The government has defended plans to introduce standard environmental permits for some oil and gas drilling operations.
But anti-drilling campaigners spent the weekend preparing objections to the plans, which many regard as “one size fits all self-regulation”. One group said regulation of the onshore oil and gas industry had been reduced to “cardboard-standard at best”.
The Environment Agency has been asking for responses to its plan to end site-specific permits for operations, such as acid washing and well testing, which are seen by some groups as preparation for fracking. The deadline for comments is today (Monday 15th June 2015).
Under the present system, each permit is bespoke to an individual drilling site and the application process involves a public consultation. The Environment Agency (EA) wants to replace permits for some operations with standard rules, which would apply to every site and would not have a consultation period.
One campaign group, Frack Free Ryedale, said the standard rules were being proposed to make it easier and cheaper for oil and gas companies to drill and conduct testing without having to be involved in public consultation.
Yesterday a statement from the Department of Energy and Climate Change said the government wanted local communities to play an important role in helping to safely develop the shale industry. The change in permit arrangements did not apply to fracking, it said.
But this did not satisfy reassure campaign groups, which have published guidelines to help people object to the plans.
“One size fits all”
One campaigner, Claire Robertson, said: “To introduce a ‘one size fits all’ permit scheme is irresponsible to say the least, and goes against a long tradition of the EA’s to safeguard the countryside and its inhabitants. Each site in the country has its own unique features – geology, watercourses, landscape, air flows etc. – and must be assessed independently.”
“The proposals play down many of the environmental and health risks and sets out inadequate guidelines for both air and water monitoring”, she said.
Helen Savage, a resident of Balcombe, where Cuadrilla drilled for oil, said the standard permits would allow the use of hydrochloric acid at 15-25% concentrations, which was above that deemed safe by the EA in Balcombe.
Frack Free Ryedale said standard permits should be considered only for techniques that have been used in different parts of the UK for a number of years, where there is enough documented evidence that they are completely safe.
“Lead off testing and acid washing are both very new techniques to the UK and are certainly not considered to be risk-free”, the group said.
The Environment Agency has a policy of increased consultation and engagement on permit applications where there is or likely to be a high level of public interest. Frack Free Ryedale (FFR) said “surely all these applications will fall into this category”.
FFR was also concerned that monitoring a leak off testing and acid washing was “almost entirely the responsibility of the operator – essentially making the industry self-regulating”. It called for weekly visits to each site.
“Simply asking the operator to send in documents at the end of each month that they have written themselves, based on machines they calibrate themselves, will do nothing to convince the general public that this industry is monitored safely – or indeed being monitored at all.”
“Even if the UK used to have ‘gold-standard’ regulations for the oil and gas industry – which is a point many people would strongly disagree with – after the changes in the law over the last twelve months, and industry-led consultations such as these, it is clear that onshore oil and gas regulations in the UK can only be described as ‘cardboard-standard’, at best.”
There was also criticism of definitions used by the EA in the proposed rules. FFR said they were either too vague or inappropriate and do not protect the public.
The group accused the EA of not going into enough detail about environmental and health risks of the operations and sets inadequate guidelines for air, noise, odour and water monitoring.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change, in a statement yesterday, said newspapers had misreported the regulation of a potential shale industry.
We want local communities to play an important role in helping to safely develop the shale industry. The government also remains committed to ensuring communities have their say on fracking applications and this is why there is no change to the process for environmental permits for fracking”, the statement said.
The Independent’s article ‘Fast-track fracking without public consent’and a follow up commentary piece in The Telegraph ‘Double standards will fuel suspicion on fracking’ implies that fracking applications would receive less environmental scrutiny from the public. This is simply untrue. The Government has said from the start that we will consult with local communities about the impact of fracking and we will continue to work closely with the Environment Agency (EA) and other regulators to ensure all operators abide by the strict rules that govern the industry.
The process for operators to apply for a fracking permit has not changed. Any operator wanting to undertake fracking needs to apply for an environmental permit, conduct an environmental impact assessment and apply for planning permission. This is open to full public consultation.
The current consultation by the EA, however, focuses on two techniques used for testing conventional and unconventional oil and gas wells. The consultation looks to define the standard rule permits for operators applying to drill and carry out preliminary testing of oil and gas wells and not on the permits for fracking. The Government supports the work by the EA to ensure the thorough and effective environmental regulation of oil and gas extraction.
As we have said before, we have made a commitment to ensure local people have a say about fracking in their community. The Government continues to support the development of the shale industry in a safe and sustainable way.