The head of a research programme on fracking said today there were still gaps in the UK’s shale gas regulations.
Professor Richard Davies, of the ReFine project, told a group of MPs there were lots of rules and regulations. But asked whether the UK had the right regulatory system he said:
“I don’t think we’re totally there, to be absolutely frank.”
Professor Davies told the All Party Parliamentary Group on Shale Gas Regulation and Planning:
“There are still gaps to be filled”.
The APPG, meeting for the first time, also heard from the energy minister, Andrea Leadsom, who said Britain was – and would remain – “the best regulator in the world.” She said:
“We’ve got more than 50 years’ experience of safely regulating on and offshore. We are the world’s experts in this area.”
“There is absolutely no chance that we would support the hydraulic fracking process or the actions of a shale gas industry if we felt there was any risk whatsoever from inadequate regulation, from inadequate safety processes and so on.”
Senior staff from the Environment Agency and Health and Safety Executive said they were confident that the current regime was sufficient to regulate a shale gas industry.
More work needed
But Professor Davies said more work was needed, particularly on monitoring methane emissions. Of the UK’s existing wells, he said:
“I’m not convinced the long-term monitoring of those wells are in place.”
He said ReFine had tested emissions from 100 of the 2,100 wells drilled onshore in the UK over the past 100 years. Of those, 30% were found to be leaking very small amounts of methane, equivalent to the natural flatulence of “a couple of sheep”, he said.
“It is tiny but that monitoring wasn’t being carried out and it took us to go and find it”.
Professor Davies said ReFine had also detected small leaks from the National Grid’s high pressure gas pipelines, probably from connections between pipes.
“That sort of thing isn’t in place yet and we feel, although we are finding out that it is not particularly significant, there is still more work to be done.”
“There are still things we need to listen to. We don’t know enough about the environment and how fracking will impact it. I think we could do more.”
“We need to listen to the environment and check that the regulations that we have are fit for purpose. Until we start listening to the operation we will not fully know the answers to the questions we have set ourselves.”
Specifically, he called for: research on:
- The carbon footprint of shale gas compared with imported liquefied natural gas;
- Long-term health impacts of fracking including the pathways for toxins
- What combination of factors might lead to what he called a “black swan event” when something went spectacularly wrong.
Professor Davies said ReFine was bidding to the Natural Environmental Research Council for funding to establish a Smart Shale project which would provide what he called “the world’s best monitoring system” of shale gas.
He said it would monitor methane emissions, traffic, seismicity, air and water quality and provide the information to regulators, governments and environmental organisations.
Best in the world – how do we know?
Dr Doug Parr, the chief scientist for Greenpeace, also questioned the status of UK regulations. He said:
“We have been told we have the best regulatory environment in the world. I don’t know whether that is true or not. I am not saying it is not true but I don’t know what criteria it is being judged against and how it is being established that we have the best regulatory environment.”
He called for unannounced inspections at shale gas sites and mandatory environmental impact assessments for proposed sites under 1ha.
Dr Parr said the definition of fracking in the Infrastructure Act, based on the volume of fracking fluid, was not appropriate for the UK. He also said a ban on fracking in drinking water source protection zone 1 should be extended to a wider area.
Kathryn McWhirter, a public observer at the meeting, said the Health and Safety Executive had not made site inspections to Cuadrilla’s Balcombe well in West Sussex during drilling in 2013 and she said it had taken the Environment Agency three days to visit when requested by villagers.
Mark Ellis-Jones, the Environment Agency, said staff were “quite visible” during the Balcombe protests but they had been advised by the police not to go on to the site. Jim Neilson, of the Health and Safety Executive, said the organisation’s well engineers checked weekly reports from companies on their operations.