Shale Gas

Memorandum submitted by the Environment Agency (SG 23)



The Environment Agency welcomes the opportunity to provide evidence to the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee’s inquiry into shale gas.

We believe that there is a robust regulatory regime in place to ensure any environmental impacts from unconventional gas exploration are minimised. Environmental concerns are addressed by our staff on a site by site basis as we assess the need for, and respond to, applications for environmental permits.


The Environment Agency is responsible for granting environmental permits and has powers to serve notices where required to protect the environment. We are a statutory consultee in the planning process and will provide advice to Local Authorities on individual shale gas extraction sites. We apply a proportionate and risk-based approach to preventing pollution and protecting the environment


A permit under the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2010 (EPR) is required where fluids containing pollutants (substances liable to cause pollution) are injected into rock formations that contain groundwater (a "groundwater activity" under EPR). An environmental permit may also be needed if the activity poses a risk of mobilising natural substances that could then cause pollution. The permit, if granted, will specify limits on the activity and any requirements for monitoring. All Environment Agency environmental permits are placed on the public register.

If we decide that the activity poses an unacceptable risk to the environment, we will not issue a permit and if necessary we may issue a notice under EPR to prohibit it. If we decide that the activity cannot affect groundwater, a permit will not be necessary. The Water Framework Directive and EPR defines groundwater as all water which is below the surface of the ground in the saturation zone and in direct contact with the ground or subsoil. Under statutory guidance it is for the Environment Agency to decide whether groundwater is present and whether a groundwater activity is taking or will take place. Each proposal will be assessed on a site by site basis.

The environmental permit will also place a general management condition on the operator to provide a written management system that identifies and minimises risks of pollution. This will include activities at the surface, such as the storage and disposal of chemicals. 

We may also:

· Issue a permit for activities associated with the surface works, or with the final production of gas/oil, if these involve emissions to surface or groundwater. 

· Serve notices for aspects of the operation that would not normally be subject to EPR, such as the drilling of the borehole. This would require the operator to cease an activity or apply for a permit if we consider it warranted.   

· Advise on any requirement for controls needed where the operation has the potential to impact water resources, for example, due to the effect on groundwater levels and flows.  We expect operators to notify us of their intention to carry out drilling, at which time we will advise on any requirement for control under the Water Resources Act 1991.

· Consider any application for a water abstraction licence should a direct supply of water be needed by the operator. This would only be granted where sustainable water resources are available.


The Environment Agency has assessed the permitting requirements for one exploratory shale gas activity operated by Cuadrilla Resources in North West England. Local Environment Agency staff have assessed the potential impact of Cuadrilla’s operations on the water environment and have decided that, at present, it does not require permitting under the EPR. This is a site specific decision. Our local staff have determined that the activity currently planned does not require a permit because:

· There is no groundwater in or around the deep shale formation. The formation has a very low permeability and therefore is not considered part of the saturation zone so will not contain ‘groundwater’, as defined by the Water Framework Directive and EPR.

· There are no vulnerable near-surface aquifers.

· There are no nearby surface water features such as streams, rivers or lakes.

If Cuadrilla’s operation changes they will need further planning permission and we will review whether it needs a permit under EPR.

Local Environment Agency staff have been consulted on several proposals for coal bed methane exploration, including the joint venture by Nexen and Island Gas near Warrington. At present, we have decided that the exploration boreholes do not require a permit because there is no groundwater activity taking place. We obtain detailed information from the operators to satisfy ourselves that any sensitive aquifers are adequately protected.


Where there is insufficient natural permeability in the shale or coal for the extraction of gas, this can be enhanced by pumping a fluid into the borehole at pressure. Typically, the injected fluid contains sand which is used to prop open the fractures to maintain the enhanced permeability.  The fluid is mainly water but small amounts of other substances may be added.  Overall, the process can involve the injection and return of significant volumes of fluid. 

We require operators to tell us about any activities that potentially involve the discharge of pollutants into the ground and the nature of those pollutants so that we are able to make informed decisions about whether the activity permit. We have powers if necessary under EPR to require such information.

Cuadrilla are intending to use mains drinking water supplied by United Utilities. As part of hydraulic fracturing they may add glutaraldehyde, FR-40 (a polyacrylamide blend) and dilute hydrochloric acid. The fluid will be pumped three kilometres below the ground into a low permeability shale formation. At the current Cuadrilla site our staff consider that there is a very low risk from these chemicals because there is no groundwater in or around the deep shale formation and there is a low risk of the chemicals migrating upwards and having an adverse impact on the environment.

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) aims to protect and improve the water environment. The Environment Agency is the competent authority for implementing the WFD in England & Wales. The Directive allows some direct discharges of pollutants into groundwater with conditions (Article 11(3)j). Cuadrilla's operations will not be affected by this because there will be no discharge of pollutants into groundwater, as noted earlier. Dependent on what is proposed, other shale gas sites and proposals for Coal Bed Methane exploitation may involve the direct discharge of pollutants into groundwater and Article 11(3)j may then apply. A permit under EPR will be required for these activities to meet WFD objectives and to protect the water environment.


The Environment Agency considers that the current regulatory framework is sufficiently robust to minimise any risks to the environment that may arise from shale gas and coal bed methane operations. We are also in dialogue with other regulatory bodies on these matters.

March 2011