Cuadrilla has been allowed to change controls on fracking and flaring at its shale gas site near Blackpool.
The Environment Agency announced yesterday that it had approved variations to the environmental permit on the volume of fracking fluid and the duration of flaring.
Friends of the Earth has opposed the changes for the Preston New Road site, saying they could lead to more intensive fracking and more lorry loads of potentially radioactive waste on Lancashire roads.
Volume of fracking fluid
The original permit, grated in January 2015, allowed Cuadrilla to pump 765m3 of fracture fluid a day.
Under the change, the company could pump up to 765m3 per fracture stage. Cuadrilla has confirmed that it could carry out multiple fracture stages in a day.
Friends of the Earth said the change could intensify fracking at the site, with no limit on how many fracking stages would be allowed daily.
It had called on the Environment Agency to undertake a full assessment of treatment techniques available to process the waste flowback fluid on site to minimise the volume of potentially radioactive waste that would be transported on local roads.
The organisation also said there were discrepancies in Cuadrilla’s figures for flowback fluid and, as a result, the number of tankers needed to transport it. Tanker movements could top 2,000 if the company was unable to reuse some of the fluid, Friends of the Earth said.
But the Environment Agency wrote in its decision document:
“There is no increase in risk to groundwater associated with this change. The maximum quantity of waste flow back fluid that can be stored on site has not been changed and remains at 3,000 cubic metres.”
“In the event that the operator [Cuadrilla] could not somewhere to take their waste, the operator would have to take the necessary measures to ensure that no further waste of this type is generated until alternative treatment/disposal routes were in place.”
The EA also said:
“Any increase in vehicle movements that may result from this change would be managed by the operator in accordance with their planning permission and would be regulated by the local authority.”
The original permit allowed Cuadrilla to flare waste gas during the initial flow testing phase for 90 days for each of the four proposed wells.
The variation permits the company to flare for a total of 360 days for the whole site.
In its decision document, the EA said the change allowed Cuadrilla to be more flexible. The company could spend more time testing the earlier wells without increasing the overall duration.
The EA said the change would not result in harm to human health or the environment.
According to the decision document, an EA screening exercise had concluded that the “predicted environmental concentration of each pollutant modelled is not expected to exceed 70% of the applicable environmental quality standard and as such and EQS breach is considered highly unlikely.”
The EA said Cuadrilla would have to maintain a daily flaring register, recording each day on which flaring of any duration took place, up to a maximum of 360 days. Cuadrilla would have to include its proposed seven-day commissioning periods for the two proposed flares within the 360-day total.
The EA added that the actual environmental performance of the flare would now be monitored, instead of the previous scheme which relied on monitoring by calculation. There would also be “strict” annual emission limits for oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide and total volatile organic compounds, the EA said.
Under the revised permit, the EA said it required a separate hydraulic fracturing plan for each individual well, rather than one plan for all four wells. It said:
“This will allow the Environment Agency to scrutinise and review each stop of the process as operation proceed on site.”
It would also allow Cuadrilla to update and refine subsequent hydraulic fracturing plans, the EA said.
Flaring plan and procedures
The EA said Cuadrilla must produce an updated site plan showing the location and designation of the two proposed flares before flaring could start.
The application for permit variations did not include detailed operational procedures and controls for the flaring activity, the EA said. Cuadrilla must also provide these procedures for approval before flaring.
The permit changes allow Cuadrilla to monitor any seismic events using downhole seismic geophones. The original permit required an array of monitors on the surface.
The EA said the variation would result in more accurate information. While one well was being fracked, an adjacent well could be used to monitor fracture growth, it said. .
Cuadrilla had agreed to use the government’s traffic light system for seismic events from 4 weeks before injection operations to 2 weeks afterwards, the EA added.
The EA said odour was “not considered likely to be an issue” because the site was 250m away from what were described as “the nearest sensitive receptor”.
The EA said:
“Noise and vibration are not considered to be an issue due to the design of the flare, the rural location of the site, the distance to the nearest receptor … and the level of background noise”.
In response to concerns about noise, the EA said:
“In the unlikely event that the activities give rise to pollution due to noise and vibration outside the site, a noise and vibration management plan be requested.”
The EA said it was satisfied that appropriate measures were in place to prevent environmental accidents that may cause pollution. If there were an accident, the consequences would be minimised, the EA said.
Trust and competence
The EA said some people who took part in its consultation on the permit changes were concerned about Cuadrilla’s competence and its lack of transparency when dealing with the public.
Four permit breaches have been recorded against the company since operations began at Preston New Road in January 2017.
But in its decision document, the EA said:
“We have no reason to think that they [Cuadrilla] would not comply with permit requirements and conditions.”
People who took part in the consultation also said Cuadrilla had not explained the scope of the changes and that the information was different from that in the planning application. But the EA said it was satisfied there was sufficient detail to decide to vary the permit.
The EA said it received 189 responses to the first public consultation on the permit changes, ending in August 2017. There were 33 responses to its consultation on the draft decision which closed last month.