The Royal Society and
Royal Academy of Engineering - why it’s time for them to start a new
investigation into shale gas and fracking, why they
need to state their position on whether the government has implemented their
2012 recommendations, and why this is needed to correct the assertions on this by
the industry group UKOOG (UK Onshore Operators Group).
Alan Tootill 25 May 2015
recent article in the Environmental Law Review authored by Joanne Hawkins of Bristol University
has pointed out a number of deficiencies in the UK and EU regulatory system
regarding control of shale fracking.
The conclusion of the article is this
for shale gas in England
has sparked significant debate, yet little of this has focused in any detail on
the control afforded by current regulation. There are a number of risks and
uncertainties associated with fracking accompanied by
a number of corresponding gaps and uncertainties in the regulation. Whilst the
present regulatory systems offers a base of controls built upon conventional
oil and gas experience, its suitability is limited. The inability to transpose
one set of regulations from an existing context into a new context is apparent.
At present gaps emerge as a result of a lack of coherence and uncertainty
surrounding the applicability of regulations as well as through the application
of inappropriate thresholds. These are compounded by the lack of regulatory
expertise and experience and the questionable capacity of regulatory
authorities to fulfil their assigned roles. Maintenance of the current approach
and controls will leave areas exposed to potential environmental and health
damage. At present, the framing of shale gas and fracking
activities as low risk is based on the assumption that a robust regulatory
system is in place. This article has shown that this is not the case and that
regulatory change is needed. Such a change requires recognition of the fact
that the current regulation does not fit the technology and processes it is
trying to control. Until this fact is acknowledged and addressed, the
governing fracking will
continue to be inadequate.”
The author therefore recommends a moratorium on fracking.
This conclusion is in marked contrast to the statements of UKOOG which have not
only promoted the merits of UK
regulation but have asserted that the majority of the recommendations of the
RS&RAE have been adopted and implemented by government. It is my strong
contention that this is not the case, and I therefore add my contribution to
the necessary debate, specifically related to the ten recommendations included
in the RS&RAE June 2012 report.
1. The validity of
the 2012 report.
In June 2012 the RS&RAE issued a joint report,
commissioned by the government, entitled “Shale gas extraction in the UK: a review
of hydraulic fracturing”.
This has had wide impact in the three years since its
production, being used by the government and the onshore oil and gas industry
to justify its pro-fracking propaganda. The assertion
made, and indeed the hyped media coverage at the time of the report’s release,
was that the report by UK
top scientific bodies said that fracking can be carried out safely in the UK.
The claim ignores the fact that the report actually
summarised its position as -
“The health, safety
and environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing (often termed
‘fracking’) as a means to extract shale gas can be managed effectively in the UK as long as
operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation.”
The report indeed made a number of recommendations to the government for action
which the RS&RAE clearly considered desirable or necessary with the implied
comment that appropriate regulation was not yet in force. It is clear that
there was no certainty in the report’s conclusions regarding fracking’s safety,
and that its assessment was based on a low level of exploratory activity.
“Shale gas extraction
in the UK
is presently at a very small scale, involving only exploratory activities.
Uncertainties can be addressed through robust monitoring systems and research
activities identified in this report.. There is
greater uncertainty about the scale of production activities should a future
shale gas industry develop nationwide.
Attention must be paid to the way in which risks scale up.”
This makes it clear that there was no unconditional green
light to fracking in this country. The report also admitted that it had not
investigated a number of areas of concern, particularly climate risk. It
identified further research into public acceptability of “all” identified risks
in the context
of the UK’s energy, climate and economic
The government responded to the report through DECC on the 10th December 2012,
immediately before the government announced resumption of fracking after the de
facto moratorium imposed since Cuadrilla’s casing seismic activity through
their Preese Hall fracking, which DECC have always to-date (May 2015) insisted
has been the only shale HVHFfracked well in England.
The DECC response made it clear that the government had no
intention of carrying out all the RS&RAE recommendations. The overall
emphasis was on self-regulation.
Where the response was positive, for example the need for
baseline testing to detect groundwater contamination, the reply failed to
establish what contaminants should be tested for. And, curiously, the work of
the British Geological Survey to establish a national baseline would exclude Lancashire!
DECC ignored calls for well inspections to be carried out by
genuinely independent well examiners. They left it to the industry’s own
interest group UKOOG to define good practice for well construction. They would
also ask the industry group for advice on leaks to the atmosphere, water and
waste management practice. Any monitoring data would be published by the
industry on its web sites. In other words in many cases the government totally
avoided the need for new regulation and control of the industry.
Worst of all, in retrospect, given that
the issue of well integrity has now become recognised as being of paramount
importance, was the refusal to commit to any monitoring beyond abandonment of
fracked wells. As Professor Davies of (now) Newcastle University
has said - all concrete cracks and all steel corrodes in time. Yet the
existence of a potential time bomb caused by thousands of well leaking sometime
in the future was not even recognised by DECC. This was “a matter for the
I have commented earlier and elsewhere in more detail on the
inadequacy of the government response in 2012, however
what is important now is what has happened since then. A recent claim by UKOOG,
the UK Onshore Oil and Gas operators group, has claimed that six of the
RS&RAE report’s recommendations are now implemented. This requires scrutiny
and indeed, forceful challenge.
The RS&RAE itself has made no comment on whether the
government has indeed implemented any or all its recommendation. Professor
Robert Mair CBE, of Cambridge
University, who chaired
the panel which produced the RA&RAE report, was ambivalent on the issue when
he gave evidence to the Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs, in October
Since the RS&RAE report was produced in 2012 there has
been an explosion in the number of new studies and peer-reviewed reports on
fracking in the US.
In January 2015 the PSE Healthy Energy group of physicians, scientists and
engineers produced figures which showed that of all the papers relating to the
impact of shale gas development, 75% had been produced since January 2013, after the governments decision to allow fracking
to continue in the UK, and six months after the production of the RA&RAE
report. In other words whatever the RS&RAE considered as evidence, this is
now a mere fraction of what is available. As PSE say -
” What this tells us
is that the scientific community is only now beginning to understand the
environmental and public health implications. “
In my opinion this calls for a new investigation by the
RS&RAE. The information they based their 2012 report on is now severely
out-of-date. I am also calling for the organisations to respond to a request
for their assessment of the government’s response to their 2012
Until the RS&RAE respond to these calls, the new
government elected in May should impose an immediate moratorium on onshore
unconventional gas and oil activity.
UKOOG statement on the current implementation of the RS&RAE report
As will be seen from their press release, UKOOG claim that
six out of ten of the RS&RAE report recommendations are “complete”.
This is clearly a distortion of the truth, as will be
evident from an analysis of UKOOG’s detail report. From the following
discussion, the conclusion is that only one, at best, has been implemented.
concerns groundwater contamination and well abandonment. UKOOG point to a BGS
survey with results presented in December 2014, but this national survey is
restricted ONLY to methane and not other potential contaminants. Other baseline
studies are reported by the BGS only for a selected number of regions and
formations and there is no national full report. Recommendation 1A is clearly NOT
complete. Regarding site-specific baseline surveys, UKOOG have published
guidance (January 2015) to operators, but this describes procedures, not
specific contaminants to be included, and fails to address the issue of
However regarding recommendation 1 the single main issue is
that the RS&RAE said
”Arrangements for monitoring abandoned
wells need to be developed. Funding of this
monitoring and any remediation work needs further
The government has consistently refused to tackle this
issue. It has refused to commit on funding for either monitoring or
”The Environment Agency requires ongoing
monitoring of groundwater for methane and other
potential contaminants after shale gas operations
have ceased and the well site has been abandoned as a condition of the
environmental permits required under law for those operations.”
This is simply not the case. Any monitoring at all in Lancashire was restricted by agreement with the operator
to twelve months. This is totally inadequate, and not conditioned by law, as
” Arrangements and financing for the
monitoring and, if necessary, remediation of abandoned wells is the
responsibility of the industry. UKOOG and DECC are in discussions about a
scheme to ensure that abandoned wells remain safe and which satisfies
environmental permits, and is incorporated within site restoration and
remediation agreements under the planning process. Regulators already have the
power to impose financial bonds as a part of environmental permits.”
UKOOG confirm here that the government has refused to
implement any scheme for regulation of post-abandonment monitoring, nor provided
financial safeguards. They also say that discussions are continuing, putting the lie to their claim that Recommendation 1 is
“complete”. Regarding “bonds” the regulators have not imposed any financial
bonds on shale gas permits issued in Lancashire
recently, and will not do so, as the following email received from the
Environment Agency shows regarding Cuadrilla’s environmental permits at Preston New Road
and Roseacre Wood. 29 October, 2014 makes clear-
legal position is that the Environment Agency can only require a financial
guarantee where it has power to do so. The application of Article 14 of the
Mining Waste Directive (MWD) is limited to the management of waste that
involves a waste facility. Article 14 of the MWD requires the provision of a financial
guarantee, in respect of a waste facility, to ensure funds are available to
meet the obligations of the permit and to rehabilitate the site when operations
requirements of Article 14 are subject to Article 2 (3) of the MWD. The final sub-paragraph
of that provision provides that Member States may reduce or waive the
requirements of Article 14 for non-hazardous non-inert waste unless it is
deposited in a category A facility. Paragraph 9 (3) of
schedule 20 of the Environmental Permitting (England
Regulations 2010 provides that the Agency must waive the requirements of
Article 14 for non-hazardous non-inert waste unless it is deposited in a
category A facility. Our current position is that the proposed activity does
not involve a category A waste facility. This
means we can only require a financial guarantee to be provided in respect of
the area designated for the accumulation or deposit of hazardous waste stored
at the surface before any permit is issued to satisfy this requirement.
respect of the appropriate amount to be provided by way of any financial
guarantee, we are considering the likely obligations of any Permit in respect
of the management of the hazardous waste on the surface. Matters considered
include: transportation and disposal of drill cuttings and drill waste;
inspection and replacement of tank; sampling costs; waste handling and cleaning
equipment hire; and security of the site.
a permit is issued the operator would have to provide a financial guarantee by
means of an agreed mechanism which will remain in place until management of the
hazardous waste on the surface is no longer necessary.”
It is therefore entirely unclear how UKOOG can justify their
claims regarding long-term financial bonds. Indeed on 9th December 2013
environment minister Dan Rogerson rejected any proposal to amend regulations to
make fracking companies sign a bond to pay for potential pollution incidents.
Recommendation 2 To ensure well integrity
Again, for UKOOG to describe this as “complete” is a
travesty of the truth. The central recommendation was to ensure that well
examiners are genuinely independent of the operator. UKOOG on their own
admission recognise the government has done nothing on this issue, and
companies can still use in-house examiners or examiners working for a
subsidiary to “examine” the operator’s wells. Regarding on-site inspection
there is no evidence that DECC has done more than accept desk-checking as being
adequate, relying on what they regard as safeguards implicit in the well-design
criteria. This is effectively confirmed by UKOOG, who say
“It is not the
practice that examination schemes need provide for physical examination of
wells, unless reliance cannot be placed on the veracity of the documentary
In other words, the recommendation in this respect was
”A new condition has been set out in the
Infrastructure Act which requires the Secretary of State to ensure that an
independent inspection of the integrity of the well has been carried out
including a site visit.”
This is a false statement. A labour amendment which would
have made inspections independent was rejected. The provision in the Act
relates to HSE inspections. The Health and Safety Executive will be required to
“visit” the site of fracking wells. It is not specified what onsite inspection
will consist of. They will be required only to provide
”A certificate given by
the Health and Safety Executive that it— (a) has received a well notification
under regulation 6 of the Borehole Sites and Operations Regulations 1995, (b)
has received the information required by regulation 19 of the Offshore
Installations and Wells (Design and Construction, etc.) Regulations 1996, and (c) has visited the site of the relevant
This is not what the RS&RAE intended as a well inspection.
From Lancashire’s experience we know what the
HSE visit has entailed, an inspection of worker safety arrangements only. They
do not have the experience to perform physical inspection of wells.
Regarding well tests, “such as“ cement bond logs, until
recently HSE apparently rejected any need for cement bond logs (email
correspondence M Hill) and only after the Preese Hall annular pressure problem
in 2014 conceded these could be useful. Their current position on CBL is
Recommendation 3 - To
mitigate induced seismicity
This is the one and only recommendation which may be in one
respect considered as “complete” in that recommendation 3C on the traffic light
system” has been implemented. This was introduced in response to the 2011
Preese Hall seismic events triggered by fracking.
However, considerable doubt exists as to the adequacy of
seismic data and fault identification required prior to fracking. Although the
location of the fault which triggered the Preese Hall events was identified
there is some dispute over whether its precise orientation has been correctly
identified. It is also worth noting that Professor Styles, who co-authored the
2012 report on induced seismicity which led to the traffic light system, now
appears to be recommending that no fracking takes place near to a “significant”
fault. His recommended minimum distance is 850 metres. He also recommends a
minimum of 600 metres between fracking and an aquifer. Professor Davies of Newcastle suggested
double that was appropriate. These considerations affect not only the
possibility of seismic events, but of opening natural pathways for fluid and
contaminant migration from the target formation. And as Professor Stephenson,
Director of Science and Technology at the BGS, said on BBC Radio 4’s Inside
Science programme in September 2013 ”What you have to be able to do when you
decide you want to hydraulic fracture is make sure there are no faults in the
area. That’s really very, very important”.
Recommendation 4 - To
detect potential leakages of gas
As noted earlier, there is no requirement (in the
Infrastructure Act or otherwise) for long-term monitoring of methane or other
emissions. The environmental permits for Preston New Road and Roseacre make no reference
to real-time monitoring needed to detect fugitive emissions, nor
for monitoring if venting is required as an emergency measure.
Recommendation 5 -
Water should be managed in an integrated way
UKOOG recognise this is an ongoing issue and not complete.
Indeed, there is no plan for water use and treatment, particularly if shale gas
exploration extends beyond a handful of wells. Preston New Road and Roseacre Wood would
already use a significant proportion of the capacity nationally to process
fracking waste water.
Recycling of fracking waste water is allowed under the
environmental permits for PNR and RW. This would reduce the requirement for
volume of further fresh water for subsequent fracking stages, but itself raises issues relating to the reinjection of fracking
waste containing toxic contaminants and NORM. These have not been dealt with,
and no specification of just how toxic fracking water can be
or what limits by contaminant can be before the water is deemed not fit for
recycling. In particular this destroys the industry claim that all
chemical ingredients of fracking water will be declared and agreed with
regulators by permit condition, and counters any claim that fracking water will
not contain toxic elements. The presence of such toxic ingredients increases
the risk of contaminants being released outside the target formation.
Recommendation 6 - To
manage environmental risks
For UKOOG to say this recommendation has been completely
carried out by simply referring to a requirement for ERA is frankly absurd.
Environmental Risk Assessments will not be produced after genuine public
participation, and as part of a recurring theme, there is no requirement for
risks to be tackled and fully assessed after well abandonment. There is no
legal requirement for an Environmental Impact Assessment, even after the
passing of the Infrastructure Act.
Recommendation 7 - Best practice for
risk management should be implemented
UKOOG admit this has not been implemented, and that any best
practice will be defined by the industry itself and not by the regulators. The
UKOOG response highlights the difficulties of having three different regulatory
bodies, EA/DECC/HSE, with no coordination or centralised knowledge base, and no
regulation specifically designed for onshore
operations nor for shale gas.
Recommendation 8 -
regulators should determine their requirements to regulate a shale gas industry
should it develop nationwide in the future. Skills gaps and relevant training
should be identified. Additional resources may be necessary.
UKOOG admit this is ongoing. The regulators are being cut in
funding and hence skills base, which makes it unlikely any effort has been made
at the present time other than to attempt to handle the changes the
applications for exploration have required to procedure.
Recommendation 9 -
Co-ordination of the numerous bodies with regulatory responsibilities for shale
gas extraction should be maintained. A single body should take the lead.
Following on from the comment regarding recommendation 7, it
is clear that the government has been advised to consider a single regulatory
body for onshore oil and gas operations, but has resisted this. Presumably this
is because the government wishes to do nothing to prevent an immediate start to
shale exploration. The Woods report recommending a single body for offshore was
accepted by the government, but the suggestion this should be extended to
onshore was ignored. The Task Force on Shale Gas, a supposedly independent
advisory body but funded by the industry, in March 2015 also called for a
single regulator with powers replacing the existing responsibilities of the EA,
DECC and HSE.
The complex regulatory framework satisfies neither the public, nor the industry
itself, and the lack of a single overseer increases the environmental and
Until there is specific regulation and a single regulatory
body for onshore oil and gas operations there should be a halt to any fracking.
How this recommendation can be said by UKOOG to be “complete” beggars belief.
The Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil (OUGO) was
set up in early 2013. The government’s declared intention was not to
co-ordinate the regulatory bodies in their duties regarding regulation of the
industry, but to “create a single point
of contact for investors and to streamline the regulatory process for the shale
This is a far cry from the RS&RAE recommendation that a
single body should involve itself with
• Clarity on roles and responsibilities.
• Mechanisms to
support integrated ways of working.
• More formal
mechanisms to share information.
engagement of local communities.
• Mechanisms to learn
from operational and regulatory best practice internationally.
In practice OUGO is part of DECC and has the overriding duty
of promoting the industry and reducing, rather than strengthening regulation.
In practice it has achieved very little or nothing in over two years.
10 - The Research Councils, especially the Natural Environment Research
Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the
Economic and Social Research Council, should consider including shale gas
extraction in their research programmes, and possibly a cross-Research Council
programme. Priorities should include research into the public acceptability of
the extraction and use of shale gas in the context of UK policies on
climate change, energy and the wider economy.
UKOOG admit this is “ongoing”. In practice although the
government has encouraged a few minor projects in pursuit of its ambition for
fracking, it has not encouraged through funding any major research projects.
Given the situation we are in, with UK bodies from such as the RS&RAE to
Public Health England agreeing there is not enough research data available to
assess the safety of even exploratory shale gas exploration under current
regulation, and certainly not enough to assess the scaled-up and cumulative
impact of any future production phase, this is adding to the belief of many
that the government’s rush for onshore unconventional oil and gas is misguided
Links and references
1. The RS&RAE report June 2012
2. The Government’s response December 2012
3. A Tootill comments on the RS&RAE report and the
government response, and Robert Mair’s evidence to the Lords in 2013.
4. Book, Alan Tootill
Fracking the UK,
5. PSE report January 2015
6. UKOOG statement and report, March 2015
7. Professor Styles et al presentation, Davos 13 March 2015
8. Joanne Hawkins ‘Fracking:
Minding the Gaps’ (2015) 17(1) Environmental Law Review 8-21