An internal report from Scotland’s environment watchdog warning of a “high risk” of water pollution from drilling for underground gas has been seized on by objectors in the run-up to a major public inquiry opening this week.
The report, written by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) in September 2012, reveals that a flawed and potentially leaky gas borehole was planned at Cumbernauld close to exploratory water wells dug by the maker of Irn Bru, A.G. Barr, and the international sausage skin manufacturer, Devro. There was also “poor borehole construction” at Canonbie, near the English border.
Environmentalists and community groups say that the food industry’s reputation is under threat from the dash to exploit unconventional gas in Scotland. They are preparing to fight plans, at a public inquiry starting on Tuesday, for the UK’s first commercial drilling for coalbed methane in Falkirk and Stirling.
But Sepa pointed out that it has toughened its regulatory oversight and that the Cumbernauld borehole hasn’t yet been drilled. A.G. Barr and Devro both stressed that they are using mains water for their products.
The Sepa report, marked “internal only”, was written by experts for its Water and Land Policy and Regulatory Support Group and released under environment information law. “The construction of deep boreholes presents a high risk to the water environment,” it says.
Vertical and horizontal drilling for gas down to 2,500 metres poses a greater danger of pollution than boreholes for water, which were mostly less than 100 metres deep, it argues. Deep saline waters can contaminate more drinkable upper aquifers “if the borehole is not adequately constructed”.
The report also points out that “fracking fluids” that could be used to help extract methane must “not be allowed to leak into other parts of the groundwater system”. No fracking – the hydraulic fracturing of underground rock formations – is currently proposed in Scotland, though critics fear it will come.
The Sepa report discloses “poor borehole construction” planned at Deerdykes near Cumbernauld. The borehole would have only been lined with cement down to 100 metres and risked contaminating test wells dug in the vicinity by A.G. Barr and Devro, it suggests.
The two companies both said that they were not now planning to use water from the wells. A.G. Barr said it had tested the water at Deerdykes and, though it was suitable for use as spring water, there was not enough to meet its needs.
"Any potential future drilling activity in the Deerdykes area related to coalbed methane or shale gas exploration will therefore have no impact on the quality of our products,” said a Barr spokesman.
A spokeswoman for Devro said: “Devro do not use water extracted from a well and have no plans to do so.”
Sepa pointed out that the Deerdykes borehole had not been drilled as planned, and had now been granted a licence aimed at ensuring it would protect human health. The developer, Reach Coal Seam Gas, said it had changed the design of the borehole to follow industry ‘best practice’ guidelines.
According to the Sepa report, four gas boreholes dug in Canonbie lacked cement lining between 100 and 400 metres underground, potentially allowing contamination of a water aquifer. Sepa said it is requiring its current owner, Dart Energy, to take remedial action to make them safe.
Dart, which acquired the Canonbie boreholes in 2012, is also the developer that is proposing to exploit coalbed methane in Falkirk and Stirling. “Dart has had constructive discussions with Sepa throughout, and has recently finalised arrangements with Sepa to allow Dart to plug, abandon and reinstate [the Canonbie wells],” said a company spokesman.
Mary Church, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland, described the concerns raised by Sepa as serious. She pointed out that a coal gas company in Australia had last month been fined $1,500 for contaminating an aquifer with uranium 20 times higher than safe drinking water guidelines.
"Unconventional gas is a novel industry in Scotland, and we could end up being the UK's guinea pigs,” she said. “It's not just the reputation of the much-loved Irn Bru that could be at risk from this dirty industry, but a world famous food and drink industry.”
Dr Mark Williams, a member Concerned Communities of Falkirk who lives close to one of the planned new drilling sites, argued that Sepa was too poorly resourced to ensure that water was not polluted. “Local food producers, soft drink manufacturers and crop growers for the whisky industry should all be concerned,” he said.
The report released by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency is available to download here (400KB pdf).
On 30 March 2014, the Sunday Herald published a clarification: "On March 16, we reported that Reach Coal Seam Gas had said they had changed the design of a gas borehole planned for Deerdykes near Cumbernauld. In fact the company said only that the design of the borehole was not as outlined in a draft report released by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency under freedom of information legislation. We are happy to clarify the point."