Residents oppose new rules allowing “lethal” chemical in oil and gas operation

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.

Link to consultation

Updated 9/6/15 to correct pre-wash by hydrochloric acid NOT by hydrofluoric acid as originally stated

13 replies »

  1. Misunderstandings about this is what started me researching fracking. HFl acid is HIGHLY reactive. That means it will react and the products are harmless. Thats why the EA say it isnt a risk. They are the scientists. Think chlorine (a deadly gas) and sodium (a metal that explodes on contact with water), react em together and you get, er… salt!
    As to worrying about how these things are handled, well thats not an issue for every other truck load of nasty chemicals + petrol that are on roads all of the time.
    The comment by Charles Metcalfe that ‘ Statistically 1% of wells ‘blow out’’ is complete nonsense! I dont know where he got that from!

    • It is natural to expect hydrofluoric acid to be corrosive, but to make things worse, HF is also a strong contact poison. The acid readily penetrates the outer layers of the skin and interferes with nerve function – burns might not be immediately visible and can even remain painless, meaning accidental exposure can remain unnoticed for hours. At the body’s neutral pH, hydrofluoric acid dissociates and produces a flood of fluoride ions, which react with the abundant calcium and magnesium ions, forming insoluble salts. Alkaline metal ions are essential for the body’s proper function; their loss stops muscles working and corrodes bones. Even relatively small HF burns, about the size of the palm of your hand, can cause an array of unpleasant medical effects such as pulmonary oedema (fluid accumulation in the lungs) and life threatening cardiac arrhythmia (decreased or irregular heartbeat). Doctors treat HF poisoning with calcium gluconate injections or calcium chloride infusions to remove the fluoride ions before they devour the body’s own calcium and magnesium.

      • So it needs to be handled correctly, like many chemicals. Its the reactivity that makes it safe. Its used commonly in industry, to etc glass, make many fluorides etc.

  2. “A recent survey of commonly consumed foodstuffs revealed that, out of four hundred and fifty foodstuffs selected at random from grocery store shelves, a staggering percentage contained Hydroxylic Acid in more than just trace amounts! When you consider that this colorless and odorless substance is not only used in the production of Styrofoam, but also as a flame retardant and as a common industrial solvent, you have to wonder: Is there something that ‘Big Food’ is not telling us?”

  3. Our stomach HCl acid is pH 3.2 which is equivalent to concentrated 90% HCl. Mind you however all acid whatever the concentration must be handle with care. 10% HCl does not cause vapour and quite weak. Wear eye protection gear and if you get some on your skin quickly wash it with plenty of water then no problem or damages. 90% HCl can cause fume however.

  4. I have made very little comment on articles like this in the last 2 years, (in fact I dont normally read them) but a fellow Balcombe resident was so worried that they asked me to read this.
    Some relavant facts in context. Most importantly HF is used in solar panel production (Repower Balcombe). A few other facts the worldwide blowout rate is 0.1% (which is bad) but a factor of 10 different to the claim above. HF by itself has problems (precipitation of minerals) so its normally mixed with other acids at about an HF concentration of 3% to 0.5%. HF acidizing of oil wells was patented in 1933. Wont even go into the deatils of how it reacts with rocks or why HF wouldnt be used on Limestone (the oil bearing rock in Balcombe).

    • Sounds like you know something of the industry. The blow out info, if true tho is a bit misleading? The image is that of loads of stuff flying uncontrollably out of a well. The BOPs (blow out preventors) are 3 levels of protection that close the well down, allowing heavier drilling fluid to be circulated and to balance the pressure. If a well gets a ‘kick’ of pressure, and that is sorted, then do you class that as a blow out? Not in my opinion… In any case with the well known situation in the UK, would that be likely? and would it be of any consequence anyway?

      • Ken, A bit more study shows a more detailed database that splits the statistics into “North Sea Standard” and “other areas of the world” since 1980. The database defines a blowout as “an incicent where formation fluid flows out of the well or between formation layers after all the predfined technical well barriers or the activation of the same have failed”
        Other areas of the workd the rate is indeed 0.1%
        North Sea Standard is 0.02% (10 in 51,173 wells)
        The second one would is obvioulsy the more appropriate statistic for the UK

    • Given the example of the numbers of unconventional wells that have sprung up within the last ten years in the Bakken fields in North Dakota and the Barnett shale of Texas it would be intersting to hear from someone with training and expertise in the field explaining the number of wells that would be required in the UK. Regrettably for such a large industry such information is difficult to come by. An estimate of the number and intensity of wells would provide in its turn an estmate of the amount of hydrofluoric acid trundling around and being mixed on fracking sites.

      • Why is hydrofluoric acid the new ‘devil’. There is not going to be fracking in the oil areas in the Weald, (unless there is some oil shale fracking, but thats much deeper). Look at a petrol tanker, and how many children could be burned to death should it crash into a school. How many would want to ban transport of that incredibly dangerous chemical? (Might I suggest the answer to that would be no)

      • The oil bearing unconventional formations in the Weald are not shallow. A point to consider is the number and intensity of unconventional wells. It seems logical that a person with training and expertise in the field of unconventional oil and gas extraction would have information that would lead to a reasonable estimate. Without such information the general public must assume that the numbers of wells will be similar to those in the Bakken field of North Dakota and Barnett shale of Texas which are cited as being analagous to the Weald Basin in stock exchange announcements by the senior partners of the UK operators with licences in the Weald of Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire. As to the devil, that is a theological issue, however at the risk of appearing flippant the devil is in the detail.

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