Making the difference

10th September 2013

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Following the recent high-profile protests over the environmental impacts of shale gas extraction, Paul Suff discusses the role the profession plays in such projects

Unease over “fracking” company Cuadrilla’s plans to drill for fossil fuels in Lancashire and West Sussex raise the question of what role environment professionals should play in the shale gas industry. The same applies to the construction of HS2, the high-speed rail link between London and the north. Both projects are beset by environmental concerns.

There are fears that shale gas operations could pollute local watercourses and impair local air quality, while extracting and burning more fossil fuels will exacerbate further climate change. Constructing phase I of HS2, from London to Birmingham, will impact on 10 sites of special scientific interest (SSSI), more than 50 ancient woodlands as well as numerous local wildlife sites along the 140-mile route. More will be affected by phase II.

The government is keen on exploiting UK shale gas and building HS2, believing both can aid economic recovery. If shale gas can be extracted in viable quantities from the 1,300 trillion cubic feet the British Geological Survey estimates lies in bedrock across the UK, it will mean that the number of fracking sites – like the one at Lower Stumble in Balcombe, which was recently the focus of protests, and several near Blackpool – is likely to multiply significantly across the country.

It will create an industry supporting thousands of jobs. Completion of HS2 is not scheduled until 2033, so major construction works will be located along the route for the best part of 20 years, with phase I expected to support about 40,000 jobs. Environment practitioners – including experts in environmental impact assessment, ecologists, environment engineers, scientists and environment management specialists – will fill some of these roles and provide assurance that local impacts are being properly managed.

Some environmentalists, particularly campaigners, will be uneasy about environment professionals being involved in shale gas or a development project that could potentially damage a number of SSSIs believing they lend a cloak of respectability to potentially damaging operations. But these are exactly the industries and projects where environment professionals should be playing a key role – the ones that have the greatest potential to do harm.

The oil and gas industry is already a major employer of environment professionals, from the North Sea to the Middle East, and they should not shy away from working for companies drilling for fossil fuels in the bedrock under the South Downs or Bowland basin in Lancashire just because of the concerns about fracking. Likewise, major construction projects often employ a number of environment practitioners. Evidence from London 2012 shows they play a vital role in ensuring projects address environmental impacts effectively.

Having experts in place is not a guarantee that there will be no repeat of the Deepwater Horizon disaster or any of the other examples of operational failings wreaking environmental damage, just as an environment management system cannot provide complete assurance that a site is complying with its legal obligations. But their presence will generally raise performance levels.

The key is to involve practitioners at an early stage. Embedding environment and sustainability professionals across projects from the start was one of the main learnings that emerged London 2012.

That way important relationships can be forged, key sustainability performance indicators set and systems established to monitor performance. It can also ensure environment practitioners influence strategy at the beginning and sustainability is not something bolted on at later stage when decisions have already been made.

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