Water companies are warning that the development of a UK shale gas industry must not be at the expense of the quality of drinking water.
They say that shale gas fracking could lead to contamination of the water supply with methane gas and harmful chemicals if not carefully planned and carried out.
Dr Jim Marshall, policy and business adviser at Water UK, told the UK Shale 2013 conference that water companies want to work closely with the shale gas industry so the potential benefits to growth and employment are fully realised while protecting public health.
Dr Marshall said: “Provision of drinking water is a cornerstone of our public health and as such a service that cannot be compromised.
“There are arguments for and against fracking and the water industry is not taking sides. If it goes ahead, we want to ensure corners are not cut and standards compromised, leaving us all counting the cost for years to come.
“We want greater clarity from the shale gas industry on what its needs related to water are really going to be and a true assessment of the impacts. This can be done through much closer working and understanding between water companies and the shale gas industry to tackle the many challenges we collectively face.”
Marshall said there were four main areas to be considered: water quality, water quantity, wastewater treatment and infrastructure.
The water companies’ main concern is that fracking could cause contamination of drinking water sources by allowing gases such as methane to permeate into the aquifers that overlie shale gas reserves from rocks where it was previously confined. Contamination can also be caused by chemicals used in the process entering aquifers through fractures caused by the process or, potentially, by poor handling of wastewater on the surface.
The fracturing process uses water to pressurise the shale strata and the demand will have a significant impact on local water resources. This demand may be met from the public water supply or from direct abstraction, but may have to come from water tankers brought in by road.
Water companies may be asked to accept and treat discharges of contaminated water recovered from the fracking process. This may not be possible in all areas because some water companies may not have a suitable site near enough to carry out the required treatment.
Finally, even if a supply of water is available, there may not be enough existing pipework to deliver it to the fracking site, and the infrastructure that is in place could also be at risk from seismic activity induced by the fracturing process.
Marshall concluded by proposing a meeting “sooner rather than later” between key people from the water companies and shale gas operators. “We can discuss each other’s perspectives and see where the real barriers are and where the opportunities exist,” he said.