Health professionals call for urgent halt to fracking because of public health concernsBMJ 2015; 350 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h1791 (Published 01 April 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h1791
All rapid responses
To Mr Wilkinson and others of his persuasion, and the ministers and their shadows and large landholders, I ask a simple question:
Would you buy residential property on land likely to be raped by fracking ?
As for the safeguards, may I remind the readers about Windscale?
We have Health and Safety at Work et cetera laws.
Did these stop Stafford?
As long as the desire to make a quick buck is alive in the bosom of this Nation Of Capitalists, laws and regulations will be flouted.
Competing interests: Sceptic.
To the BMJ, and the signatories of the letter informed by the Medact report. ‘Health and Fracking.
From Ken Wilkinson BSc Hons. Ex oil rig engineer.
I am concerned that many of those who signed the letter calling for a moratorium on shale gas are not aware of serious failings in the Medact report. I would ask them to review their support, in view of the following information.
I have gone into detail about these serious flaws in an Open Letter that I have sent to Medact.
The first major flaw is that the report details many supposed incidents from the USA. Various carcinogenic, mutagenic, and toxic materials are mentioned as possible health concerns. I was at the launch of the report, and I was surprised to find that the report has minimal mention of the EU and UK laws on the injection of fluids, and certainly this does not translate into the conclusions. These laws mean that only non-hazardous chemicals can be used. As such, raising concerns about serious health issues due to chemicals that are not permissible in the UK would seem improper.
The second major flaw is that the many of the pollution incidents involve open fluid storage, or poor chemical handling practices that are illegal in the UK. The Royal Academy of Engineering published a study of the risks involved with shale gas extraction in 2012. These pollution pathways and other risks were identified as areas that could be mitigated with proper regulation and design. As such they made a series of 10 recommendations to ensure that the process could be done in a low risk setting. This involved DECC, the HSE, and the Environment Agency (EA) and the BGS . It became evident at the launch that Medact were not aware of this, and it is not reflected in the report. The report also appears to incorrectly conflate hazard with risk.
Recently UKOOG, the representative body of the onshore oil and gas industry gave an update on the implementation of the 10 RAE recommendations, and found that 6 are in place and the rest will soon be completed. When questioned at the launch, this was dismissed without justification. Medact do not appear to have checked their findings with any of the myriad of available official sources to ensure that what they have presented is relevant science (see links below). The importance of the UK regulatory context seems to have been ignored.
To summarise, in the UK we have only non-hazardous chemicals permitted, pollution pathways identified and mitigated, and strong UK regulation that controls those concerns. The Medact report ignores all of this. Industry bodies have dismissed this report as unacceptable science.
Publicly available data from Public Health England suggests that health outcomes for people living near to existing and previous oil and gas sites are no worse than for the rest of the population. There is no evidence that those most exposed to hazards, namely rig workers, have experienced any negative health outcomes. These matters are regulated by COSHH, the HSE, in conjunction with employee unions. If the safety measures in place can protect the workforce in the immediate environs of drilling and well testing activities, there is no reason to suspect that the neighbouring public would be at any greater risk, as the Medact report suggests.
In addition the claims that there are cancer and birth defect risks are not clearly referenced. In view of over 2 million wells having been fracked, where are the lawsuits in the USA, one of the most litigious counties in the world? Many of the supposed authoritative reports have been criticised for poor methodology, incorrect analysis, and have been peer reviewed by activists.
There are many other serious failings of this report, and it is unacceptable that false data should be presented to the public by doctors, who will always be held to the highest level of accountability.
Shale gas extraction has been looked at by a large variety of competent organisations, and almost all have found it to be a low risk activity, provided it is done in a properly regulated fashion. It also fails to take account of the existing UK experience of onshore oil and gas.
Ken Wilkinson. 6th April 2015.
Comments from industry bodies.
1. UKOOG response http://www.ukoog.org.uk/about-ukoog/press-releases/146-shale-gas-industr...
2. OESG response http://oesg.org.uk/news/medact-fracking-report-criticised-by-sme-trade-b...
3. Shale Gas Europe response www.shalegas-europe.eu/shale-gas-europe-reacts-to-medact-report/
A small selection of reports that have found shale gas to be a low risk activity, if properly regulated.
1. PHE report 2014 http://oesg.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/PHE-shale-gas-report-Revie...
2. RAE report 2012 http://oesg.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Royal-Society-shale-gas-re...
3. Scottish Govt Independent report 2014 http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0045/00456579.pdf
4. EASAC summary
6. Directors of North Atlantic Group of the European Geological Surveys http://www.bgr.bund.de/DE/Gemeinsames/Nachrichten/Downloads/2014-10-01-k...
7. CIWEM http://www.ciwem.org/media/1031832/Fracking_Feb2014.pdf
About me. I am an ex graduate oil rig engineer, working onshore and on land for 12 years. My speciality was wireline services. In 1990 I became a Physics teacher and recently retired. I am completely independent and have no financial interests in what I do. I have campaigned to remove false information about fracking from public view, as I do not like the public being misled. I got Breast Cancer UK to change their fracking information twice, and have forced Resident Action on Fylde Fracking (RAFF) and Frack Free Somerset to withdraw their advertising, after Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) complaints. I currently have a complaint against Frack Free Lancs in progress with the ASA. I am also the main contributor to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydraulic_fracturing_in_the_United_Kingdom
Ken Wilkinson April 2015.
Competing interests: No competing interests
Whilst we welcome research that contributes to a better understanding of the economic, environmental and public health impacts of shale gas and other forms of energy extraction, we are concerned that the recent Medact report overlooks much of the existing UK experience of onshore oil and gas, and instead places too much emphasis on regulations, standards and practices from other parts of the world that do not apply here in the UK. We feel that the report is fundamentally flawed as a consequence.
The UK has a proud tradition of safely exploring for and then exploiting oil and gas onshore that dates back over 70 years, including in Lancashire - the current focus of UK shale gas exploration. For instance, D’Arcy Exploration Company drilled a well at Scarisbrick in 1938 - a well that has long since been plugged and abandoned.
These activities of drilling boreholes, constructing wells and testing for the presence and flow of oil and gas have been carried out without incident at thousands of locations across the UK since, including 19 just in 2014, but the debate about shale gas has suddenly thrust them into the spotlight.
It has been suggested by this report from Medact that exploratory drilling and well testing poses a danger to public health, but SMEs in the supply chain – who perform most of the work and are where much of the true subject matter expertise exists – strongly disagree.
A report by Public Health England, published in 2014, also concluded that ‘the currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health from exposure to the emissions associated with shale gas extraction will be low if the operations are properly run and regulated. In order to ensure this, regulation needs to be strongly and robustly applied.’
Workers are the most exposed risk group, but there is no evidence of adverse health impacts
The men and women that are directly involved in the processes of drilling boreholes, constructing and completing wells, and then performing the associated well testing operations, are at the greatest risk of exposure to potentially harmful substances because of their immediate proximity.
But the OESG has found no evidence of adverse health impacts amongst this worker population, and believes that is because of the stringent regulatory controls that are designed to protect them, including the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health or COSHH regulations.
If those safety measures can protect the workforce in the immediate environs of drilling and well testing activities, there is no reason to suspect that the neighbouring public would be at any greater risk, as the Medact report suggests.
No evidence of ill-health near existing conventional oil and gas wells
The processes of drilling and completing wells that target oil and gas in conventional reservoirs are no different to those used to access shale gas.
The same techniques are employed, using the same equipment and additives. The same extractive wastes are encountered, and fluids are pumped in to clean debris from the well bore and to stimulate the flow of hydrocarbons.
Given these similarities, it would seem logical to expect evidence of ill-health in populations leaving near conventional oil and gas sites if, as is suggested, these activities are a source of harm. But according to online data supplied by Public Health England, and reviewed by the OESG, there is no such evidence.
We took a sample of existing oil and gas sites across England and reviewed the PHE data for these locations. The sites we selected included some that were drilled decades ago, when regulations were less robust and the techniques employed were not as advanced, as well as more recent wells.
Public health in and around these locations was not significantly different to the rest of England on any of the health measures reported by PHE.
Whilst much is made of the higher fluid volumes and pumping pressures used to hydraulically fracture shale rock, the Medact report is unable to show how this translates into a greater public health risk.
Evidence, not emotion needed
Shale gas is quite clearly an emotive topic, but it’s important not to allow emotion to cloud decision-making and dictate the future of a promising new industry that could bring jobs and investment, create more opportunity for young people, and substitute for expensive foreign imports of gas.
The future of Britain’s onshore oil and gas industry must be decided based on the evidence and not emotion.
In some parts of the country, drilling for onshore oil and gas hasn’t been seen for decades and so to the people living there, it seems new and unknown. It’s natural to be apprehensive about things we don’t understand.
But it’s not new, and reports like this from Medact serve only to amplify fears unnecessarily.
Meanwhile, 40-50% of the UK's electricity demand continues to be supplied by coal-fired generation that is already causing real harm in a process that emits acid gases to the atmosphere; vents gaseous mercury - a recognised neurotoxin - and naturally occurring radioactive material to air, as well as fine particulates known to be implicated in thousands of premature deaths every year; gives rise to large quantities of CO2, linked to climate change; generates hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste every year, laden with heavy metals; is responsible for hundreds of HGV movements every day; and supports an industry in its supply chain that has a terrible human rights record and in which thousands of workers die every year in unsafe conditions.
If UK medical professionals are so moved to call for a ban on energy generation linked to adverse public health outcomes, they should consider shifting their focus to dirty coal and allow the safe and responsible development of cleaner-burning natural gas from shale to proceed, alongside renewables and new nuclear.
Competing interests: The Onshore Energy Services Group (OESG) exists to advance the interests of British SMEs in the supply chain that supports onshore oil and gas. Members of the OESG have a financial interest in the future success of shale gas extraction.
The scaremongering needs to be balanced against the economic benefits and the gas is a cleaner fuel than coal. There is also the concern about how reliable gas supplies to Europe from Russia might be with increased recent political tensions. It is also a geological fact that the rolling Downs may contain gas as well as making attractive countryside.
Competing interests: No competing interests