The loud noises produced by the fracking industry could cause sleep deprivation, stress and heart disease in surrounding communities, according to a study by US public health experts.
Energy companies want to frack for underground shale gas across a large part of central Scotland. But their plans have been stymied by a moratorium imposed by the Scottish Government for the last two years.
This week Scottish ministers are expected to launch a long-awaited public consultation into fracking, with a decision due on its future before the end of the year. Campaigners are calling for a permanent ban, but the industry is pushing for a go-ahead.
The study, conducted by universities and research institutes across the US, found that the noise levels from US fracking operations were high enough to cause annoyance and disturb sleep. The noise could also increase blood pressure, hypertension and heart disease, it said.
Researchers pointed out that noise pollution was a well-documented public health hazard, also linked to depression, diabetes and learning difficulties in children. “Policies and mitigation techniques that limit human exposure to noise from oil and gas operations should be considered to reduce health risks,” they concluded.
Seth Shonkoff, executive director of the PSE Healthy Energy research institute in Oakland, California, suggested that there could be interactions between noise and air pollution. “Oil and gas operations produce a complex symphony of noise types, including intermittent and continuous sounds and varying intensities,” he said.
Drilling horizontal fracking wells makes a continual loud noise for four or five weeks while gas compressor stations produce a low rumble, he pointed out. Using large volumes of water at high pressure results in pump and fluid sounds.
Professor Andrew Watterson, an environmental health expert from the University of Stirling, warned that noise risks were often neglected or downplayed. “The noise from large scale fracking, with multiple wells in highly populated areas as proposed in Scotland’s central belt, presents significant and serious threats to the physical and mental health of communities,” he said.
“The effects of noise across the whole fracking lifecycle – from transport in construction and well operation, machinery in production and decommissioning – must be taken far more seriously than has hitherto been the case in the UK when considering whether or not fracking should go ahead.”
Mary Church, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland, argued that many people in the central belt would be impacted by noise at home and work if fracking went ahead. “From climate change and water contamination to noise pollution and lower house prices, fracking comes with risks that far outweigh any possible economic gains,” she said.
She welcomed the forthcoming public consultation. “Given the damning evidence from the Scottish Government’s own research and massive public opposition, there can only be one logical outcome from this consultation: Scotland must ban fracking for good.”
Church pointed out that fracking was also subject to a moratorium or a ban in Wales, Northern Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, France, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, as well as in regions of Spain, Belgium, Canada, Australia and the US.
Labour’s environment spokeswoman, Claudia Beamish MSP, is currently consulting on a draft member’s bill in the Scottish Parliament to ban fracking. “This study is the latest example of the very real health concerns around fracking,” she said.
“The climate science and evidence is clear – the last thing we need is another fossil fuel. We need to fulfil Scotland’s renewables potential and we can’t do that if we allow fracking in our communities.”
One of the main companies keen to frack central Scotland is the Swiss-based petrochemical giant, INEOS, which operates plants at Grangemouth. It argued that fracking was safe and would bring major financial and societal benefits.
“Noise is a feature of any construction activity and the impacts and mitigation measures are assessed within the planning system,” said the company’s communications manager, Richard Longden.
“We hope the Scottish public will see past the narrow views of a vocal minority and that politicians will think about the economic prospects for Scotland as a whole in coming to a considered rather than tribal decision.”
UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG), which represents the fracking industry, pointed out that operators were subject to noise limits and prepared plans to manage noise. “We hope that the launch of this consultation can lead to a reasoned debate across a wider audience about the future of the onshore oil and gas industry in Scotland,” said a UKOOG spokesman.
Studies done for the Scottish Government clearly demonstrated the case for lifting the moratorium on unconventional oil and gas development in Scotland, he argued. “As an industry based on over 50 years of experience both onshore and offshore, we are confident that hydraulic fracturing can be done safely and environmentally sensitively within the regulatory environment in Scotland.”
The Scottish Government stressed that fracking could not currently take place because of its moratorium. It had taken “a cautious and evidence-led approach” and published a comprehensive set of independent research reports.
A government spokesman confirmed that it would “imminently” invite contributions to a public consultation on fracking. “Once the consultation results have been analysed, Scottish ministers will then make their recommendation and put that to a vote in the Scottish Parliament later this year,” he said.
“Following that vote, the Scottish Government will finalise its decision, before the end of 2017, on whether fracking should be allowed.”
A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 29 January 2017.