Scotland’s “comprehensive” approach to assessing hazards and public health risks posed by fracking is world-leading and sets a precedent for other countries, according to experts.
The University of Stirling studied the way in which the Scottish Government analysed the potential impact of unconventional oil and gas extraction (UOGE), which includes fracking for shale gas, coalbed methane extraction, and underground coal gasification.
In the first study of its kind, the team compared the approach to 14 assessments carried out around the world, including in the United States, Australia, and Germany. They found that Scotland carried out the most extensive assessment – focussing on key factors including public health, climate change and economic impact.
The report concludes: “In terms of breadth, depth and scale, this approach appears more detailed than any undertaken to date globally.”
Proponents believe UOGE is a major source of global energy that can boost economies and employment; generate greater tax revenues; and deliver investment to communities. They do not believe the industry poses a significant risk to public health.
Professor Andrew Watterson has led the study, which praised the Scottish Government's approach to fracking.
However, opponents argue that UOGE is an immediate and long-term threat to global, national and regional public health and climate. They highlight the potential for air, water and soil pollution; seismic activity; noise and radiation hazards; and risks to wellbeing and mental health.
Dr William Dinan worked with Professor Watterson on the research.
In Scotland, the Scottish Government controls planning and environmental pollution regulation, but workplace health and safety remains under the jurisdiction of Westminster. The UK Government is also responsible for licensing gas exploration and development.
No large-scale UOGE has ever occurred onshore in Scotland and, in 2015, Holyrood ministers imposed a moratorium on all such activity before setting up six enquiries to examine evidence on the industry, as well as a public consultation. The consultation ended in May 2017 and the Scottish Government did not approve UOGE based on the reports.
The new research, by Professor Andrew Watterson in the Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, and Dr William Dinan, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, analysed the Scottish Government approach – including a review of policy documents and technical, industry and regulatory reports – and compared it with 13 other assessments carried out in the USA, Canada, Europe, Australia and England. For each publication, the team examined core contents to identify the level of consideration given to 10 key areas: occupational health; climate change; regulation; industry practice; economic factors; vulnerable populations; social determinants of health; peer review; declaration of interests; and public engagement.
The research concluded that the Scottish Government carried out a “comprehensive review” of public health, climate change, economic impacts, transport, geology and decommissioning. It states that the public health impact assessment is underpinned by “a rigorous and transparent examination of existing scientific literature”.
However, the academics also said it was “surprising” that the Government did not commission an in-depth environmental impact analysis on a par with the public health impact assessment.
The study said: “The Scottish review of evidence on UOGE offers a coherent, evidence-based and inclusive approach with citizens as well as scientists, civil servants and politicians involved."
It added: “The process used by the Scottish government, as well as the organisation and results of the respective investigations, albeit most relevant and sometimes particular to Scotland, provides a useful generic framework for UOGE public health and related assessments across the globe. At a national level, the Scottish case appears to be unique.”
Professor Watterson, Head of the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group, said: “As far as we are aware, this is the first study of its kind to compare and contrast the process used by governments and states to assess possible health effects of fracking.
“Scotland is the only country to produce such a nation-wide assessment. The findings indicate that the Scottish Government approach was one of the most thorough, if not the most thorough, conducted globally.”
The academics believe that Scotland’s approach will inform policymakers, politicians, industry, regulators and civil society around the world in planning and assessing UOGE proposals.
Dr Dinan, a Lecturer in Communications, Media and Culture, is an expert on political communication and the mediation of environmental and public health issues. He said: “We argue that the approach used in Scotland should be largely transferable globally, despite differences in energy needs, energy policies, geology and water resources, demography, planning and regulatory laws. The scope and scale of stakeholder and public engagement during the moratorium also offers lessons for other jurisdictions where fracking is under consideration.
“As research and the existing knowledge base on UOGE impacts continues to develop, informing policy and decision making with the latest evidence is clearly a significant issue.
“We believe that lessons can be drawn from the Scottish case on how to meet these challenges.”
The paper, ‘Public Health and Unconventional Oil and Gas Extraction Including Fracking: Global Lessons from a Scottish Government Review’, is published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.