The fracking industry must comply with the rules if it is to regain public confidence, the Environment Agency said yesterday.
As the industry prepares to begin operations, Mark Ellis Jones, the EA’s onshore oil and gas programme executive, told a meeting in London:
“For the industry, compliance with our environmental permits is probably the most single thing they need to do.
“To demonstrate to the local community and to us as the regulator that the operations they are proposing are safe for people and the environment.
“This is going to be key to regaining the trust and their social licence in the communities in which they operate.”
The warning came as Third Energy submitted its hydraulic fracture plan for its well at Kirby Misperton in North Yorkshire and the drilling rig is expected imminently at Cuadrilla’s shale gas site at Preston New Road in Lancashire.
The government’s latest public attitudes survey found 19% of people supported fracking and 30% opposed. A recent poll by Friends of the Earth suggested that two-thirds of people in Lancashire opposed fracking within five miles of their home and 54% thought fracking was unsafe.
Mr Ellis-Jones said the oil and gas sector was regarded as high-performing, with no records of the most serious pollution incidents. Fracking companies had been issued with what he described as “robust” permits.
But he said the EA would “redouble” its efforts as sites became operational to show it was working with other regulators, such as the Health and Safety Executive, Oil and Gas Authority and local councils.
He said the EA had visited the Preston New Road site five times during the construction of the well bad.
Mike Stephenson, Director of Science and Technology at the British Geological Survey, told the meeting there should be a “very conspicuous presence” from regulators to assure people that fracking could be done safely. He said:
“Very high levels of environmental assurance will be needed and very conspicuous regulation and monitoring.”
The BGS has been collecting data since 2015 in shale gas areas in Lancashire and North Yorkshire to establish baselines for air and water quality and seismicity.
Mr Ellis-Jones described the EA as a “confident regulator” and the regulatory system for fracking “as fit for purpose”.
But Kathryn McWhirter, a journalist who lives near Cuadrilla’s site at Balcombe in West Sussex, criticised faith in the regulators as “complacent”. She said:
“We don’t have confidence in the regulators. We have good reason for not trusting the regulators.”
Opponents of Cuadrilla’s operations in Lancashire have been collecting information on what they allege are breaches of the company’s permissions. There was also dismay earlier this year among people living around the site that data was not being collected on radon gas (DrillOrDrop report).
Baroness McIntosh, who represented Kirby Misperton as MP for Thirsk and Malton until 2015, called for a single regulator, as proposed in the Conservative manifesto and recommended by the Shale Gas Task Force.
“There is no single regulator in charge and I believe that is a weakness in the system. I think we do need to have greater openness and transparency to give trust in the process.”
Ken Cronin, chief executive of the industry body, UK Onshore Oil and Gas, said:
“While the industry understands the regulatory process, the general public and local communities find it bewildering. And the lack of a primary contact has undermined confidence”.
Stephen Sanderson, Executive Chairman of UK Oil and Gas Investments Ltd, one of the companies behind the so-called Gatwick Gusher oil discovery, described the current four regulators as uncoordinated and said a single regulator was the global model.
“This has a big impact on trying to get not only exploration wells but test wells [drilled] and get them on to production”.
Lord Truscott, a former energy minister, called for clarity from the government on its plans for shale gas.
“If shale gas is to develop successfully in the UK it will require strong political support from the government. I think they need to be clear one way or another on that.”
UKOG’s Stephen Sanderson said:
“I can find the oil and we can produce it but if there isn’t backing that it is of national significance then it’s going to be a very big hill to climb.”
John Blaymires, chief operating officer of IGas, which is preparing to drill two shale gas wells in Nottinghamshire, called for faster decision-making for sites. He said his company’s plans had taken 12 and 18 months to be approved.
“That is not ultimately a sustainable way if the country decides that shale gas can provide benefits in terms of security of supply, jobs, growth etc and be done safely and environmentally-responsibly.”
There was also a warning that shale in the UK may not produce gas in the way it does in the US. Professor Stephenson, of the BGS, said:
“British shales are unlikely to be productive all the way through.
“What we’ve found through recent studies in the last two years is [the gas is] quite confined to layers within the shale
“We need to be able to find these productive layers and that involves a lot of science and engineering”.