Water Bill

Written evidence from The Environment Agency (WB 25)

1. Environment Agency’s role in shale gas (in response to Question 139 by Thomas Doherty MP)

The Environment Agency is the environmental regulator for all onshore oil and gas operations, including shale gas, in England. We help ensure that these operations are conducted in a way that protects people and the environment. We do this by requiring operators to hold permits from us that place conditions on their operations and by ensuring compliance with our permits.

Exploring for shale gas does pose some risks to the environment. All of these risks can be controlled by good operational practice, reinforced through effective regulation. We will not allow companies to start work unless they can demonstrate how they will provide a high level of protection to people and the environment. And if a significant environmental risk becomes apparent, we have the authority to stop the activity.

All operators must notify the Environment Agency of their intention to drill a borehole and operators must provide details of how they intend to protect water resources, including groundwater, in the construction and use of the borehole. If we are not satisfied, we may serve a notice on the operator to take appropriate measures to conserve water quantity and quality. We will assess the need for a groundwater permit on a site-by-site basis, depending on the local geology and proximity to drinking water supplies. We will not permit activities in locations where the risks from such contamination occurring are high, such as close to drinking water boreholes.

The Environment Agency can take enforcement action to prevent or remedy pollution of groundwater caused by the actions of operators. We have the powers to require full disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. We will not allow substances hazardous to groundwater to be used.

We are satisfied that the current regulations are sufficient to protect the environment during the current phase of the industry’s development.  We are keeping this under review and will re-assess our position should the industry develop to a commercial scale in future years. We have published a comprehensive risk assessment of the environmental risks of shale gas. The risk assessment focuses on the exploration stage, which matches the current stage of development of the UK shale gas industry. We are in the process of developing a similar risk assessment for coal bed methane.

The Environment Agency is one of a number of bodies involved in regulating shale gas:

· The Health and Safety Executive regulates the health and safety risks to people. In particular they are responsible for ensuring the appropriate design and construction of a well casing for any oil and gas boreholes. We have working together agreement with the Health and Safety Executive which sets out how we will work together to ensure a joined up approach and that there is appropriate monitoring and inspection of operations.

· The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) licenses each drilling and development activity. No exploration or production activity can start without this licence.  They are also responsible for undertaking Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for onshore oil and gas exploration and development. DECC consults us as part of this. 

· In addition, operators require permission from the local minerals planning authority. This is usually, but not always, the county or unitary local authority, who will also be responsible for any other planning permissions needed for proposed oil and gas sites.

· Public Health England (PHE) has reviewed the literature on the potential public health impacts of exposures to chemical and radioactive pollutants as a result of shale gas extraction. The currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health in the vicinity of shale gas extraction sites are low if shale gas extraction is properly run and regulated.

· Operators are responsible for ensuring the safety of the well and the site.

2. Shoreline Management (in response to Question 142 by Neil Parish MP)

The current suite of Shoreline Management Plans have allocated a management policy of ‘managed re-alignment’ to approximately 534km of the English coast over the next 20 years, with further re-alignments planned beyond this time.

The area of land that this will cover is difficult to predict, as many of these policy options are still at the early scoping and modelling stages, and these options include managing the erosion extent of cliffs and dunes as well as re-locating flood defences to encourage salt marsh and mudflat. Currently we have mid- to high-confidence that we will be able to create 1147ha of the 1222ha of inter-tidal habitat (mostly salt marsh and mudflat) likely to be lost to coastal squeeze to around 2025. During the current Spending Review period (2011/12-2014/15), we aim to have created 594ha of inter-tidal habitat through re-alignment projects, and this is stated in our current suite of flood and coastal risk management  (FCRM) Outcome Measures.

Managed Re-alignment is one of a portfolio of FCRM techniques employed by the Environment Agency that allows us to manage the financial and environmental impacts of our work whilst providing sustainable protection against flooding to people and property. These projects can store tidal floodwater, dissipate wave energy and take pressure off existing flood defences, as well as compensating for the ongoing loss of internationally important wildlife habitat to coastal squeeze.

December 2013

Prepared 18th December 2013