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There have been widespread protests against the controversial method of shale gas extraction

'Uphill struggle' to overcome fracking's image problem

Fracking faces an "uphill struggle" to gain public acceptance, says the chair of the industry’s shale gas taskforce.

The comments from Lord (Chris) Smith came as the body published a report on the environmental and health impacts of the industry, which said fracking could be safe in the UK as long as provisions are in place to prevent some of the potential side effects and that these are well regulated.

Those side effects include seismic activity caused by industrial processes, the potential contamination of ground water, methane emissions and the impacts on local people's health.

The taskforce drew on the available evidence from the US and the UK when coming up with its recommendations, but Lord Smith said that the industry and government needed to be more transparent about the dangers.

"I think there's an uphill struggle here because the public are sceptical,” he said. "The thing I've said from the outset to the industry the two absolutely essential things are complete openness and transparency about what you're doing and full engagement with local communities from the outset."

He criticised the Environment Department (Defra), which published a heavily-redacted report on shale gas extraction that later turned out to have had all the potential negative impacts of fracking deleted when the full report was published earlier this month.

"Again the lesson of this is full openness and full transparency from the outset. The moment you redact 90 per cent of the report everyone's going to immediately assume you've got things to hide," he said.

The taskforce’s second interim report has called for baseline monitoring of air, water and ground conditions from the moment a potential site is identified for fracking, rather than waiting for planning permission.

The report also said all gas that comes out of the well should be captured to protect the public’s health as well as prevent greenhouse gas emissions. This would mean no venting of gas to the air, no "fugitive" methane emissions and only a small amount of flaring – or burning the gas – allowed where absolutely necessary.

It also calls for full public disclosure of the chemicals used in the process, to reassure people it is safe, as well as independent monitoring and regulation to make sure wells do not leak, to prevent water contamination.

The report recommends that community representatives are involved in the process. Lord Smith said moves such as letting local community representatives go on site with the regulators to witness samples being taken and going to the laboratory to see them being tested, "are the sort of things that have a chance of re-establishing trust".

The industry has already committed to a number of the measures, such as full disclosure of the fracking fluid chemicals, and Lord Smith said he hoped the other recommendations would also be accepted.

While the taskforce was set up as an independent body it is funded by the industry and Lord Smith acknowledged that "committed opponents" of fracking would criticise the report, though he insisted none of the companies involved had influenced their recommendations.

In fact, Friends Of The Earth energy campaigner Tony Bosworth said the report actually supported his group’s assertion that UK regulations are not fit for purpose.

"The report confirms what we have been saying. Despite reassuring words from a Government and industry desperate to get fracking, UK regulations are not tough enough,” he said.

"But tougher rules can only make fracking safer, not safe. This dangerous technology will always carry risks for the local environment and people's health, as well as adding to climate change – so no amount of regulation or industry-funded task forces will make people embrace fracking."

Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom said: "Shale gas has huge potential in Britain, with the opportunity to develop secure, home grown energy supplies which will create thousands of jobs. This report clearly shows that the UK's robust regulatory system will allow this to happen safely and sustainably."

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