Horizon 2020, the EU programme with funding for shale research of around €12 million, will pay for two projects, led by Edinburgh University and University College London, which aim to provide objective assessments of the environmental impact of fracking.
“For the very first time, we have launched a dedicated action which will support researchers and scientists in their quest to understand, prevent and mitigate the potential environmental impacts and risks of shale gas exploration and exploitation,” said Robert-Jan Smits, director-general for the European Commission’s Research and Innovation directorate.
It was stressed that the funding is not aimed at promoting shale extraction in Europe but rather to provide European governments, which are free to decide whether or not to sanction fracking, with hard evidence to enable them to make informed and responsible choices.
“It is here that science and research is absolutely vital,” Smits told a European Commission conference, ‘Shale gas in a low-carbon Europe: the role of research’ held in Brussels last week.
“We must address concerns with sound scientific evidence – taking the debate away from emotions and fears, and basing it on facts and figures,” Smits added.
The UCL’s three-year project will look at tracking the below-the-ground migration of chemicals and gases used in fracking. Alongside Halliburton, which provides drilling and pumping services to the oil industry, other partners on the project include Manchester and Alicante universities.
The goal of the study led by Edinburgh University is to improve understanding of environmental impacts above ground level , Christopher McDermott, a senior lecturer in hydrogeology and project coordinator, told delegates. Other partners in the three-year project include Uppsala University and Pennsylvania State University.
While many countries are in the process of debating shale legislation – Scottland recently imposed a moratorium on fracking “to allow for a full public consultation and to commission a full public health impact assessment” – scientists complain about a dearth of data on fracking.
Although there are some studies carried out by national programmes such as ReFINE in the UK, the Blue Gas programme in Poland, many studies have been funded by exploration companies themselves and are not considered entirely credible in research and policy circles.
“Not a single fracking well pad has been monitored anywhere in the world in a way that we’d call rigorous. No organisation has gone to a fracking site and [properly] instrumented it,” John Cherry, director of the consortium on groundwater research at the University of Guelph, Canada, told a European Commission conference.
In Alberta, Canada, where Cherry has been involved in researching the effect of fracking on groundwater, that is about to change.
“We’re going to set up an experimental site; a plot of land in a prairie to find out what happens when you inject methane and CO2 into wells in the ground,” said Cherry. It is going to be a very important international site that will attract many scientists. Christopher McDermott, a senior lecturer in hydrogeology at Edinburgh University would like to see a similar site in the UK.
Baseline monitoring of this kind will require serious backing, however. “Governments have to put up the money for this, industry is not going to do it,” said Cherry.
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