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The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), together with KWR Watercycle Research Institute, have started a four-year research programme focussing on the environmental risks for water systems during shale gas extraction. Part of the programme is led by Prof. Pim de Voogt and dr. John Parsons from the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED) of the University of Amsterdam.

Shale layers in The Netherlands
Shale layers containing natural gas in The Netherlands (map: TNO)

Main focus 

Shale gas extraction is the subject of national and international debate. At this time, no shale gas is being extracted in the Netherlands. The government is currently examining whether shale gas is useful and necessary, and whether it can be extracted responsibly. The new research programme will focus on the environmental risks to the water system associated with the production of shale gas in the Netherlands; the possibilities of removing these risks, and the functioning of the national and international legal frameworks.

Fracking and water

A number of knowledge institutes and water companies are now also beginning joint research, at their own initiative and within the framework of the Water Top Sector programme, to answer the water management questions raised by the extraction of shale gas. Water management is a critical factor in the development of production sites for shale gas extraction. Particularly in the initial phase of the extraction, large volumes of water are needed for the so-called ‘fracking’. The process creates fractures in the shale-containing layer through the high-pressure injection of a mix of water, sand and chemicals. The shale gas can thus be extracted with less resistance. The questions this raises relate to changes in groundwater quality caused by fracking, and the quality and reuse potential of the discharged production water.

About the research programme

The 'Shale Gas and Water' research programme is a collaboration between the following private and public partners: NWO, KWR, Utrecht University, Wageningen University, University of Amsterdam, and the water companies Brabant Water, Oasen and WML. Within NWO, the theme will be led by the Earth and Life Sciences and Chemical Sciences divisions, and the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter (FOM). The programme will focus on the situation in the Netherlands, with its site-specific geology, hydrology and administrative context.

The research programme’s key elements are:  

  • Water use and geo-chemical vulnerability of the groundwater sources, led by Prof. J. Griffioen (Utrecht University, TNO Geological Survey, Deltares) and Prof. S.M. Hassanizadeh (Utrecht University, Deltares). 
  • Quality of the water discharged after fracking and production, and risk assessment, led by Prof. A.P. van Wezel (Utrecht University, KWR) and Prof. P.D. de Voogt (University of Amsterdam, KWR).
  • Treatment of discharged water, led by Prof. H.H.M. Rijnaarts (Wageningen University) and J.A.M.H. Hofman (KWR).
  • Regulation and governance, led by Prof. H.F.M.W. van Rijswick (Utrecht University) and Prof. C.J.M. van Leeuwen (Utrecht University, KWR).

Societal relevance

Through this research programme, the involved parties aim to contribute to the deliberation and decision-making process regarding the possible risks and management options for water and shale gas extraction. The research will also expand our knowledge of the deeper underground in the Netherlands, knowledge which is important in view of the increasing exploitation of the subsurface.