Posted: Monday 3rd February 2014

As the Prime Minister announces the latest Government push to encourage shale gas extraction in the UK, an independent study by the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) finds thatcompared to other fossil fuels the overall water use intensity of shale gas is low, and believes claims by some opponents that the industry represents a threat to the security of public water supplies are alarmist.

In an extensive study published today, CIWEM assesses the likely viability, scale and timing of shale gas exploitation in the UK. It also considers if an industry of any significant scale were to develop, what the implications of hydraulic fracturing of shale would be for water resources, water treatment and the water environment, and the nature of any regulatory requirements needed to reduce the industry’s impact on the environment.

The study found that at the exploratory phase water demand is not likely to be significant compared to other users and it is likely that operators will continue to source water on a site by site basis depending on where the closest source is and how easy it is to transfer.

As the industry develops into the production phase, regional demand scenarios show the amount of water a single company might be asked for is small in comparison to other demands. Of the water companies in areas of the country with potentially significant shale gas reserves, there appears for the time being little concern about their ability to supply a shale gas industry with current regulations adequate to protect customer water supplies. If the water was sourced directly from the environment then this would have to be judged to be acceptable by the Environment Agency which is also charged with ensuring groundwater quality meets the standards of the European Water Framework Directive.

Estimates show that to meet ten per cent of the UK gas demand from shale gas over 20 years would require 1.2 - 1.6 million m3 water per year. Although this may sound a large amount, when compared to the volume of water that is licensed to be taken from the environment each year in England and Wales, it equates to less than 1/10th of one per cent of total abstraction.

However, should an industry become established in the 2020s, when there will be greater pressures on the water environment5, there could be local issues with water sourcing, especially in the water stressed South East. Essentially it will be for the water company or the environment agency (depending on where the water is sourced) to determine if there is enough to go round. Where there are water stressed catchments however, operators will need to be aware of the risk that there may be smaller volumes available in the future.

Whilst it may be too simplistic to suggest that the shale gas industry will be allowed to over exploit water resources; this is not to say there are not risks. Early engagement and planning with the Environment Agency or local water company, depending on where the water is sourced, will be important to ascertain the volumes required and also those to be treated.

CIWEM’s Interim Chief Executive, Nigel Hendley says:

“The recent Memorandum of Understanding between the industry groups UKOOG and Water UK6 should assist in planning water resources in the future for the industry. However CIWEM would like to see this taken a step further with water and sewerage companies becoming statutory consultees in the shale gas planning process regardless of whether they are to continue to provide and treat water for the industry. This would give water and sewerage companies the ability to ensure that they are able to deliver their duties and safeguard a resilient water supply system for the future.”

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