Fracking for shale gas will raise the risk of water shortages and could contaminate drinking supplies, Britain's water companies have claimed.
In a blow for shale gas explorers and government alike, Water UK, which represents all major water suppliers, has published a series of concerns about fracking and warned that failure to address them could “stop the industry in its tracks”.
Ministers hope the controversial process, which involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into the ground to extract gas trapped in rocks, could unlock a major new source of gas for Britain and bring down household energy bills.
Chancellor George Osborne on Friday unveils details of tax breaks for the shale gas industry, pledging the most generous tax regime in the world so that Britain becomes “a leader of the shale gas revolution”.
But Water UK, which is demanding an urgent meeting with shale companies to discuss its fears, warns: “Shale gas fracking could lead to contamination of the water supply with methane gas and harmful chemicals if not carefully planned and carried out.”
It suggests aquifers could be contaminated by fracking, by leaks from wells, or by poor handling of chemicals or waste water on the surface.
It also warns that “the fracking process requires huge amounts of water, which will inevitably put a strain on supplies in areas around extraction sites”.
It adds: “The power of the drilling and fracturing process even risks damaging existing water pipes, which could lead to leaks and shortages to people’s homes and businesses.”
Shale gas explorers insist that fracking is safe but fear their attempts to test Britain’s shale potential will be hamstrung unless they can win public support.
Water UK says it is not “taking sides” over fracking but that water supplies must be protected “at all costs”, with the utilities’ own reputations on the line.
“If it goes ahead, we want to ensure corners are not cut and standards compromised, leaving us all counting the cost for years to come,” Dr Jim Marshall, the group’s policy and business adviser, said.
He called for “greater clarity from the shale gas industry on what its water needs are really going to be and a true assessment of the impacts”.
The water industry has commissioned its own report on the potential impact which shows the volumes needed presented a “real concern”.
This especially applies in the south east which is believed to have significant shale potential but is prone to water shortages.
Water UK also questions how the water will be supplied to fracking sites and suggests logistical challenges in treating waste water, which would be “toxic to bacteria used in the treatment process” and could therefore only be treated at “larger urban waste water treatment facilities”.
Water customers must not end up paying extra, it says.
Shale gas firm Cuadrilla says it has “robust safety measures in place” to prevent water contamination. Incidents have been “extremely rare” in the US and caused by “bad practice”.
It says it is “too early to say” how much water would be needed in developing shale sites.