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Fracking legislation - the missing link

Bob Warren

Technical Support Enginer, GPS PE Pipe Systems

New regulations and guidelines surrounding fracking continue to be passed, but not enough attention is being paid to the pipework used in the process, writes Bob Warren

Despite the latest setback to the development of the UK fracking industry, following Lancashire Council’s rejection of Cuadrilla’s application at the end of June, the Government again outlined its commitment to developing the shale gas industry within the Summer Budget. Clearly not wavering in its support for developing the sector, the Government announced it would ‘ensure the UK attracts the necessary investment to guarantee secure energy supplies, including through the development of shale gas’.

A major concern regarding fracking, often stated by those opposed to it, is the pollution risk to the environment and public. In a bid to alleviate this fear, 12 new restrictions were passed in January to help protect the environment and public against potential pollution. DECC then announced further guidelines to protect groundwater sources from the impact of fracking in July, which stated that the activities can only take place at depths of below 1,200m in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Broads and World Heritage Sites.

However, while guidelines and restrictions have talked about locations, drilling depths and chemicals used, it seems regulating pipework systems used in the process is not a consideration, even though it could help protect against environmental pollution.

Flowback fluid produced during the fracking process can contain a mixture of hazardous chemicals, which are added to the frack fluid to reduce friction during the extraction of gas, and dissolved minerals, including naturally occurring radioactive minerals, salts or metals. Regulation requires the operator to dispose of the fluid safely and obtain an environmental permit from the Environment Agency for its disposal.

An agreed waste management plan must be in place to deal with the flowback fluid, either by on-site treatment with re-use of water and disposal of remaining liquids and solids to a suitable licensed water treatment and disposal facility or removal off-site to a suitable licensed waste treatment and disposal facility. In addition, all the treatment and disposal facilities that operators use must also hold the appropriate permits from the environmental regulator, who will be notified in advance of any movement of the waste.

However, while there is strict regulation regarding the method of disposal, the wastewater still needs transporting to a treatment facility, and there are currently no guidelines on the type of pipework that should be utilised, running the risk of the wastewater leaking through the pipe wall and into the environment.

Leaks from pipeline systems could occur for a variety of reasons, including poorly constructed joints in the pipe system or an unsuitable pipe material being selected, leading to chemical corrosion of the pipe wall. By utilising secondary contained or barrier pipe systems, any leaks would be contained within the inner pipe, preventing any wastewater escaping and protecting the environment from any potential harmful pollution.
Simply regulating the pipework that transfers the effluent would significantly reduce the threat of any harmful substances leaking into the ground and potentially contaminating groundwater. This seems like common sense, so why is this simple legislation not being adopted?

If fracking is to become a reality in the UK, which is clearly the aim of the Government, safeguards need to be put in place with wide support from the whole supply chain working together, to develop solutions which will restore confidence in the public, protect the environment and ensure its longevity as a viable option for generating new energy sources.

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