Leading academic says there are gaps in UK fracking regs

Richard DaviesThe 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.”

Research calls

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.

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15 replies »

  1. “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.”

    There you have it. This has been blown out of all proportion and turned into anti shale gas propaganda. There are over 20 million sheep and lambs in the UK.

    Is a nationwide sheep cull imminent in order to prevent climate change? Should we start monitoring sheep’s flatulence for methane emissions……..?

  2. Some very odd comments here from Prof Davies.
    ‘The carbon footprint of shale gas compared with imported liquefied natural gas’; Er… this was looked at by the sadly departed Prof Sir David Mackay, and Tim Stone.

    ‘Long-term health impacts of fracking including the pathways for toxins’. Er… toxins presumably from flowback, as toxins are not permitted in frack fluid, under Enviro Permitting regs 2010, schedule 22. Public Health England are a statutory consultee and they have already stated they do not think this is an issue.

    ‘What combination of factors might lead to what he called a “black swan event” when something went spectacularly wrong’. Er… drilling has controls, nothing to do with fracking, simply to be sake. Blow out preventers, Hydrils, etc, are the basis of drilling for that last 100 years. The HSE and DECC have run a safe industry in the N Sea for decades (Post Piper Alpha) and that is a much more risky place to work.

  3. Delighted Professor Davies spoke the truth and accurately. Whilst animals may emit methane – we are talking wells. And there will be thousands of wells if this industry is established, so that could mean significant methane emissions. But there are other gaps in the regulations and I’m sorry to say as a legal person he is absolutely correct. Indeed the HSE has just prosecuted a case in the North Sea – where a gas blast caused catastrophic damage to pipework that hadn’t been inspected for 30 years “causing significant damage”

    And although industry people don’t like to hear it – Jo Hawkins work looking into the gaps in regulations is excellent.

    Well said Professor Davies.

  4. Perhaps you could enlighten us all as to what particular process would lead to emissions KT? Thats what an engineer would do. Clearly if you are concerned about methane, then you should complain about farming.

    And overall the industry is low risk, and the above incidents are noted as can be seen in

    Here is a strong case for banning cars and closing the roads.

  5. I think we are used to odd comments from Richard Davies. He, you will remember, is the one who likened to fracking seismic events to someone jumping off a ladder. This of course is woefully inadequate an assessment, as is his sheep quote. He seems to prefer telling MPs simple stories. Maybe he thinks they are too stupid to understand real facts. Maybe he is right. Or maybe he is playing the audience, just to get credits as in this article “leading academic”. It will come to no surprise to some that his pet Refine is funded by the oil and gas industry.

    An example of Refine’s turning a blind eye to reality was their report on nuclear fallout of fracking, where in order to pronounce it safe they used a total number of wells over a couple of decades of a mere five hundred. If they had opened the other one they would have realised that many tens of thousands of wells would be needed to even approach any benefits such as UKOOG claim. The only response I got was when I challenged Refine was that the report had been peer reviewed. A pathetic response, and one denying dialogue.

    It is very disappointing for me to see Prof Davies prostituting himself these days, earlier on in the fracking saga I had regarded him as one of the more honest academics and one with some integrity.

    • Alan, is he wrong on the quantitative sheep comparison then? Were the methane emissions much higher than he is alluding to in the 30% of the wells which were found to be “leaking” by Refine?

  6. I think Professor Davies was drawing attention to the gaps that still exist in monitoring by emphasizing that even conventional wells were not properly monitored. The level of emissions from the latter might not be spectacular, but these wells were not fracked. The PSE report on ‘The impact of methane leakage on achieving Clean Power Plan emissions goals’ (Jan. 2016), suggests fugitive emissions of between 2 and 4% (barring accidents?), I think of gas produced from fracked wells. If we cannot monitor our existing conventional wells, is it likely we will do better with fracked wells?

    • There is no technical reason why production related “fugutive emissions” should be greater from fracked shale gas wells than conventional gas and high GOR oil wells such as 90% of the North Sea Oil. There are only anti shale gas emotive reasons which are invalid quantitatively when making comparisons with conventional wells (and sheep). These emissions come from downstream of the well, wellheads, valves, pipe flanges, compressors etc…. All wells have these, compression is part of the grid. Offshore gas nearly all uses compression to overcome pipeline friction losses and to attain the contracted delivery pressure due to the long distances involved (at Bacton it used to be 1,000psi delivered when 30% of our gas came ashore there). Conventional gas wells have higher wellhead pressures and higher flowrates generally, certainly in the early part of a production cycle. Then compression is added. Associated gas from conventional oil wells goes through a separation and drying process which no doubt results in additional fugitive emissions. The “sheep” wells are an irrelevance to climate change and shale gas exploitation.

  7. Interesting, Paul. Thanks for the lesson, as much of it as I could understand anyway! There may be no technical reason why fugitive emissions from shale fracking should be higher, but according to Howarth and others*, it seems they are, perhaps 30-50% more. Anyway, as I was saying, Davies seems to be saying that we are not efficiently monitoring our wells, so everything in the regulatory garden is not quite as rosy as might be thought. But perhaps I’ve got it wrong.
    *Climatic Change June 2011 106:679, and defended in February 2012

  8. David,

    Thanks for the link. The article says the emissions are the same during the production cycle for shale gas and conventional gas. The difference is in the completion stage, higher for shale gas wells than conventional wells post frac when back flowing the frac fluid. This is no doubt correct although my experience when bringing on conventional gas wells was that a lot of gas was vented to the atmosphere during clean up and later in the cycle, when well testing. We used to cold vent up to 120mmscfd over the side in the Indie field offshore Great Yarmouth when testing individual wells. Same in Leman but smaller volumes as the wells were not so productive. But this was before climate change (1980’s).

    The article was written in 2011 and the problem has been accepted and is being looked at. I believe Green Completions address the flowback methane release issue – I don’t have direct experience of these but one link is:

    I checked today about monitoring wells post abandonment – you are correct (as is Prof. Davies), there is no requirement. But has a realistic case been presented to warrant this? The ReFine report findings certainly do not warrant post abandonment monitoring.

    There are much bigger sources of methane emissions including agriculture, hydrates, marsh gas and natural methane seepage throughout the planet where there are sedimentary basins with source rocks and no seals.

    • It is also worth considering that abandoned conventional wells remain connected to a conventional reservoir whereas a shale well is connected to a depleted fracture network confined within a non permeable rock. I know Howarth has made all sorts of claims, but much of his work has been highly criticised so I take it with a large pinch of salt. You need only look at metastudies that include Howarth to see what an outlier he keeps on being (in terms of his data) and then look at the peer review he has received to get a taste of how his interpretations of his data are regarded by others in these fields. Either way, shale gas wells should emit less that conventional wells since they are not connected to a reservoir (depleted fracture networks are, well, depleted).

      It is doubly hard to tell from the US because of poor well design and awful (by our standards) surface fluid handling (i.e. just using waste storage ponds and no green completions results in completely different air sample qualities and often groundwater differences). However, I feel confident enough saying that groundwater is not really affected due to the many high quality very large scale datasets released during 2015. I think we see the antis realising this in their efforts to focus on outliers (even demanding that the EPA make a special definition of the outliers as being part of the definition of ‘widespread’).
      Secondly what the UK anti fracking lobby has for years been calling fracking – and then calling well integrity, has actually been poor well construction. That is the easiest thing to remedy – and to understand in terms of how it caused problems. It also sits comfortably with what geologists have been saying for the past 5 years which is that it is a fantasy to think that fracking is going to cause groundwater contamination in formations thousands of feet above. Those cases in the US (Pavillion, Dimmock, Parker County etc) turned out to be well construction issues, not even well integrity issues. Wells with uncemented sections for thousands of feet with hydrocarbon baring zones within the uncemented sections, wells that were fracked just 250ft from the aquifer (no geologist I have ever seen has said that 250ft is a safe distance). So it is rediculous situations like that that have allowed the anti fracking brigade to seem educated, whereas when you dig down you find examples out of context, claims about well integrity that are really well construction, claims about fracking that were shown to be well construction etc. You can see this really clearly by looking at the anti fracking websites. Frack Free Ryedale have a good one with a section on frackings risks to groundwater. Over 100,000 wells, over a million frack jobs, years and years of claims about fracking contaminating groundwater and what does their website say?… Nothing. No examples. No specific references. No claims about specific locations. Nothing except a claim that anything that has affected groundwater anywhere under any circumstances whether they apply to the UK or not should be called fracking. Of course that means that if the well construction didn’t take into account the geology in location X in the USA they want to call that fracking and say that the same risk exists in the UK even if the geology is different (when have you ever seen them discuss the geology other than to name the basic rock types?..) and the well plan is completely different. Worse, but not surprisingly, any mistake they make in this understanding keeps on being repeated and is ALWAYS made in a way to favour their own argument, i.e. it becomes quickly apparent that the mistakes that they are making are always in the direction of creating more fear – they are not random errors as we would see in multiple choice questions being attempted by someone just randomly ticking boxes. These errors are always in favour of their preferred interpretation and so are not likely errors at all.

  9. It’s interesting to see how the pro-fracking wolves have turned on Prof Davies after these comments isn’t it though? Here is what anonymous braveheart “Backing Fracking” has to say ” Or, put another way: academic that wants to stay on the funded ‪#‎fracking‬ research gravy train says more research needed…”

    Nasty old world when you offend the Fracking PR shills isn’t it?

    • John, just debunking a lot of the rubbish being put out by anti frackers. My position has always been that the well integrity and subsurface issues can be properly managed and regulated in the UK. Do you know how many staff the EA have dedicated to shale gas wells (only one drilled and fracked to date)? At huge cost to us.

      My concerns are with traffic and noise, and to a lesser extent surface fluid handling (which creates the extra traffic). There appear to be a few people on this board who have worked in the industry like myself and have a good understanding and experience of drilling and completing, producing, abandoning,and in my case at least, “fracking” wells.

      I spoke to a colleague yesterday who was at the HOP meeting on Wednesday and he advised that the Minister, the EA and HSE, and the member of the House of Lords all spoke very well. The MP chairing the meeting was excellent and was able to control the meeting and the two hysterical anti frackers who were incoherent and rambling. The Greenpeace professor contributed very little to the discussion apparently.

      The IPCC, University of East Anglia etc. are better examples of chasing gravy train money.

      One thing that the antis (and the Government) should be pushing for is post abandonment funds set up by operators via ring fenced funds to cover any future problems after companies have gone bust or walked away. Someone has mentioned this on this board before – I would be focusing on this.

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