Digest Index


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

 

Introduction

 

A 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

”Exploration 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 regulation

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 policies.

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 industry”.

 

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 2013.

 

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 recommendations.

 

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.

 

2.

The UKOOG statement on the current implementation of the RS&RAE report recommendations.

 

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.

 

Recommendation 1 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 underground pathways.

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 consideration.”

 

The government has consistently refused to tackle this issue. It has refused to commit on funding for either monitoring or remediation.
UKOOG say
”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 UKOOG suggest.
” 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-
Our 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 finish.

The 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 and Wales) 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.

 “In 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.

 “If 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 evidence.”

 

In other words, the recommendation in this respect was rejected.


”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 well”


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 unclear.

 

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 - The UK’s 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 social risks.

 

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 gas sector”.

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.

• Joined-up 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.

 Recommendation 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 and foolhardy.

 

Links and references

1. The RS&RAE report June 2012

http://www.raeng.org.uk/publications/reports/shale-gas-extraction-in-the-uk

 

2. The Government’s response December 2012

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/49541/7269-government-response-sg-report-.pdf

 

3. A Tootill comments on the RS&RAE report and the government response, and Robert Mair’s evidence to the Lords in 2013.

http://frackingdigest.co.uk/royals.htm et seq
http://frackingdigest.co.uk/royals5.htm

4. Book, Alan Tootill

Fracking the UK, March 2013
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fracking-UK-Alan-Tootill-ebook/dp/B00BP8WUOA/
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fracking-UK-Alan-Tootill/dp/1482655993/

 

5. PSE report January 2015
http://psehealthyenergy.org/data/Database_Analysis_2015.1_.27_1.pdf
http://psehealthyenergy.org/data/PSE_Summary-02.4_.pdf

6. UKOOG statement and report, March 2015

http://www.ukoog.org.uk/about-ukoog/press-releases/144-the-royal-society-and-royal-academy-of-engineering-recommendations-review-of-progress

http://www.ukoog.org.uk/images/ukoog/pdfs/UKOOG_progress_in_meeting_Royal_Society_recommendations_March_2015.pdf

7. Professor Styles et al presentation, Davos 13 March 2015

http://www.seismo.ethz.ch/research/groups/schatzalp/Download/Styles.pdf

 

8. Joanne Hawkins ‘Fracking: Minding the Gaps’ (2015) 17(1) Environmental Law Review 8-21

http://elj.sagepub.com/content/17/1/8.full.pdf