The Flip Side of England's Fracking Study: More Regulation

England's new report on the safety of hydraulic fracturing may say more about the necessity of regulation.
In a report released today, Public Health England concludes that fracking pollution poses little risk to the public health "if the operations are properly run and regulated," but the agency also recommends regulatory oversight far more stringent than anything in place at the federal level in the United States.
Because England has had only one well that employed hydraulic fracturing, and none that employ horizontal drilling, PHE reviewed studies of fracking operations in other countries—mostly in the U.S.
The report blames fracking pollution in the U.S. on two factors: poor operation of wells and poor government regulation:
There is, to date, little peer reviewed research, but experiences from countries with commercial scale operations, particularly the USA, demonstrate that good on-site management and appropriate regulation of all aspects of the operations, from exploratory drilling to gas capture and use and storage of fracking fluid, is essential to minimise the risk to the environment and  public health.
"It is also clear that the well-publicised problems in the USA appear to have been due to operational failures and inadequacies in the regulatory environment. Such problems may not be replicated in the UK since our geology, topography, mode of operation and, most importantly, the regulatory environment will be significantly different."
How different? In the United States, the regulation of hydraulic fracturing is primarily the responsibility of individual states. The National Conference of State Legislatures has a review of the dizzying array of state-by-state regulations here.
At the federal level, fracking has been largely exempt from regulation because of Dick Cheney's Halliburton Loophole, passed as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. At the request of Congress, the EPA is conducting a study of fracking impacts on drinking water, due out next year, and the Department of the Interior has proposed a rule that would apply to fracking on federal and Indian lands.
Interior's rule would require well operators to disclose chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing on public land and Indian land, strengthen regulations related to well-bore integrity, and regulate polluted water that returns to the surface.
But based on the review PHE released today, England would go much further:
Public Health England needs to continue to work with regulators to ensure all aspects of shale gas extraction and related activities are properly risk assessed as part of the planning and permitting process
Baseline environmental monitoring is needed to facilitate the assessment of the impact of shale gas extraction on the environment and public health. There should also be consideration of the development of emission inventories as part of the regulatory regime.
Effective environmental monitoring in the vicinity of shale gas extraction sites is needed throughout the lifetime of development, production and post-production.
It is important to ensure that broader public health and socioeconomic impacts such as increased traffic, impacts on local infrastructure and worker migration are considered.
Chemicals used in fracking fluid should be publically disclosed and risk assessed prior to use. It is useful to note that any potential risk to public health and the environment from fracking chemicals will be dependent on the route of exposure, total amount and concentration, and eventual fate of any such chemicals. It is expected that these aspects will be considered as part of the regulatory environmental permitting process.
The type and composition of the gas extracted is likely to vary depending on the underlying geology and this necessitates each site to be assessed on a case by case basis.
Evidence from the USA suggests that the maintenance of well integrity, including post operations, and appropriate storage and management of fracking fluids and wastes are important factors in controlling risks and appropriate regulatory control is needed.
Characterisation of potentially mobilised natural contaminants is needed including NORM and dissolved minerals.
England is currently home to one exploratory shale-gas well that has employed hydraulic fracturing, a vertical well at Preese Hall in Lancashire. The well operator ceased hydraulic fracturing after minor earth tremors occurred. The government monitored the operation of that well.
Officials compared the local water that was pumped into the Lancashire well to the flowback water that returned, and they found high levels of sodium, chloride, bromide and iron, as well as elevated levels of lead, magnesium, zinc, chromium and arsenic.
They also detected naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM) including potassium-40 (which also occurs naturally in the human body), lead-212, lead-214, bismuth-214, actinium-228 and radium-226, but not at levels deemed to be harmful to workers or the public. Perhaps more importantly:
In addition the existing regulatory structure in place in the UK is robust and is designed to protect the health of workers and the public from work activities involving NORM. Compliance with these regulations should ensure that the impact on public health from the management and disposal of NORM produced by shale gas extraction is not significant."
In the U.S., detection and regulation of NORM in fracking waste varies by state, which means operators who cannot dispose of radioactive waste in one state can sometimes simply transport it across state lines.
The PHE report only examined the impact of direct releases of chemicals and radioactive material from hydraulic fracturing operations. Other considerations, it says, such as groundwater abstraction and water sustainability, noise, traffic, and visual impact have yet to be addressed.

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