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Special Digest

Regulation and the report of the The Royal Society and The Royal Academy of Engineering, June 2012, part one


The pro-fracking argument has increasingly used the June 2012 report by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society to promote the myth that fracking is completely safe.

As Cuadrilla told the Lords in written evidence September 2013 -
"Contrary to the views of a vocal minority there is a clear scientific and academic consensus, underlined here in the UK by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering joint report (see joint report July 2012, and by other prominent academic experts that unconventional oil and gas exploration and production can be carried out entirely safely in the UK."

The full report from the Royals can be found together with the written evidence they considered Here

The government's response is Here

In view of the importance and influenceof the Royals report, it is worth refreshing our view on this, and further thoughts on the inadequacy of regulation to protect us that continues to exist. I'll start with the following extracts from chapter 25 of Fracking The UK, regarding regulation. I'll continue with further historical comments before bringing thoughts up-to-date.
The argument that regulation will save us fails for two reasons. One, the evidence so far is that the government has no intention of imposing restrictive regulation which would deter the gas industry, or admitting that a complete overhaul of the regulatory agencies and their funding is necessary. Two, that the best regulation in the world will not prevent human error, accidents, and the long-term inevitable failure of wells.

In England a number of bodies are involved in potential regulation of fracking. These are DECC, HSE, the EA, the Minerals Planning Authorities (read county councils) and also for CBM, particularly, the Coal Authority, a part of DECC.

The government-commissioned report, by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineers, raised doubts about whether these bodies were sufficiently coordinated for the challenges that shale gas exploitation presents. They also raised doubts about adequacy of funding. But most importantly, they stated quite clearly that current regulations are inadequate to regulate shale gas.

The regulations in force essentially date back to coal mining regulation. Later the law was amended to take account of North Sea Gas. What we have is an outdated hotchpotch, ill-equipped to cope with onshore shale gas development. The HSE experience is almost entirely with offshore wells. They have neither the finance nor the staff to adequately police onshore exploration. DECC and the EA are similarly ill-equipped to deal with onshore shale gas problems. They are on a learning curve, and without experience coming from the UK, they are reliant on desk work, and the assistance of oil industry co-workers. If shale gas production really gets going in the UK, the regulators will be learning on the job. This is bad news for the public and for the environment.

However, it is quite clear that the government, whilst talking about regulation, is in a cleft stick. It has already claimed that UK regulation is quite adequate. However even its experts now say it is not fit for purpose. Yet the government will not want to fund extensive research into what is required for two reasons - firstly the expense, and secondly the rush to exploit shale gas led by the chancellor for economic and “energy security” reasons. The urgency is compounded by the fact the government’s policy on renewables is in tatters. Indeed it is not unfair to say its whole energy policy is in disarray, and every part of the energy sector, whether wind, solar, nuclear or shale, is complaining at the indecision the government is displaying regarding its intentions.


The Royal Society is a respected organisation. Even Lord Browne was once a president. The Society, together with the Royal Academy of Engineering, another prestigious body, was asked to look at shale gas, and they produced their report in June 2012. The working party which produced the report included Professor Richard Selley, whom we have met before, and who is billed in the Royals’ report as shale gas consultant to the Crown Estate Commissioners. Other members of the party who had interests in the energy industry through consultancy and directorship included Dr Dougal Goodman, an ex General Manager at BP in charge of safety, Dr John Roberts, a chairman of Halite, the company proposing the scheme for an underground gas storage facility in the Fylde, Professor Zoe Shipton, who had been employed as consultant by amongst others BHP Billiton (one of the companies Francis Egan worked for), and Professor Paul Younger, a director of Five-Quarter Energy Limited, which champions the extraction of coal gas in the UK. The reporting committee held eight evidence sessions, carried out numerous other consultations and received other written submissions. An independent review panel was set up and commented on the report before it was approved by the RAE’s Engineering Policy Committee and the Royal Society’s Council. Members of both bodies were asked to declare potential conflicts of interest, and the report noted that both the RS and the RAE held their investments in portfolios including equity holdings in oil and gas companies. In view of the above, we might have expected the government to have treated the report with all due seriousness, and listened to what recommendations the report made.

Unsurprisingly, when the report appeared it was greeted by the press as approving of shale gas. “Fracking safe with strong regulation, report says” was the BBC report headline. “UK fracking should be expanded, but better regulated, says report” was the Guardian's take. “David Cameron's shale gas lifeline” said Telegraph blogger James Delingpole, a rabid journalist given to issuing gross insults and a climate change denier. “Fracking should go ahead in Britain, report says” was the official Telegraph view. “Engineers say UK fracking should proceed with caution. Shale gas needs strict monitoring but risks of water pollution and earthquakes have been overblown, study says.” announced Business Green.

It is clear even from the headlines of most of the press articles that the report was not an unconditional go-ahead for fracking. Inevitably, a detailed look through the report itself reveals a number of issues of concern that did not necessarily make it into even the report’s own summaries but record the inadequacy of current regulation.

The government’s response via DECC to the Royals Report was published on the 10th December 2012, just before the announcement that shale gas exploration could move ahead. The response commented on the ten main recommendations of the report. Where there were positive proposals, for example the need for baseline testing to detect groundwater contamination, the reply failed to establish what contaminants should be included. And, curiously, the work of BGS with the EA to establish a national baseline would exclude Lancashire!

But generally it is the same old story. Self-regulation. Suggestions that DECC will require companies to put up information on their websites. Regarding abandoned wells DECC say this is a matter for the industry. Hardly adequate for the Fylde, which already has two failed and abandoned wells. DECC ignores calls for well inspectors to be truly independent. They say regarding well design UKOOG (the UK Onshore Operators Group which has recently been revitalised to enhance the profile of the frackers) will establish good practice standards. DECC would also seek UKOOG’s guidance in how to monitor for leaking gas, and what constitutes good practice in water and waste management, and risk management. DECC says Environmental Risk Assessments will be expected to carry these out as good practice. A pliable arrangement with no binding guidelines.

Anybody who hasn’t been persuaded by now that DECC is in the hands, if not the pocket, of the oil and gas industry must surely have serious doubts about the integrity of the government’s position.

Royals recommendation: “Mechanisms should be put in place to allow the reporting of well failures, as well as other accidents and incidents, between operators. The information collected should then be shared to improve risk assessments and promote best practices across the industry.”

Response: “There is already a range of mechanisms for well operators to share lessons from wells incidents, ranging from the global OGP Wells Expert Group to the UK Well Life Cycle Practices Forum and Oil & Gas UK and UKOOG. However, these fora have a much wider remit than just shale gas wells, so DECC will discuss this with the shale gas industry and ascertain the most appropriate routes to share best practice across shale gas operators.”

Indeed these fora have a wider remit than shale gas. They are industry organisations. OGP is the International Oil and Gas Producers Association. The UK Well Life Cycle Practices Forum was set up by OGP and as of mid 2012, the WLCPF had over 45 Oil & Gas UK member companies including operators and well management companies. OGP UK is as they themselves say “the voice of the offshore (sic) industry”. They say: “Our aim is to strengthen the long-term health of the offshore oil and gas industry in the United Kingdom by working closely with companies across the entire sector, governments and other stakeholders to address the important issues.” DECC reject setting up new funding for training within the regulatory bodies.

In response to the Royals’ statement of the need for more research, DECC say:

“The Research Councils are planning a workshop to consider the implications for UK research of the potential exploitation of unconventional hydrocarbon resources, including shale gas.”

A workshop is the best response the government can come up with? With this final comment it is transparent that the serious concerns of the Royals Report have been brushed aside with a disregard verging on contempt. To be fair, DECC did set up new regulations to try and prevent more earthquakes. But, tucked away at the back of the report into seismology for DECC is Appendix B. The comments there start with:

“In addition to the review report there is a general need to identify what should be done for future hydraulic fracture operations and general onshore drilling operations to be executed satisfactorily. Offshore operations have a well developed best practice regime but as there has been less onshore development, there is less in the way of protocols developed by bodies such as Oil and Gas UK.”

There follows a list of 11 points considered necessary for best practice. These are unrelated to seismology, and mainly express concern about possible water pollution. So even DECC’s seismology report panel of experts felt it necessary to go outside their brief to comment on the fact that existing regulations were considered inadequate for onshore development, and there is also the clear implication that the industry’s own guidelines were not adequate. Self-regulation will not work.

In summary, it has to be repeated that despite all the expert advice from two specialist reports that the government itself commissioned, and advice from its own committee of MPs, the only single point that was taken up by the government was a measure intended to calm public disquiet about the earthquake risk from fracking. This is a woefully inadequate response. If shale gas production goes ahead, we are facing a high risk process operating with self-regulation by the operating companies with extremely limited oversight by enfeebled regulators.

Continued in The Royals Report Part Two

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