Potential impacts of shale gas exploitation on groundwater... by Mark Stevenson

Rob Ward is our newly appointed honorary Professor and Science Director for Groundwater. On the 20th January he presented ‘Potential impacts of shale gas exploitation on groundwater’at a seminar hosted by the University of Nottingham and BGS. Here, Mark Stevenson (a PhD student from the University of Nottingham) reports on how it went…

The potential environmental consequences of shale gas exploitation have been well publicised in the media, however it is rare to hear the scientific basis and the potential impacts on groundwater so this seminar was very well attended. Rob’s passion and enthusiasm for groundwater protection and management was clear throughout his talk, so it was excellent to hear a report on the scientific work that is being done more widely and how the BGS and the University of Nottingham are contributing to this.

Rob Ward (left)
Rob began his talk emphasising the importance of pollutant sources, pathways and sinks, and how a detailed understanding of geology is vital when used to inform decision making. He explained that although proportionally at a national scale, small levels of shale gas extraction would not use water on the same scale as we use in our homes, locally water needs should be considered carefully as surface water is not evenly distributed across the UK. At a local scale, significant volumes of water during well drilling and hydraulic fracturing return to the surface. This water contains chemicals and therefore requires monitoring especially since many proposed fracking sites are overlain by vital aquifers, rivers and wetlands that support biodiversity and human health.

Rob went on to talk about the ongoing experience in countries that are early adopters of shale gas such as the USA, but he emphasised that relying on this will not be enough to ensure groundwater protection in the UK as our geology is very complex.  Detailed understanding of the 3D layering of rocks, faults and aquifers have been mapped by the BGS, but this needs to continue and extended.  Rob explained that the BGS are monitoring the ground and surface water around some test sites and these areas are going through the planning process to help scientists know the current ‘baseline’ conditions. So if there are changes in the future due to shale gas extraction we will know about it. We were also told that to ensure safety of groundwater into the future, long term monitoring would be required during, and even after any wells have been abandoned.

More information about the work being undertaken by BGS on shale gas and groundwater can be found on the website here, this is a video of Rob talking from the BGS YouTube channel:

Overall, I personally found the seminar very thought provoking and it really highlighted the importance of taking a geological and approach to this increasingly debated issue.

By Mark Stevenson
PhD student at the University of Nottingham in the School of Geography

Read my previous blogs here