Minister avoids questions on acceptable level of fracking emissions


A government energy minister has declined to give details of the acceptable level of fugitive emissions from fracking wells in the UK.

Speaking this afternoon in the House of Lords, Baroness Neville-Rolfe (pictured left) avoided giving direct answers to three different peers. She said it was a matter for experts and it would be decided on a site-by-site basis. Finally, she agreed to write to the House on what advice the government had received.

The issue of fugitive methane emissions from shale gas wells was a key concern of the government’s adviser, the Committee on Climate Change.

It said in a report delivered in March that shale gas development was inconsistent with UK carbon budgets unless three tests were met. The tests included strict limits on leaks during well development, production and decommissioning.

Baroness Royall of BlaisdonThis afternoon, Baroness Royall (Labour), asked the minister:

“Given that methane is 80 times more significant as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide what level of fugitive emission, that is to say leakage, would the government define as an acceptable level?”

Baroness Neville-Rolfe replied:

“The noble lady is right to draw attention to methane and that is of course one of the key focuses of the Environment Agency who have control over the permitting process and environmental emissions.”

Lord FoulkesLord Foulkes (Labour) asked the question again:

“Try again and answer the question asked by my noble friend Baroness Royall what amount of leakage is acceptable?”

Baroness Neville-Rolfe replied:

“I think this is a matter for the experts concerned in the particular circumstances. Our regulatory system is site-specific. You go to the particular site and you work out clearly you want to minimise the emissions of all six of the Kyoto basket of gases and I would think that would be an agreed objective.”

lord-harris-of-harringeyLord Harris of Harringey (Labour) asked:

“Does that imply that the government doesn’t have a view of this matter as to what is an acceptable degree of leakage? Or is it perhaps consulting those experts and, if so, will the noble lady the minister share with us what advice has been received on what would be an acceptable level of leakage.”

The minister replied:

“I can certainly write to the noble lords about what advice we have received if that would be helpful and I return to my point that we have a strong regulatory system right across the board in this area and we should look to this as an opportunity.”

baroness-mcintoshEarlier, in an answer to Baroness McIntosh (left), the minister said the government believed the UK’s regulatory system would meet the CCC’s test on fugitive emissions.

The minister said she had “been struck by the variety of independent agencies” involved in decisions about shale gas. This has been a criticism made by some opponents of fracking.

She also said decisions about fracking should be “taken by the relevant local planning authority”. The Communities and Local Government Secretary is expected to announce his decision next month on whether Cuadrilla should be allowed to frack at two sites in Lancashire, after its applications were refused by Lancashire County Council.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe said: “I believe that shale has the potential to make a strong contribution to the transition from a heavily coal-fired carbon-inducing energy mix to a transition that I think we all share in 2050.”

Who sets the acceptable level?

DrillorDrop asked the Environment Agency whether it set acceptable levels of methane emissions for each site, as suggested by the minister, and nationally.  We also asked if the EA did not set acceptable emissions levels, who did?

A spokesperson for the EA replied:

“The operator will need to describe how they will manage fugitive emissions in an emissions management plan and that requires approval by the Environment Agency,  it is required by the environmental permit.  Permits are obviously on a site by site basis.”

The spokesperson added that the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has taken over from the Department of Energy and Climate Change responsibility “for the national picture”.


109 replies »

  1. Interesting read, especially from Paul Tresto, and Environmentor, who actually know what they are talking about. Sadly so much of the comment here is from people who have seen a few films, seen a bit on the internet and have little understanding. The anti lot have done their work well! I am sure Vladimir Putin will be very happy with that!

  2. Everything I’ve seen written on shale gas fugitive emissions seems to overlook some basics about how wells are drilled and the extent of the monitoring that takes place.

    For instance, it’s a common misconception that drilling a well liberates gas from the target formation and into the well as it’s drilled. The gas isn’t allowed to flow in this way and therefore the opportunities for surface emissions appear to be virtually none existent.

    It’s been explained to me like this by a very experienced O&G engineer (I’m paraphrasing):

    When drilling, drilling mud is pumped into the well bore around the bit. The hydrostatic pressure of the drilling column (drilling mud weight x gravity x height) is maintained above the formation pressure which prevents migration of hydrocarbons from the formation and into the well.

    Throughout, surface measurements of gas are made using a sensitive chromatograph that measures down to parts-per-million or ppm (one million ppm = 1%). Operators gather this data continuously – among other things, it helps to confirm the formation being drilled.

    Because of the pressure exerted by the drilling column, the only gas that can be detected at surface is from the rock in the section being drilled and is measured over time (which might only be a 1m x 8.5 inch drilled over an hour, for example). So it’s only this small amount of gas in a cylinder of rock (assuming there’s even gas present in that section) that could reach the surface. But even then it’s captured – the top of the well bore isn’t just an open hole.

    This is identical whether it’s a ‘conventional’ or ‘unconventional’ well.

    In a shale well, where the target rock is porous but impermeable and it’s necessary to stimulate the flow of gas into the well by fracking, it’s effectively ‘dry’ until stimulated, and so the claims that shale wells leak more than conventional sandstone or limestone wells doesn’t ring true.

  3. So how do these emissions happen Lee? The question isn’t do they exist or not – it’s to what extent and have the measurements been done accurately so far? There appears to be some debate over the accuracy of the Bacharach Hi-Flow Sampler used, with even its inventor questioning the low readings claimed (what’s new pussycat?), but you seem to be doing your damnedest here to claim that they are a total non-event, which seems a bit unconvincing.

    BTW you didn’t answer my question about Carbon Brief above.

  4. Up to date there are 55 comments here, with arguing and backbiting on both sides. However everyone seems to be ignoring the point of this report. Baroness Neville-Rolfe was questioned by three different peers and each time completely failed to give any answers to their questions. All she could say was it’s a matter for the experts and she would give the House a written answer. Surely she’s supposed to be there to inform the members. What’s the point of a Minister who can’t give an answer on one of the most crucial aspects of the subject she is there to represent?
    Her Comment that “Decisions about fracking should be taken by the relevant LOCAL planning authorities” was however very welcome indeed. Let’s hope she meant what she said. I won’t hold my breath though.

  5. Having skimmed this whole thread, I get the impression that @_environmentor – ie the famous Lee Petts from Remsol – has a huge amount of time on his hands if he can spend this long commenting repeatedly on one posting. Perhaps the fact that his company has no work because the rest of the country keeps stopping fracking from getting going means that he’s just sitting at his computer all day with nothing to do?
    And I agree with Pauline, above, that the Baroness didn’t have a clue what to say, and was totally out of her depth. If someone who is supposed to be a minister knows so little about the subject, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. A bit like Andrea Leadsom asking if climate change was real when she was appointed energy minister.

    • Quite right too, she does not have to answer technical questions, it is a matter for the experts. She is not an expert on the subject and there is no reason for her to make something up. It was an honest answer

      • “I can certainly write to the noble lords about what advice we have received if that would be helpful’.

        I would presume from this comment she has read the information and therefore knows the answer to the question posed particularly if she can pass it on ‘in writing’.

        Victor, a person of her position does have experts on hand, technical and otherwise. However, it is her responsibility to collate the knowledge and be able to communicate this to her peers on request. She has avoided this, perhaps so that it is not immediately put in the public domain, who knows? In the grand scheme of things a person of responsibility who cannot answer a direct question clearly is no good at the job or practicing avoidance.

        • I agree with Sherwulfe that the Baroness will have experts and advisors on hand. She seems to be passing the buck to them. The problem is that these experts and advisors are far too much in the pockets of the industry and intend trusting and relying far too much on self regulation by the industry, which from past experience doesn’t inspire much confidence.

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