By / June 28, 2012

Environmental and health impacts of shale gas extraction

Nobody can ignore the environmental impact of shale gas production, even if the opinions regarding the importance of these impacts diverge….

Nobody can ignore the environmental impact of shale gas production, even if the opinions regarding the importance of these impacts diverge.
Water is one of the main issues. Hydraulic fracturing of shale gas formations needs massive amounts of water in order to extract the gas from the rock. This could create heavy demand on the water supply. How to handle (disposing of/re-using) the waste water that comes from fracking is another pressing problem. Hydro-fracking pollutes groundwater with methane and with the chemicals used in fracturing fluids. This could result in contaminating also the drinking water.
In terms of air pollution, shale gas extraction is an important source of fugitive methane emissions.
Such emissions into both the atmosphere and the water have also negative health effects.
Finally, hydro-fracking causes mini-earthquakes.

The study, requested by the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety discusses the possible impacts of hydraulic fracturing on the environment and on human health, on the basis of data taken from the US.

In the EU the countries where shale gas is presumed to exist are Germany, Poland, Sweden, France, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and the UK (see the map). In terms of legislation, only Bulgaria and France have adopted legally binding texts on shale gas. But these are now being reconsidered both countries having set up commissions in order to re-examine the issue. In the UK the fracturing operations were suspended at Preese Hall as a result of two earthquakes, suspected to be linked to hydraulic fracture treatment. A recent expert report has confirmed this hypothesis and made recommendations to mitigate the risks of similar events in the future. However, it suggested that the operations could start again. In January the European Commission published a study which analyses how the relevant European legal framework is applied to the shale gas projects. This concludes that there are no significant gaps, at least for regulating the current level of shale gas activities.

General studies

Golden rules for a golden age of gas, International Energy Agency (IEA), May 2012
This report underlines the importance of addressing properly the social and environmental impacts, notably careful choice of drilling sites, transparency and assessment. According to the report’s chief author, “if this new industry is to prosper, it needs to earn and maintain its social license to operate” .

Shale gas: an updated assessment of environmental and climate change impacts, report by researchers at the Tyndall Centre, University of Manchester, November 2011, 133 p.
The analysis within this new report explores the environmental risks and climate change implications arising from shale gas extraction. See also the first report concluding that “shale gas extraction brings a significant risk of ground and surface water contamination” and  that “without a meaningful cap on emissions of global GHG, the exploitation of shale gas is likely to increase net carbon emissions”.

Les gaz non conventionnels : une révolution énergétique nord-américaine non sans conséquences pour l’Europe, Centre d’analyse stratégique, mars 2011, 12 p.
Cette note d’analyse fait le point sur les interrogations concernant l’impact de l’exploitation du gaz de schiste sur le réchauffement climatique, sur l’environnement en terme de bruit, émissions, emprise au sol, risque de pollution des nappes phréatiques et utilisation d’eau, et sur les activités économiques qui lui sont associées.

Addressing the environmental risks from shale gas development, Mark Zoback, Saya Kitasei, Bradford Copithorne, Worldwatch Institute, 2010, 19 p.
This briefing paper provides an overview of how horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing are used to extract shale gas, examines the environmental risks, associated with shale gas development, and provides an overview of the industry best practices.

Thematic issues

Impacts on water (pollution, consumption, waste water disposal)

Plan to study the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources, United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), November 2011, 190 p.
This study aims to assess the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources in the frame of the hydraulic fracturing water use lifecycle which consists of water acquisition, chemical mixing, well injection, flowback and produced water and wastewater treatment and waste disposal.

Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing, Stephen G. Osborn [et al.], PNAS, 2011, 5 p.
This study suggests that shale gas extraction leads to methane contamination of underground water sources and calls for thorough surveys of methane levels at extraction sites.

Rapid expansion of natural gas development poses a threat to surface waters, S. Entrekin, M. Evans-White, B. Johnson, E. Hagenbuch, in: Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment , vol. 9, n° 9, 2011, 8 p.; Comment from DG Environment
This study reviews the ecological impacts of fracking on nearby surface water increasing the risk to aquatic ecosystems in three main ways: water withdrawal, contamination and excess sediment.

Air pollution

Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations, Robert W. Howarth, Renee Santoro, Anthony Ingraffea, in: Climatic change, March 2011, 12 p.
This article suggests that the true emissions related to shale gas could be greater than those from coal, if factors such as methane leakage during the extraction process are taken into account. 

Health impacts

Impacts of gas drilling on human and animal health, Michelle Bamberger, Robert E. Oswald, in: New solutions, Vol. 22, n° 1, 2012, 27 p.
This study illustrates several possible links between gas drilling and negative health effects providing several case studies and concludes with recommendations for minimizing or preventing similar problems in the future.

Human health risk assessment of air emissions from development of unconventional natural gas resources, Lisa M. McKenzie [et al.], Colorado School of Public Health, March 2012
This article aims to illustrate how a risk assessment was used to support elements of the health impact assessment process and to inform risk prevention recommendations by estimating chronic and subchronic non-cancer hazard indices (HIs) and lifetime excess cancer risks due to unconventional natural gas development air emissions.

L’exploration et l’exploitation des huiles et gaz de schiste ou hydrocarbures de roche-mère par fracturation hydraulique, André Picot, mai 2011, 45 p.
Ce papier dresse un bilan toxicologie – chimie de l’exploration et l’exploitation du gaz de schiste, basé sur données de l’Agence de Protection Environnementale américaine, pour conclure que la majorité des composés chimiques repérés dans les fluides de fracturation hydraulique sont pour l’essentiel des xénobiotiques, dont plusieurs sont très toxiques.

The rush to drill for natural gas: a public health cautionary tale, Madelon L. Finkel, Adam Law, in: American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 101, No. 5, May 2011, 2 p.
According to this article, “there is evidence that many of the chemicals used in fracking can damage the lungs, liver, kidneys, blood, and brain”. Authors raise the issue of how to balance the need for energy with the protection of the public’s health.

État des connaissances sur la relation entre les activités liées au gaz de schiste et la santé publique: rapport préliminaire, Institut national de santé publique du Québec, novembre 2010, 73 p.
Ce rapport traite de thématiques différentes telles les risques technologiques et les urgences en santé publique, les risques liés à la pollution de l’air et à la contamination de l’eau, et les risques d’effets sur la qualité de vie.

Country reports


Les hydrocarbures de roche-mère en France: rapport initial et rapport complémentaire, février 2012

L’exploitation des gaz de schistes, entre promesses économiques et conséquences environnementales, Gabriel Marty, Ambassade de France à Washington, Mission pour la Science et la Technologie, juillet 2011

Rapport d’information sur les gaz et huile de schiste, François-Michel Gonnot, Philippe Martin (Députés), Assemblée nationale, juin 2011


Shale Gas, Energy and Climate Change Committee, House of Commons, May 2011; Volume I and Volume II; see also Government Response, July 2011


USA: Shale Gas Production: report, Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, August 2011

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