UK Fracking: A Safe Regulatory Environment?

UK Fracking: A Safe Regulatory Environment?

Hydraulic fracturing operations are back on in the UK after the country's government declared in early December that it had lifted a temporary ban on the practice. But the controversy surrounding the safety of shale gas fracking has not gone away despite the announcement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the Department of Energy and Climate Change would establish an Office for Unconventional Gas and Oil.

The news was followed in January by an announcement from Cuadrilla Resources that it plans to submit a planning application to Lancashire County Council, in northwest England, to conduct hydraulic fracturing and flow testing at a well site near the village of Banks. In December, Rigzone reported that the British Geological Society believes shale deposits in the Bowland Basin area of Lancashire could amount to 300 trillion cubic feet of gas.

One of the conditions for the UK government's relenting over shale gas fracking was that it would be subject to new controls to mitigate the risks of seismic activity.

Fracking was originally suspended in the UK in May 2011 after two small seismic tremors were detected in Lancashire near what was then the country's only fracking operation.

As a result, companies planning to carry out hydraulic fracking must now:

  • Conduct a prior review before fracking begins to assess seismic risk and the existence of faults
  • Submit a fracking plan to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) showing how seismic risks will be addressed
  • Carry out seismic monitoring before, during and after fracking

The government also insists that a new traffic light system is employed to categorize seismic activity and direct appropriate responses, with a trigger mechanism being used to stop fracking operations in certain conditions.

Cuadrilla, meanwhile, appears to be taking the seismic issue very seriously. Late January, the company announced plans to install the same sensitive monitoring technology around its Anna's Road site that the company had already installed at the Banks site last year.

However, the new focus on monitoring seismic activity connected to fracking is not nearly enough to make the practice safe, according to several groups. As soon as the government decision to allow fracking was made in December, Friends of the Earth Executive Director Andy Atkins issued a statement in which he accused the government of being reckless and that the decision "threatens to contaminate our air and water".

Greenpeace UK added that Freedom of Information requests had revealed that the UK Environment Agency privately expressed fears to the government over threats to drinking water near proposed fracking sites in Sussex, England.

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are two organizations fundamentally opposed to any technology that will see an increased use in fossil fuels – even if it means the increased use of natural gas (which is cleaner in terms of carbon emissions than oil and coal). But there are other voices, friendlier to the oil and gas industry, who believe that the government has got it wrong when it comes to its approach to fracking.

Mike Hill, an engineer who lives in the area where Cuadrilla is carrying out its fracking operations, has been lobbying the UK government for a more rigorous approach to regulating the activity. Having worked in the oil and gas sector himself, and now a director of Gemini Control & Automation, he takes a more sober view of fracking but wants to see operations thoroughly checked to ensure it is done safely.

"I got involved in this about two years ago simply because, when I heard that fracking was coming to the UK, I knew that if it is not regulated properly the risks are fairly high," he told Rigzone in a recent interview.

After getting in touch with the UK's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Environment Agency two years ago, Hill expected these bodies to be "very hot" when it came to regulating fracking.

"I was really expecting that was going to be the case but the responses I got at the time… were absolutely atrocious. It was breathtakingly complacent. Well, breathtakingly complacent from the HSE and, quite frankly, incompetent from the Environment Agency," he said.

"They didn't know what they were talking about. They don't understand oil and gas. They've never had to with [UK] oil companies being offshore and out of their scope and remit."

Protecting the Public

A key criticism Hill has is that these agencies – which are charged with health and safety, as well as environmental protection, in the UK – have been approaching the practice of fracking "with an offshore bent".

While acknowledging that the UK has sufficient regulations to ensure that its offshore oil and gas sector cannot cause another Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Valdez disaster, Hill believes that the problem with applying these same regulations onshore is that they do not take the public into account.

"There is no public offshore," he said.

"Cuadrilla is fracking 250 meters [820 feet] from the largest housing estate in Lytham St. Annes, with 2,000 homes on it. There is a public – a big one. And you can't ignore that fact."

"I live in the fracking zone. My kids live in the fracking zone. If this [activity] is properly regulated, I've no issue with it. I am not anti-fracking at all. But if you don't regulate this industry properly, introduce some specific onshore shale gas exploration regs and do proper inspections, then I do have a problem with it."

Hill, who has met with various government advisers involved with fracking (as well as Cuadrilla itself) several times during the past two years, has made it clear to them that he feels the offshore regulations developed in the 1990s, (following the North Sea’s Piper Alpha disaster in 1988) are not sufficient to address the issues with onshore drilling, exploration and production.

He wants to see regulations that cover the quality of cement used in onshore drilling, including onsite sampling and laboratory testing, along with several other regulations that will cover good safety practices such as: surface methane detection, post tremor actions, publication of which fracking chemicals are used at each well and the storage and disposal of flow-back water.

Hill also insists that well site inspections should be required and that they be random so that the Environment Agency or Health and Safety Executive can go and check which chemicals are being put down shale fracking wells "because, believe it or not, they don't check".

"You've got to have independent regulation. You can't just rely on self-regulation because, when push comes to shove, this is a very expensive business and if [a company] gets an issue that's going to cost it, say, three million pounds to resolve, or they can do it for 30,000 but in a slightly naughty manner, which option is it going to take when it knows categorically that no-one is inspecting and it absolutely won't be caught out? These are private companies that are there to make a profit."

The HSE confirmed to Rigzone that it made an inspection visit to Cuadrilla's Preese Hall and Grange Hill sites in March 2011 and that, as part of its well notification process, it has held six "inspection meetings" with Cuadrilla at both the firm's offices and at the HSE's own offices. The body also insists that it has well inspectors who "maintain regular contact" with Cuadrilla so that they are kept up to date with shale gas operations.

The HSE also made the point that well site visits, whether planned or unannounced, "can be of very limited value on their own in assessing well integrity and the management of well risks". Instead, it said that given the complexity of oil and gas wells "the key to well integrity inspection is to ensure that the operator is managing risks effectively throughout the life cycle of the well".

Hill is sticking to his guns, however, and believes a set of onshore drilling regulations are required to prevent a major incident.

"I think unless that happens we are going to have some sort of disaster at some point in time – our own version of Gaslands. There will be a public outcry and shale gas will then be banned in the UK. So we won't get that shale gas out of the ground and the UK won't benefit from the energy security it would provide."


Generated by readers, the comments included herein do not reflect the views and opinions of Rigzone. All comments are subject to editorial review. Off-topic, inappropriate or insulting comments will be removed.

Striebs  |  March 15, 2013
Other than scale there doesnt seem to be a lot of difference between the propose shale development and existing onshore development . If the regulations are inadequate for shale then they must also be inadequate for existing onshore E&P including around 100 onshore wells in the UK which have been fracced and thousands of oil , gas and coal bores which have not been fracced . The last thing any investor or responsible operator like Cuadrilla and Igas want is for an unscrupulous or incompetent company to cause environmental damage and screw the industry up for everyone . On one hand you have political parties which confuse red tape with regulation and on the other hand you have another political party which thinks regulation is red tape . Consequently we end up with too much red tape and poor regulation . Mike Turner , were those senior staff from DECC , HSE and the EA engineers ,scientists , practical doers , capable of wiring a plug or fitting a spare wheel ? The whole country is turning into a disaster due to politicisation of everything . No sooner is the Deparment of Energy politicised by the imposition of climate change activists than we are told there is a real danger of the lights going out .
Robin Gonard  |  February 17, 2013
As a safety engineer, I find it disconcerting that the regulator is unwilling to set an appropriate standard for the safety and environmental impact of a new activity. There will be no point playing catch-up in 2015 when there have been issues, when a many people will turn around and say "we told you so". Avoiding unnecessary burdens on operators and complete non-regulation are not the same and DECC, HSE and EA have lost track of the game. Cuadrilla plays in Premier League and sadly the regulators are referees for Conference North.
Lyn Summers  |  February 12, 2013
I am an ex-HSE inspector and live alongside the fracking area, although my experience was in the Nuclear Safety Directorate, I understand safety and environmental regulation and regulators. It seems to me that HSE’s problems are with staffing and funding levels and a Government paymaster which is insisting on less regulation. Rather than allowing new regulation, there is a ‘bonfire’ of regulations. As a consequence it has engaged its Offshore Division to do a job it is ill-equipped to do. Its regulations are relevant to offshore operations and there is no public offshore, and it is not allowed to produce new regulations, even if it had staff qualified to do so. HSE works on the basis of regulatory activity being proportional to the risk and the risk to workers off-shore is high, so that is where they will put their effort. Its Offshore Division Inspectors have no experience with onshore public risk and are thus are vulnerable to underestimating it and underestimating the amount of effort they should put into it. Whereas HSE is ill-equipped to do the job, I can’t fathom EA’s reticence to carry out monitoring of flow-back water and proper inspection of its storage and disposal. I recently spoke to an engineer who is involved in a small community based hydroelectric scheme in a local river. The hoops they have to jump through to meet EA requirements are substantial. And yet EA don’t see fit to even sample fracking flow-back which is known to have radioactive contamination and toxic heavy metals, in low-ish concentrations, admittedly, but with huge volumes. So where HSE’s response is intended to be proportionate to risk, EA’s response seems to be strikingly disproportionate. It may be an issue of which of their staff understand the science and still use their judgement rather than a procedure-based approach (I hesitate to use the term ‘tick-box’).
Mike Turner  |  February 12, 2013
I also am a CEng living in the fracking area. I was involved in the early days of N.Sea oil. I recognise the desirable features of shale gas but agree with Mike Hills general thrust. Apart from seismic there are issues unique to hydraulic fracture (fracking) which current regulations do not address. A lot of them can be grouped under the general heading of water management. Another major source of concern is perceived complacency by regulators. My local MP held a meeting attended by very senior staff from DECC, HSE & EA. To say we were underwhelmed by their input is to be polite. The results of extensive work by reputable bodies into full life cycle well integrity with respect to shale are being presented in Aberdeen. To complain about the use of such a location when all the activity is in Lancashire may seem trivial but actually goes a long way to convince us here that we are not being taken seriously, no matter how constructive we are in our comments. Finally there are infrastructure issues. To cite just one, the road systems close to all Cuadrillas sites are totally inadequate except for very low level experimental work. Even those of us who can see the broad picture and are not implacably opposed find it hard to escape the feeling that we are being regarded as a pest to be steamrollered out of the way.
Michael J Mumford  |  February 12, 2013
Michael Hill has done us all an important and valuable service. I have written to the Health and Safety Executive about (on-shore) hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") and they say that, by scrutinising the planned operations, they can be confident of the safety of the activities once the drilling is in operation. I am very doubtful about this, although I understand why the HSE would be reluctant to admit any doubts. The absurd thing is that the industry (or, at least, Cuadrilla) would be willing to meet the costs of an independent regulator, answerable to the DECC, that could verify well integrity and water treatment, as well as pre-drilling design.
John Morris  |  February 12, 2013
Im afraid Green Peace and Friends of the Earth are complete idiots knowing nothing about fracking or anything else connected with the oilfield. These people and organisations define why the western world is heading rapidly towards being the third world. And deservedly so.
Audrius Kazlauskas  |  February 12, 2013
Whilst thinking is a very useful to be a bit more energy independent, I agree that serious regulations have to take place in order to avoid official or unofficial disaster. A strong regulatory ground could be a good example for continental Europe. Especially if these regulations would be backed up by EU regulations to make sure Chevron and ExxonMobil will take explorations, extraction and aftereffects seriously in I.e. Eastern Europe the same as in the UK. There are plenty of resources we can use, and many more to come, however safety has to be the highest priority.