30th March 2015: 'Medact's new report -- ban fracking for five years' » 2015 » Mobbsey's Musings » Paul Mobbs/MEI » FRAW

Dynamite report!
This report is dynamite!

Medact's new report – ban fracking for five years

Paul Mobbs, "Mobbsey's Musings", Monday 30th March 2015

Written for The Ecologist, published 31st March under the title Health professionals call: ban fracking for five years

Medact[1], the UK-based public health group concerned with the social and ecological determinants of health, have published their long-awaited report[2] on the impacts of fracking upon public health.

First announced last year[3], following Public Health England's questionable report[4] into the impacts of shale gas, Medact's review[5] considers a number of existing reviews of the evidence of 'fracking' on public health. Given the likely public health consequences of climate change, it also examines claim that shale gas might aid the transition towards a low carbon energy system.

The conclusion of the report, which is likely to beget further vitriol[6] from the UK's pro-fracking lobby, is that –

"On the basis of our existing knowledge, it would be both prudent and responsible to call for, at the very least, a five year moratorium on all activities related to shale gas development…"

The report reviews a number of existing studies from public health agencies, as well as a wide range of journal papers. For example:

This last study is notable in that, despite it's relatively early date, from the available evidence on environmental effects its screening exercise determined that many aspects of shale gas were 'high risk'. And yet, when Public Health England reviewed[12] AEA Technology's report for the UK Government they concluded that the risks were likely to be low.

This dismissal of risk by Public Health England, in favour of the Government's belief[13] in 'gold-plated regulation', is the starting point for Medact's review – as outlined in their letter to the British Medical Journal[14], signed by the reports authors and 18 other UK public health professionals, regarding the need for precautionary action to prohibit 'fracking'. As the letter states –

"Fracking is an inherently risky activity that produces hazardous levels of air and water pollution that can have adverse impacts on health. The heavy traffic, noise and odour that accompanies fracking, as well as the socially disruptive effects of temporary 'boomtowns' and the spoilage of the natural environment are additional health hazards… The arguments against fracking on public health and ecological grounds are overwhelming. There are clear grounds for adopting the precautionary principle and prohibiting fracking."

In assessing the evidence on the impacts of shale gas extraction, Medact found that there were many more and complex effects upon the environment and public health than the Government's reviews have been willing (or politically constrained) to acknowledge.

While there has been much discussion about earthquakes and water pollution, there has been little consideration given to the trace contaminants of shale gas – and how these affect public health. Nor is there any realistic assessment of the waste management implications of shale gas development – and how the large volumes of toxic solids, liquids and gases generated by the process will be safely dealt with.

Given their significance, Medact's report includes a supplementary paper[15] specifically on the toxic contaminants associated with the process.

The practical problem, and the implicit strength of the Government's call for 'regulation' in response to criticism is that it defers the need to produce reasoned solutions today – allowing the policy to proceed unhindered. This approach, as the report outlines, stores up a whole range of uncertainties over health and environmental impacts which, at present, have no quantifiable answers.

The Medact report poses three key 'known unknowns' in relation to the Government's policy on 'fracking':

The report goes on to state –

"For these reasons, although one can state categorically that fracking poses threats to human health, the precise level of risk cannot be known with certainty. Assessing the level of risk requires careful judgement based on the available evidence and an appropriate attitude towards the precautionary principle, whilst considering contextual factors and the potential benefits of fracking."

In addition to Medact's own report, they commissioned an additional study[16] produced jointly by the UCL Energy Institute, Warwick Business School and UK Energy Research Centre. This sets ten evidence-based conditions which unconventional gas production needs to satisfy in order to demonstrate its viability and sustainability.

As this paper states in relation to its list of conditions, "most if not all of them are not {met} at present". The paper concludes –

"Given the current incomplete state of knowledge about shale gas and its potential role in a low-carbon transition, we suggest that policy makers should take as their basis for energy policy that there will be no shale gas produced domestically and plan their gas security strategy accordingly."

In the conclusions to their report, Medact highlight the inconsistencies between the reviews carried out by various medical and scientific organisations from different countries, and the paucity of evidence underpinning the UK Government's policy conclusions. They also note the growing number of state or national governments who have concluded, on the basis of the presently available evidence, that the unquantifiable risks and potential harms associated with 'fracking' outweigh the putative benefits.

Given the state of our knowledge of 'fracking' today, Medact consider it prudent and responsible to call for a five year moratorium on all activities related to shale gas development. During this time public health agencies should review all new published research, and carry out a debate on the uncertainties which are identified.

In the present media tit-for-tat of claim and counter-claim[17], Medact's report is a positive contribution to the evidence-based debate over 'fracking' in Britain. I am sure that those campaigning against the process will find much in it that will inform and improved their work.

However, in the current political climate, exemplified by the rejection of the Environmental Audit Committee's[18] recent call for a moratorium[19] on future development, I believe Medact's review will be officially ignored.

The positive point is that the industry funded Task Force on Shale Gas[20] has just begun its own review of the health and environmental impacts of unconventional gas extraction. Medact's report, given its scope and source material, sets a high bar for the Task Force on Shale Gas to reach if their report is to be considered an honest and reasoned review[21] of current evidence.

Arguably the Government's policy on 'fracking' is not based upon a reasoned consideration of evidence. It is an ideologically-based policy – based upon a mistaken pursuit of economic growth at all costs[22], and which supports fossil fuels[23] irrespective of their consequences for human health and environmental sustainability. Medact's report adds to the growing indictment of the UK's current energy policy, and its implications for our future well-being.


  1. Medacthttp://www.medact.org/
  2. Health & Fracking: The impacts & opportunity costs, David McCoy and Patrick Saunders, Medact, March 2015 – http://www.medact.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/medact_fracking-report_WEB3.pdf
  3. Fracking report and letter to Lancashire Council, MedAct, 12th December 2014 – http://www.medact.org/news/medact-report-fracking-due-february-letter-lancashire-county-council-health-risks-fracking/
  4. Shale gas and public health – the whitewash exposed, Paul Mobbs, The Ecologist, 6th May 2014 – http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2385900/shale_gas_and_public_health_the_whitewash_exposed.html
  5. Health professionals call for an immediate moratorium on fracking due to serious risks to public health (press release), Medact, 30th March 2015 – http://www.medact.org/news/new-report-health-fracking-the-impacts-opportunity-costs/
  6. Fake Fracking Experts and deliberate distortions: All the anti-frackers have left, Nick Grealy, No Hot Air, 17th December 2014 – http://www.nohotair.co.uk/index.php/shale-gas-2014/215-shale-gas/3213-fake-fracking-experts-and-deliberate-distortions-all-the-anti-frackers-have-left
  7. A Public Health Review of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing for Shale Gas Development, New York State Department of Health, December 2014 – http://www.health.ny.gov/press/reports/docs/high_volume_hydraulic_fracturing.pdf
  8. Report of the Nova Scotia Independent Panel on Hydraulic Fracturing, Wheeler et al., submitted to The Province of Nova Scotia Department of Energy, August 2014 – http://energy.novascotia.ca/sites/default/files/Report%20of%20the%20Nova%20Scotia%20Independent%20Panel%20on%20Hydraulic%20Fracturing.pdf
  9. Potential Public Health Impacts of Natural Gas Development and Production in the Marcellus Shale in Western Maryland, a report prepared for the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, University of Maryland School of Public Health, July 2014 – http://www.marcellushealth.org/uploads/2/4/0/8/24086586/final_report_08.15.2014.pdf
  10. Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Extraction in Canada: the Expert Panel on Harnessing Science and Technology to Understand the Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Extraction, Cherry et al., The Council of Canadian Academies, April 2014 – http://bit.ly/1nNicuf
  11. Support to the Identification of Potential Risks for the Environment and Human Health Arising from Hydrocarbons Operations Involving Hydraulic Fracturing in Europe, M. Broomfield, AEA Technology report for European Commission DG Environment, August 2012 – http://ec.europa.eu/environment/integration/energy/pdf/fracking%20study.pdf
  12. Review of the potential public health impacts of exposures to chemical and radioactive pollutants as a result of shale gas extraction, Kibble et al., Public Health England, 25th June 2014 – https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/332837/PHE-CRCE-009_3-7-14.pdf
  13. Shale gas should be at centre of next government's energy policy – Tim Yeo, Fiona Harvey, Guardian On-line, Thursday 12th March 2015 – http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/12/shale-should-be-the-centrepiece-of-next-governments-energy-policy-tim-yeo
  14. Response to Public Health England's draft report on shale gas extraction (BMJ, volume 348, 17th April 2014), Medact, 27th March 2015 – http://www.bmj.com/content/348/bmj.g2728/rr
  15. Supplementary Paper: Additional information about potential pollutants and toxins, Medact, March 2015 – http://www.medact.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Additional-information-about-potential-pollutants-and-toxins.pdf
  16. Conditions for environmentally-sound UK shale gas development, Christophe McGlade (UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources), Paul Ekins (UCL Energy Institute), Michael Bradshaw (Warwick Business School), and Jim Watson (UK Energy Research Centre), March 2015 – http://www.wbs.ac.uk/wbs2012/assets/PDF/downloads/press/ShaleGasUKERC1502Fin.pdf
  17. Drill or Drophttp://drillordrop.com/
  18. Environmental risks of fracking, Eighth Report of Session 2014-15 (HC856), House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, 26th January 2015 – http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmselect/cmenvaud/856/856.pdf
  19. Environmental Audit Committee calls for halt to fracking, Commons Environmental Audit Committee, 26th January 2015 – http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/environmental-audit-committee/news/environmental-risks-of-fracking-report/
  20. Task Force on Shale Gashttps://www.taskforceonshalegas.uk/
  21. Engineering consent for fracking: Chris Smith and the 'astroturf' consultancy, Paul Mobbs, The Ecologist, 18th March 2015 – http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2797721/engineering_consent_for_fracking_chris_smith_and_the_astroturf_consultancy.html
  22. David Cameron goes 'all out for shale' with tax boost for councils willing to approve projects, Adam Withnall, Independent On-line, Monday 13th January 2014 – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/david-cameron-promises-fracking-tax-boost-for-councils-willing-to-approve-projects-9055280.html
  23. George Osborne oversees biggest fossil fuel boom since North Sea oil discovery, Damian Carrington, Guardian On-line, Saturday 6th December 2014 – http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/dec/06/george-osborne-fossil-fuel-energy-environment