It was written by the Air Quality Expert Group (AQEG), an expert committee of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), three years ago but was only quietly published on 27th July 2018 – three days after the government gave the green light for Cuadrilla’s fracking project in Lancashire.
The AQEG considers current knowledge on air pollution, providing advice on the levels, sources and characteristics of pollutants in the UK.
As shale gas exploration with hydraulic fracturing had not occurred in the UK at the time of compiling the report in 2015, the researchers based their conclusions on applying work from the US.
The report estimated a medium scenario of 400 wells in the UK would increase national emissions, with a 1-4% rise of nitrogen dioxide (NOx), 1-3% of volatile organic compounds and 0.1-1% of particulate matter.
However, it suggested that does not represent the potential impacts on local and regional air quality as they have the potential to be “substantially higher” than national level impacts, as extractive activities are likely to be highly clustered.
A spokesperson from Defra said: “The government places scientific data and research at the heart of its decision making to inform and shape the most robust policy possible. The AQEG report reviewed data obtained from the US which might not be applicable to UK circumstances and needed thorough consideration. The report was published as soon as our full sign-off procedures had been completed.”
The report recommended studies to be undertaken to evaluate the “representativeness and transferability of information” from the US to the UK, with topics of particular interest being whether the UK geology will give rise to significant different emissions than those observed in the US.
Since the report was written, the Environment Agency launched a study to review the potential for regional air quality impacts.
Connor Schwartz from Friends of the Earth said: “Sitting on a report until after giving fracking the go-ahead hardly inspires trust in the government. If research is carried out, it should be promptly released. The most recent government poling report shows just 18% of the public support fracking.
“Air pollution is already a public health crisis that cuts 40,000 lives short every year and this report is yet more evidence of why we shouldn’t start fracking.”
He added the government has already been dragged through the courts three times for failing to tackle illegal levels of air pollution.
However, UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG) said the 2015 document “acknowledges the data is out of date” and a number of processes have already been put in place by industry and government to monitor and publicly report emissions.
Chief Executive Ken Cronin added: “This monitoring is carefully regulated using environmental permits administered by the Environment Agency. The report also notes – as many reports have done in the past – that the UK has different geology and superior regulation from the countries that data has been collected from to date. There is a need for a UK evidence base under UK regulation within UK geology which we as an industry are committed to delivering.
“We have a choice: import higher lifecycle emission gas from overseas or produce it here at the benefit of our climate, UK jobs, tax revenues and community investment.”