Anti-drilling campaigners say they are “staggered” to discover that the UK’s first coal bed methane production site operates legally without environmental permits. They say this calls into question government statements that the regulation of the oil and gas industry is “gold standard”.
The site, at Doe Green, between Warrington and Widnes, is operated by IGas. It has been producing coal bed methane since 2009 and now generates electricity from the gas.
The news that Doe Green had no permit emerged in the response from the Environment Agency to a campaigner’s Freedom of Information request. The EA said the site was “not currently regulated by an environmental permit at the present time”.
The EA said environmental permits have been required for onshore sites producing natural gas, including coal bed methane, since October 2013. But sites established before then, like Doe Green, have been able to operate legally without permits.
Cancer researcher, Rebecca Martin, who formed Frack Free Families, said: “Campaigners spotted that IGas were already extracting coal bed methane at their pilot site in Doe Green, Warrington.
“We are hearing numerous reports of water contamination and ill health in residents living around wells In Australia where CBM extraction has been underway for a number of years.”
“So I wanted to know what environmental monitoring was in place at the Warrington site, what chemicals were being used and what was going to happen to ‘produced’ water which would likely be contaminated with B-tex and other toxic substances.”
The EA replied: “As the site is not currently regulated under an environmental permit issued by the Environment Agency we are unable to respond to the questions you have raised.”
Dr Martin said: “I was staggered to discover they had no answers since the site has no permit. The government keeps telling us we have ‘gold standard regulation’ yet the EA, a key regulator, has no information about the only operational unconventional gas site in England, and seemingly no involvement in regulation of the site whatsoever.”
“The only input I could find from the EA was from a planning application back in 2011, where they approved plans for fracking as long as only water and slurry were used. Since then, there does not appear to be any regulation of the Doe Green site by the EA whatsoever.”
In April 2015, anti-fracking campaigners locked themselves to equipment at Doe Green. A court case resulting from the protest began yesterday. Dr Martin said: “They entered with no opposition as the site was totally unmanned. I have to ask: what if some children had done the same? This industry is a real danger to people and our environment, the regulation is poor and no amount of government spin is going to change that.”
The Health and Safety Executive, in a separate FOI response, told Dr Martin: “It is not unusual for a borehole site to be unmanned and operated remotely. Emergency shut-down systems are in place and alarm systems are remotely monitored.”
The EA said it began a programme in 2014 to bring all onshore oil and gas production sites under the environmental permit regulations. During 2015 and 2016, the organisation will require facilities that were previously not regulated to apply for a permit.
A search of the EA register of permits for the site’s postcode, WA5 2TU, shows Doe Green is on the Hazardous Waste Register. But there is no record of any permit for the site.
IGas describes Doe Green as a pilot site. In 2011, it gave evidence to the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee that it had fracked a well at Doe Green. Its then chief executive, Andrew Austin, said:
“We have fraced one well at Doe Green, we fraced that simply with pure—with produced water from the well primarily and pure water from the Utilities. We didn’t add any proppant into that in the first instance just to see what the range of the frac would be. We may now look at re-entering that and fracing that with sand as a proppant, but we do not need to add anything extra into the water at all in our cases because we are dealing at shallower depths in more permeable coals with less pressure environments than for shale.”
The committee’s Albert Owen asked Mr Austin whether the Environment Agency would be monitoring the site.
Mr Austin replied:
“Yes, we have a licence from the Environment Agency for that site. We are engaged with them in terms of what we were able to take out of the ground and what we put into it. As a natural part of producing CBM you do produce water, which is mildly saline, brackish water. We have to have those permits in place and we found the Environment Agency informed and engaged in dealing with them.”
In November 2014, IGas allowed a reporter from the Chester Chronicle to tour Doe Green. The newspaper reported that methane produced by the site powered a specially-adapted diesel engine which drives a generator. This could produce up to one megawatt of electricity, supplying around 1,200 homes. The paper said:
“IGas accepts the pilot project only covers its costs but says it has been useful as a research and development facility for trying out different technique”.