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Fracking ‘n’ leaking: UK scientists cite pollution fears due to insecure well barriers

Published time: March 25, 2014 14:20
Edited time: June 27, 2014 08:33
A demonstrator holds a placard in front of a police cordon outside the entrance to the IGas Energy exploratory gas drilling site at Barton Moss near Manchester in northern England January 13, 2014. (Reuters/Phil Noble)

A demonstrator holds a placard in front of a police cordon outside the entrance to the IGas Energy exploratory gas drilling site at Barton Moss near Manchester in northern England January 13, 2014. (Reuters/Phil Noble)

A report on fracking has warned it is “likely” that planned wells may leak and damage the surrounding environment in the UK. Scientists also noted there was not enough information in the public sphere to accurately predict the effects of mass fracking.

The research by Durham University draws attention to a number of concerns with the British government’s plans to expand the exploitation of shale gas across the UK.

Fracking is a technique used to extract shale gas trapped deep underground. In order to release the gas, chemicals are blasted at high pressure into fissures in the rock. The practice was discontinued in the UK back in 2011 after a number of small earthquakes close to the northern city of Blackpool were found to be linked to fracking.

The British government is now championing fracking as an answer to rising gas and energy prices, but researchers have urged caution, citing previous cases when mass exploitation has resulted in pollution.

“It is likely that well barrier failure will occur in a small number of wells and this could in some instances lead to some form of environmental contamination,” warned the study, which was published in the journal Marine and Petroleum Geology.

As there are no currently operational shale gas fracking wells in the UK, the study looked at 8,030 wells in Pennsylvania and found that 6.3 percent of them (506) had experienced barrier failures between 2005 and 2013. This resulted in surface water contamination, land spills and problems with site restoration.

"Measurable concentrations of gas were present at the surface for most wells with casing or cementing violations," the researchers wrote, also warning that shale gas exploration in the UK could lead to water contamination because the wells could leak underground.

The failure of protective casing is not just particular to gas fracking – it occurs in most hydrocarbon extraction facilities. To investigate this, researchers examined available data from 143 onshore wells in the UK and found that between 2000 and 2012 nine pollution incidents were registered involving the release of crude oil.

However, researchers were unable to find data for more than 2,000 inactive wells because many had been abandoned or sealed. These so-called “orphaned” wells were left by their operators who went out of business, effectively nullifying their legal responsibility for the well.

"If those wells were to leak, the question is: Who is responsible? We don't know; it's not clear," Professor Richard Davies of Durham University, who led the study, told BBC News.

The study says that the environmental impact of oil and gas fracking in the UK may have been grossly underestimated because of the lack of publicly available information.

"In the UK, wells are monitored by well inspectors but there is no information in the public domain, so we don't really know the full extent of well failures. There were unknowns we couldn't get to the bottom of,” Davies told The Guardian.

Fracking companies have already begun test drilling in the UK, prompting a strong reaction from British communities who oppose the controversial extraction technique. Earlier this month, hundreds of protesters marched through the northern city of Manchester, calling for an end to test drilling in the area. Northwest England has been earmarked for fracking as the British Geological Survey estimates that the region may hold up to 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, which could meet the UK’s energy demands for the next six years.

Comments (20)


KingKarbon 26.03.2014 08:20

"Hey Cameron, Go frack yourself."
Too busy counting the lucre from windfarms on his aristocratic family estates, dear boy. Expensive unreliable energy will drive remaining manufacturing offshore. And good riddance, the aristocracy always thought that giving the peasants a choice between starving and working in a factory was a mistake. Soon no factories, maybe Cameron's father will give you a job tending his fields?. Maybe as a scarecrow?, or could you pull a low carbon plow?. Who will pay the local government carbon mitigation strategy officers wage when there's no one making anything to tax?.


charles taverner 25.03.2014 22:47

truthseeker 25.03.2014 17:32

hahaha the truth is the entire developed world already lead massively unsustainable lives, we dont need new fossil fuel energy sources we need to get rid of the US military


I read a report by a scientist who believes that the earth is doomed in 60 years and what the planet actually need is natural dusaster like perhaps a GM food side effect that wipes out two thirds of the poulation. Like the plague in the middle ages. Not a popular choice but practical.


Dutch guy 25.03.2014 22:38

Hi Ana,
I agree with you, that's why I think fracking is a bad idea.
Besides that, I do not believe we need fracking.

I t would be a lot better to develop technology to prevent pollution, and technology that could clean up pollution.

I'm not sure what you mean with don't killing the messenger.

View all comments (20)
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