The government may relax regulations designed to prevent earthquakes caused by fracking, according to comments by the energy minister, Claire Perry.
The current rules, known as the traffic light system, require fracking to stop if the operation causes seismic activity at a level of 0.5ML.
But in a letter to a Conservative MP, Ms Perry said:
“The TLS [traffic light system] is set at an explicitly cautious level but, as we gain experience in applying these measures, the trigger levels can be adjusted upwards without compromising the effectiveness of the controls.”
The letter, obtained by the Greenpeace investigative team, Unearthed, was in reply to Kevin Hollinrake. His Thirsk and Malton constituency includes the Third Energy fracking site at Kirby Misperton and 35 oil and gas exploration licences.
Mr Hollinrake, who has supported fracking if well regulated, did not back Ms Perry’s proposal to change the threshold in the traffic light system.
He told Unearthed:
“At this point in time I think we need to know a lot more before I’d support that position. The traffic light system is there for a reason.
“To be fair to this government and the responsible approach I think we do take to oil and gas exploration, we haven’t fracked for seven years as a result so clearly we do take this seriously.”
Claire Stephenson, of Frack Free Lancashire, responded to the minister’s letter:
“This move can only be beneficial to the fracking industry and not to local communities who are being forced to endure this technology.
“The fact that they are already deciding to change the safety levels to the industry’s favour, suggests fracking will likely cause seismic events.”
The traffic light system was introduced in 2014 following a series of earthquakes linked to Cuadrilla’s hydraulic fracturing at its Preese Hall site in Lancashire. One of them measured 2.3ML.
The 0.5ML threshold was recommended in a report by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering. The initial proposal, of 1.7M, was “undesirably high”, the report siad. But it did suggest the threshold could be “adjusted over time”.
Professor Peter Styles, a former adviser on seismicity to the then Prime Minister David Cameron, has argued that current seismic testing techniques would not reveal faults that could result in fracking-induced earthquakes measuring 0.5-1ML. Even faults likely to induce 1.5ML earthquakes were challenging to detect, he said.
He proposed setback distances of 850m between known faults and fracking, particularly in former mining areas.
Ms Perry referred to Professor Style’s research in her letter, saying the Oil & Gas Authority had commissioned research on historic coal mines, focussing on the area round IGas sites at Tinker Lane and Springs Road in Nottinghamshire.
“The traffic light system, which is designed to help regulators monitor and respond to any seismic event, is deliberately precautionary to enable the Environment Agency to ensure groundwater is protected and for the Health and Safety Executive to inspect well integrity before resuming operations.”
A BEIS spokesperson said:
“The UK’s world class oil and gas regulations, which have a track record of success that goes back decades, will ensure that shale development can only happen safely and in an environmentally responsible way.
“The seismicity levels were set low as a precautionary measure and may be reviewed in the future subject to scientific advice.”
Cuadrilla, which could begin fracking this week at its Preston New Road site, is putting seismic data online. It said measures already show there are naturally-occuring seismic events of 1.5-2.0ML across north England.