported as having been linked to unconventional oil and gas operations in other parts of the world. These included: cancers; respiratory and cardio-vascular disease; impacts on reproductive health and foetal development; impacts on the nervous system; skin problems; nausea and vomiting; abdominal pain; headaches; dizziness; eye and throat irritation; and nose bleeds.

4.9 Respondents also noted concerns about mental health, wellbeing and wider public health issues. Common among these concerns were increased stress and anxiety caused by living near an industrial site, disturbed sleep patterns as a result of noise and light pollution, and the potential impact on the availability and use of outdoor spaces (for children's play, walking, dog walking, gardening, etc.). Given the perceived short-term nature of unconventional oil and gas projects, respondents also mentioned the risk of public health problems associated with the departure of major local employers.

4.10 Respondents often highlighted how the health of particularly vulnerable groups – children, infants and unborn babies, the elderly, and those with pre-existing health conditions such as asthma – might be affected. They also referred to those employed in the industry who would be exposed to health and safety risks in the course of their work.

4.11 Many of the health problems highlighted were linked to pollution (air, soil and water) and the wider environmental impact of fracking which is discussed further in Chapter 8.

4.12 A much less common view was that the health risks would be minimal or non-existent, or that any risks could be managed, and were no greater than the risks associated with other industries. Some also argued that the health risks had been exaggerated by those campaigning against fracking. Further, some respondents saw the unconventional oil and gas industry as potentially having positive health impacts. These respondents drew attention to the benefits associated with increased employment and prosperity at an individual and community level. They also highlighted what they perceived as the good health and safety record of the (offshore) oil and gas industry, with some highlighting the absence of health problems associated with offshore drilling or suggesting that work within an onshore oil industry would offer improved working conditions for employees.

Comments on the evidence on health impacts

4.13 Respondents referred to a range of evidence in support of their position on the health impacts of unconventional oil and gas extraction, with many drawing on the Health Protection Scotland health impact assessment report commissioned by the Scottish Government. However, the way respondents interpreted this evidence was very different. Some respondents referred to the fact that the report said the evidence in this area was currently 'inadequate', and saw this uncertainty as a reason not to proceed. Such respondents also often referred to other studies from around the world (e.g. United States, Canada and Australia), arguing that there was more than adequate evidence to support their case.[11]

4.14 Other respondents, however, argued that the health impact assessment had found no conclusive evidence of negative health impacts, and that fracking was already being undertaken safely around the world. This group also queried the relevance of some of the arguments put forward to the Scottish context, noting, for example, that most of Scotland's drinking water came from surface water rather than groundwater and was thus less susceptible to contamination than was the case in some areas where fracking had taken place. As such, they thought that arguments against unconventional oil and gas were unfounded based on the evidence on health impacts.

Jobs and the local economy

4.15 Although respondents generally agreed that unconventional oil and gas would bring some benefits for the local economy in terms of job creation and local spending, the dominant view was that these benefits would be relatively limited in scope and not sustained in the longer term. There was significant concern about how communities might be affected by the 'boom and bust' nature of the industry – e.g. how communities would cope with the pressures of an incoming transient workforce and the problems created by the loss of a local industry when operations came to an end.

4.16 Occasionally, respondents said that the prospect of new jobs, the development of a skilled workforce, and increased spending could be a stimulus for economic growth and diversification, and a catalyst for longer term community regeneration and revitalisation at a local level.

4.17 Wider views on the impact on the Scottish economy are covered in Chapter 6.

Traffic, noise and light pollution

4.18 There was a general consensus among respondents that unconventional oil and gas operations would bring increased traffic – HGV traffic in particular – to local areas, as well as additional noise and light pollution. The predominant view was that each of these would have a significant negative impact on communities close to drilling sites, particularly since (as some respondents thought) multiple wells were likely to be located in relatively small areas.

4.19 In relation to traffic, some respondents expressed concern about the potential for increased pollution, the risk of accidents, traffic congestion, implications for road safety 'active travel', and the inconvenience caused to local residents. The potential for damage to the road network was also noted, especially as the additional traffic would often be on minor roads in relatively quiet or rural areas. This group thought that the research commissioned by the Scottish Government on this topic had underestimated the potential traffic impacts. The alternative view, expressed much less often, was that the traffic impact would be largely short-term (i.e. mainly confined to the construction phase), and would be no worse than the traffic associated with other industrial projects. It was also suggested that transport and traffic issues could be dealt with as part of the planning process, via traffic routing requirements, and / or through the creation of new or upgraded roads.

4.20 Regarding noise and light pollution, those who raised these issues saw them as the inevitable by-products of industrial processes. These respondents argued that noise and excessive light, particularly at night, could potentially have significant impacts on the personal wellbeing of residents in nearby communities (e.g. in causing stress and leading to disturbed sleep patterns), or would otherwise adversely affect the quality of life of local residents; the potential impact on schooling was also noted by some. Respondents noted the 24-hour nature of unconventional oil and gas operations. By contrast, other respondents saw these as less serious issues. This latter group highlighted the likely short-term nature of such impacts, and also thought there was scope to minimise their impact on communities through landscaping, screening and scheduling restrictions.

Housing and property

4.21 Respondents identified a number of potential negative impacts on housing and property in areas close to wells and drilling sites. Respondents were mainly concerned that people's homes would fall in value or become unsellable, or that fracking operations would cause damage to properties (businesses and public buildings as well as homes), and that there would be no compensation for this. Respondents thought that the risk of seismic activity would cause problems in securing mortgages and home insurance. Some also thought that incoming workers would lead to an increased demand for rented accommodation and increased rents which would risk pricing current local residents out of the market.

4.22 Respondents additionally raised issues about land and property rights (e.g. the ownership of mineral rights below ground, and the rights of companies to drill horizontally below properties) and called for clarity on this.

Quality of life and local amenity

4.23 Respondents often talked in general terms about the potential for negative impacts on quality of life and local amenity caused by: (i) the loss of green space and natural habitats, and the impact on plants and wildlife; (ii) the visual impact of drilling sites and associated infrastructure; and (iii) smells associated with unconventional oil and gas processes. All of these were seen as possible damaging effects of the industry which would make communities less attractive places to live.

4.24 Others, however, argued that such impacts would be minimal and or less significant than those associated with other industries (for example, it was particularly argued that unconventional oil and gas operations would be less visually intrusive than wind farms), and that economic benefits had the potential to enhance the quality of life for those living near drilling sites.

Community resilience and cohesion

4.25 Respondents discussed a number of potential impacts which can all be seen as being related to community resilience and cohesion, as follows:

  • Character and nature of communities: Respondents argued that unconventional oil and gas operations would be disruptive to everyday life, and change the way of life in affected communities. As previously discussed, concerns about the social impacts on communities of a transient workforce with no long-term commitment to the local area were highlighted in relation to this issue. Some also raised the possibility of an increase in crime and anti-social behaviour.
  • Demographic change: There was concern that the population size and demography in areas near wells and drilling operations would be affected by better off people moving away, and fewer people choosing to move to these areas. This could, in turn, lead to a break up of social networks, a reduction in socio-economic diversity and an increased prevalence of public health problems. Respondents argued that the negative effects of the industry would ultimately end up being borne disproportionately by poorer people often in already disadvantaged areas. An alternative view was that the establishment of an industry could help support population retention in rural and disadvantaged areas.
  • Disagreement and conflict: Respondents highlighted the risk of increasing conflict within communities between those who supported the development of an unconventional oil and gas industry and those who opposed it; and those benefiting from it and those who did not. Some expressed particular concern that the use of incentives (for landowners or other individuals) would divide and disempower communities.
  • Trust and legitimacy: There was a view that imposing an industry with perceived serious health and environmental risks on communities without their consent represented a 'democratic deficit', and would result in a loss of trust between people and government and an increase in social dislocation and disengagement.