A resident’s group in the West Sussex village of Balcombe is urging people to object to proposed regulations that would allow the standard use of dilute hydrofluoric acid in a drilling operation.
The Frack Free Balcombe Residents’ Association, which opposed Cuadrilla’s exploratory oil well in the village, describes the chemical as “lethal”. It argues that site workers and local communities should not be exposed to it.
Hydrofluoric acid is listed by EcoWatch as among the 10 most toxic chemicals in the oil and gas industry. The United States steel workers union, the USW, has campaigned for its use in oil refining to be banned.
The acid manufacturer, Honeywell, says hydrofluoric acid irritates the nose and throat at three parts per million, while one study described how contact with concentrations of 9.5% caused intense pain, swelling and blistering.
The Environment Agency is proposing to allow oil and gas companies to use hydrofluoric acid at 15% concentration in acid wash or acidization of oil and gas wells. This operation is used to restore the natural porosity of rock – often reduced in the drilling process – to improve the flow of oil or gas.
Acidization involves pumping acid into the well. For wells sunk into sandstone rock, the Environment Agency is proposing to allow a preflush of 15% hydrochloric acid, followed by a main treatment with a mixture of hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acids. It says 5-15m3 of acid are used during the operation.
The EA says the acids will be neutralised by reacting with the rock formation to form mineral salts, water and carbon dioxide, which are then pumped out of the well.
The Frack Free Balcombe Residents’ Association (FFBRA) described hydrofluoric acid as “one of the world’s most caustic and toxic chemicals”. It said inhalation causes permanent lung damage and even small splashes at the right concentration could be fatal.
FFBRA’s chair, Charles Metcalfe, said: ‘Site workers and local communities should not be exposed to such risk. Do we want to see tankers full of this deadly substance travelling up and down our English country lanes? Statistically 1% of wells ‘blow out’. If a well containing hydrofluoric acid were to blow out, what would the consequences be?”
The new regulations will replace site-specific environmental permits, upon which local people could comment, with standard rules for some oil and gas operations. The Environment Agency, which is currently consulting on the change, said this would have a “positive impact” on business, by speeding up the regulatory process. “If operators can meet the requirements of standard rules they do not have to apply for a bespoke permit, thereby saving them time and money”, the EA said.
Helen Savage, a Balcombe resident who campaigned against Cuadrilla’s operation in the village, said: ‘Now it all becomes clear. All the while our government tells us this industry has ‘the strictest regulations’, it is quietly making moves to erode protections and make way for business. The concerns of ecology and local inhabitants (‘receptors’ as we are called in this [consultation] document!) are most definitely a secondary consideration.”
The consultation on standard rules closes on Monday June 15th 2015.
Updated 9/6/15 to correct pre-wash by hydrochloric acid NOT by hydrofluoric acid as originally stated