As Cuadrilla prepares to frack the UK’s first horizontal shale gas well, DrillOrDrop talked to the Health and Safety Executive about the organisation’s role in keeping workers and local people safe.
The risk of fire and explosion are our main concerns, Tony Almond of the HSE’s oil and gas policy team said in an extended interview. Incidents “that could cause death or injury to a number of people”. Transcript of interview (pdf)
How the HSE and the other regulators seek to prevent or deal with these emergencies is coming under scrutiny as fracking approaches at Cuadrilla’s Lancashire shale gas site.
So what is the HSE’s role in planning for emergencies at oil and gas sites?
Operators are required by regulations to produce an emergency plan of the site, Mr Almond said.
“As part of our site visits, or as part of our other inspections, we may inspect the Health and Safety document which includes the emergency plan.”
But this document may not cover land or properties outside the site boundary. Mr Almond said:
“There are no geographical limits set down, so it’s a risk-based thing. The operator needs to think about the impact and plan accordingly. Sites should be located and be of suitable size and layout so as to allow hazards to be confined within the site boundaries.”
Asked if the operator’s onsite emergency plan would include evacuations of neighbouring homes, Mr Almond said:
“If they [the operator] thought that was appropriate, yes.”
The HSE would take enforcement action if an emergency plan was not acceptable, Mr Almond said. But asked if the HSE had ever been unhappy with an emergency plan, he said:
“Not that I’m aware of. If we’d taken any enforcement action, that would have been made public, and I’m not aware of that happening.”
Mr Almond said the risk assessment, also required of operators, may not go beyond the site boundary. He said:
“There’s no set distance. It really depends on the well and the risk associated with it and what is present on the site.”
Asked to give an example of how far the HSE’s responsibility might go beyond the site boundary, Mr Almond said:
“I don’t think I can give you a distance. What it says in the regulations is that as far as they can, the operator should ensure that the health and safety risks are restricted to the site boundary so we would check the operator is working to that protocol.”
The emergency services and local authorities also have a role in planning for emergencies at industrial sites. This is carried out through the Local Resilience Forum (LRF).
In Lancashire, the LRF has assessed that Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site has a “medium” risk (link). This means it does not warrant specific planning and can be covered by generic arrangements.
On the HSE’s role in local emergency planning, Mr Almond said:
“We will liaise with the emergency services and the local authorities if we’re approached.”
Asked whether Local Resilience Forums had been in touch with the HSE about any fracking or big oil and gas sites, he said:
“No. Although we have liaised with the local authorities so the people on the Local Resilience Forums know who we are.”
Mr Almond said the HSE had a role in emergency planning for COMAH [Control of Major Accident Hazard] sites. These are usually sites that store large volumes of chemicals or fuels. But he said “oil and gas sites are not generally COMAH sites so we will assist if we are approached”.
Asked if it had been approached recently, he said:
“Not to my knowledge”.
There are no public details of Cuadrilla’s emergency plan or the Lancashire LRF risk assessment for Preston New Road.
Is regulation good enough?
Opponents of onshore oil and gas argue that current regulation of the industry would not prevent accidents or damage. They criticise what they say is inadequate resourcing of regulators, a lack of unannounced visits and what is described as the industry “marking its own homework”. So is this criticism fair?
Mr Almond said the wider onshore sector had demonstrated “a high level of control of major accident hazards”. There has been no formal enforcement on any recent wells drilled onshore and no prosecutions of onshore operators in the past 10 years, he said.
“I think the Health and Safety at Work Act, which brought the HSE into existence has played a large part in helping to make Great Britain, by and large, one of the safest places to work in the world. The regulations that we’ve got in place under the act, in lots of sectors including this one, have got a proven track record of being effective.
“We’ve got regulatory powers, so we can stop the operations if we needed to, we can prosecute or we can issue Improvement Notices, which are legal documents requiring the operator to manage the risks in a more appropriate way.”
What does the HSE regulate?
Mr Almond said the HSE gets involved when an oil or gas site operator is planning the design of the well. It ends when the site is no longer a workplace.
The operator must comply with two main sets of regulation:
- The Borehole Sites and Operations Regulations 1995 This requires operators to notify the HSE about the design, construction and operation of wells and to produce a health and safety plan of how risks would be managed.
- The Offshore Installations and Wells (Design and Construction etc) Regulations 1996 This requires the operator to ensure there are no unplanned releases of fluids from the well. The operator must also provide the HSE with regular reports of any activities on the well and appoint an independent well examiner to undertake regular assessments of well integrity.
Checking the operator
The HSE’s approach to an operator is shaped by the risk, Mr Almond said.
“the people who we were less confident in would be the ones that would get more site visits, they would get more scrutiny from our perspective.”
He said the HSE would meet the operator to build information on its level of competence, experience and health and safety record.
“We would ask to talk to the key people within their drilling team. We would look at what sort of qualifications they have got, where they have been before.
“We would then start to talk to the other regulators as well.
“we would maybe talk to the Environment Agency about that particular company and what their experience has been.”
“Our intervention plan, what we will do around a particular well or a particular operator, is based upon that intelligence – what the operator’s performance is, what their level of competency is – and then we would start to look at how complex the well they are designing and constructing is.”
Who’s who? Well examiners and inspectors
The regulations require an operator to employ a well examiner. They have experience in the industry and may look after several wells around the country. They don’t necessarily work on site.
Mr Almond said:
“There’s no requirement in the regulations that they must visit the sites, but they can do.
“Their role is to ensure that the well is being designed and constructed satisfactorily … from the design stage right through to decommissioning.
“They will look to ensure the right industry standards are being met, the operator’s own standards are being met and the regulations are being complied with.
“They’re not a regulator, more like quality control.”
The HSE inspects the well operator’s examination scheme “periodically” and interviews the well examiner, Mr Almond said.
The other key figure is the well inspector, who also has industry experience.
Unlike the well examiner, inspectors are employed by the HSE. Their role is to inspect the well notifications and the weekly operations reports sent to the HSE. They also meet well operators and carry out site inspections.
At the time of the interview, Mr Almond said the HSE employed 10 well inspectors for the UK’s onshore and offshore wells. There are about 250 onshore wells (source: UKOOG) and around 300 offshore installations (source: HSE/DECC 2016).
Mr Almond acknowledged:
“They’re not a big team, but it’s not our job to be on site all the time.
“The regime that we’ve got, the notifications, the operations reports, the scrutiny of each well at key points during the activity that’s taking place on it, what we do at the beginning and continue to do throughout with building intelligence about each of the operators gives us a level of assurance that these things are being done in the right way.”
The HSE is required to visit any site that will be hydraulically fractured, Mr Almond said.
The frequency of visits to all sites is based on an assessment of the operator (see Checking the operator) and the work programme.
Asked about operators in which the HSE had a lot of confidence, he said:
“It’s possible that they wouldn’t get a site visit very often, but they would get a site visit at some stage.”
Site visits are pre-planned and usually announced, Mr Almond said.
“Unless there was a good reason we wouldn’t turn up on a site unannounced and that’s because we want the right people to be available.”
HSE staff would also want to see particular operations or activity being carried out. He added:
“For us, site visits are important, but only important for how they fit in to our overall regulatory approach.”
“Marking their own homework”
That overall approach includes the notification of the well design, which the operator sends to the HSE.
“We scrutinise that in order to be content that the operator has got the design of the well right”, Mr Almond said.
During well construction, the operator also has to send weekly reports to the HSE, prompting accusations that the industry is self-regulated.
Mr Almond said:
“[The reports] contain information on how far they’ve drilled, how far they’ve cased, the drill fluid density of the well, what’s the weight of the mud so we can tell what the pressures are like. It’s a summary of all the activity on the well for that week.
“That comes in on an email on whatever day of the week is agreed and it allows the inspector to go back to the notification, and we can then say OK, this looks like it’s going on track or hang on a second, there’s something that’s not going according to plan here. We need to go back and talk to them.
“When the inspector goes for a site visit, they will be verifying the onsite records to make sure they match with what we’re being told.
“If we had any doubt about the veracity of the information that was being supplied to us then we would take action.”
This piece is part of a series of extended interviews by DrillOrDrop. You can catch up here with other interviews: