The Environment Agency’s top staff on fracking told MPs yesterday they were confident that current regulations were good enough to deal with any risks to people and the environment.
Tony Grayling told the Environmental Audit Committee the EA took the potential risks from fracking extremely seriously and it had assessed them against the current regulations.
“Our conclusion is that the current regulatory regime is satisfactory in enabling this industry potentially to develop in a way that protects people and the environment – at least at the exploratory stage”.
Dr Grayling, Director of Technical and Cross-Cutting, was giving evidence to the committee’s inquiry into fracking risks. It had received some written submissions which argued that current regulations were inadequate and there were gaps in regulatory protection. More details
But Mr Grayling told the committee: “We have the powers that we need”.
He added that the EA had enough staff to deal with the exploratory phase of a shale gas industry and there was enough money for additional monitoring of fracking sites.
When asked whether staff had adequate or sufficient skills he said: “We do have that skill set in place. We are, of course, increasing our skill set as we go along”.
Mr Grayling said the regulations might need to change, if or when a shale gas industry developed, to deal with cumulative impacts and other industrial processes, such as gas processing.
The committee’s chair, Joan Walley, questioned whether the EA should be considering this now.
Dr Grayling said many of the processes at exploration and production would be the same. “We are just reserving our judgement on whether we need to adjust our regulatory approach”.
The Conservative, Peter Aldous, said: “It does strike me that you are learning as you go along. And if this is an industry in America that has been around for 30 years one might have thought you might have picked up some best practice from them along the way”.
Dr Grayling said the EA had been regulating the UK’s onshore oil and gas industry for decades but it had looked and learned from the US experience.
The Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, said proper monitoring of oil and gas sites would be very labour-intensive and she was concerned about the number of staff that would be needed to regulate the industry.
Dr Grayling said there were currently about 40 staff working full and part time on fracking, as well as technical specialists. He couldn’t give the committee an estimate of the staff that might be needed in future, beyond saying “More than we currently have”.
He said the organisation would expect to recruit to deal with any expansion.
“If the industry scales up we will receive more permitting income and we will be able to employ more staff to undertake the necessary regulation. And we will have in place measures to ensure those staff are properly trained to enable them to do their job”.
The committee asked for a more precise estimate of future staff needs.
Dr Grayling also defended the requirement that operators carry out monitoring at their sites, rather than use independent monitors.
“It is very important that the operator takes responsibility for the things that they do and undertake the necessary monitoring”, he said. But he added: “There is an argument for independent monitoring and we are going to see that developing”.
The committee raised concerns about what would happen to drilling sites at the end of a well’s life. Mark Ellis-Jones, Environment and Business Manager at the Environment Agency, said operators would not be allowed to surrender their permits unless the EA was satisfied that the site has been turned to a satisfactory condition and there would be no long-term risks.
“As long as the permit stays in place there is a requirement for post-closure monitoring remains with the operator.”
Another Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, questioned the EA’s confidence that fracking could be safe when New York State had agreed to a moratorium following a report on risks by its Department of Health. The EA’s view “clashes so violently with opinions of experts in areas where fracking has taken place”, he said.
Dr Grayling said he had not seen the report but added: “We have a very different regulatory regime within the UK. It is significantly more robust”.
Dr Lucas raised concerns that well integrity checks had not been carried out at Cuadrilla’s Preese Hall site. This is the only well in the UK where high volume hydraulic fracturing has been carried out.
Dr Grayling said there had been no harm caused at Preese Hall but he accepted: “It is very important that well integrity tests are carried out”.
Dr Lucas said: “It undermines public confidence that important checks were not carried out”.
Dr Grayling replied: “If they were not carried out, yes of course it undermines public confidence”.