The UK’s biggest shale gas licence-holder has accused the government of “shutting down shale by the backdoor” with rules on fracking-induced earth tremors.
In a press statement this morning, Jim Ratcliffe, owner of Ineos Upstream, called on the government to “make shale workable or shut it down”. It should not, the statement said, “use politically expedient, slippery back door manoeuvres to end shale”.
Opponents of the industry described it as “a suicide note from a desperate industry” and again threatened legal action if the government changed the rules on earth tremors.
“Traffic light system”
The regulations, known as the traffic light system, require shale gas operators to stop activity for 18 hours if fracking induces earth tremors measuring 0.5ML (local magnitude) or more.
Cuadrilla’s fracking operation at Preston New Road near Blackpool caused three of these red events in October and December 2018 (DrillOrDrop Tremor tracker).
The largest, measuring 1.1ML, was felt.
There were also five trailing events, where earth tremors measuring 0.5ML or more happened after fracking.
These were recorded by the British Geological Survey at levels between 0.5ML-1.5ML. The largest trailing event was described by one person as like a car hitting his office building at speed.
But as recently as 14 January 2019, the energy minister, Claire Perry, stood by the 0.5ML limit in a parliamentary answer. Last year, in response to Mr Egan, Ms Perry said the current system was “fit for purpose” and there was “no intention of altering it”. In October, she told journalists:
“It would be a very foolish politician who would do things that would be considered to be relaxing regulatory standards when we are trying to reassure people about safety”.
The Ineos statement described the UK threshold as nearly 180,000 times lower than the US equivalent, “typically set at 4.0”. It said 0.5ML “has no sound basis in science and betrays a total lack of understanding of the shale extraction.”
Jim Ratcliffe said:
“The Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) seems to lack a basic understanding of the Richter Scale. It is a logarithmic scale.
“The limit within the United States is typically set at 4.0 – a level that the US Environmental Protection Agency feels is safe and will not lead to any damage to land, property or people. To put that into perspective, magnitude 4.0 is 3,162 times higher than 0.5 and 177,827 times stronger in terms of energy release.”
He said the government was “shutting down shale by the backdoor and is betting the future of our manufacturing industry on windmills and imported gas from countries which are potentially unstable”.
“The Government’s position is unworkable and unhelpful. They are playing politics with the future of the country. We have a non-existent energy strategy and are heading towards an energy crisis that will do long term and irreparable damage to the economy and the Government needs to decide whether they are finally going to put the country first and develop a workable UK onshore gas industry”
The UK’s 0.5ML limit was recommended in a government-commissioned report on Cuadrilla’s earlier fracking-induced earthquakes at Preese Hall in 2011. In a letter to ministers in November 2012, Cuadrilla accepted the proposed traffic light system. The company said the rules were designed to ensure there were “no ‘felt’ seismic events at surface”. It did not challenge the 0.5ML limit. A month later, a written ministerial statement confirmed the 0.5ML level as the red light for fracking-induced seismicity.
“Point of transition to larger seismicity”
Last month, one of the report’s authors, Dr Brian Baptie, of the British Geological Survey, argued that the limit could be raised safely to 1.5ML.
But another author, Emeritus Professor Peter Styles (left), told DrillOrDrop today:
“The 0.5 limit isn’t where anyone believes there will be damage or even disturbance.
“It is the point where we think we have a transition between fracking-related micro-earthquakes and the onset of stimulation of natural fractures which can move and generate seismic events which may be much larger depending on the scale of the fault and the associated geology.”
Professor Styles added:
“We recommended a very nuanced traffic light system which DECC decided to simplify to the cartoon version.”
This suggested the well should be shut down immediately for any induced tremors measuring more than 0.5ML. For seismic events during or after fracking measuring 0.5-1.5ML, the report recommended there should be flow back from for the well for at least three days. For events measuring more than 1.5ML, flow back should last at least 10 days.
The current guidance from the Oil and Gas Authority states that if a seismic event of 0.5ML or above happens during fracking an operator must “suspend injection, reduce pressure and monitor seismicity and ground motion for any further events before potentially resuming”.
“Desperate fossil fuel industry”
Frack Free Lancashire, which campaigns against Cuadrilla’s operations at Preston New Road, said:
“This aggressive and misinformed attack by Jim Ratcliffe on the government who have already reiterated that they have no plans to change the traffic light system on fracking, only goes to show how very desperate this fossil fuel, climate-change-exacerbating industry has become.
“Coming from a man who now lives in Monaco, and wants to frack in the UK – not for energy security – but to produce yet more plastics, is quite unbelievable.
“Previous seismic events at Preese Hall in 2011 caused damage to the wellbore and also reported damage in surrounding properties: these seismic events were greatly below the magnitude 4 that Ratcliffe is promoting.
“It would indeed be a “foolish” politician who made adjustments to these levels, as Claire Perry MP has stated recently, but it would be a risk that communities would not accept and would readily take legal action upon.
“Cuadrilla agreed to these levels, and were key to their inception. Begging the government to shift the goalposts at this point is both ludicrous and unacceptable.
“We’d like to know where the recommendations of Professors Baptie, Styles and Green disappeared to: they previously wrote that the traffic light system should shut-down at 0.5ML with a three-day delay and implement a 10-day delay if seismicity levels reached greater than 1.5ML, not the 18 hours that the regulations currently state.”
The group added that the practical significance was not in whether the tremors were felt at the surface but in potential damage to the borehole and creating gas pathways from shale towards larger faults towards aquifers and the surface.
“Suicide note from a desperate industry”
Steve Mason, of the UK campaign network Frack Free United, said:
“This is a suicide note from a desperate industry. I am surprised this has taken so long for INEOS to call for a raise in thresholds. Good to see they are taking community concerns under consideration as usual.
“We welcome the Government position that there are no plans to increase the magnitude limits. I hope they treat this with the contempt it deserves.
If INEOS and the other companies cannot frack the complex geology of the UK safely, then don’t frack at all. It’s that simple.”
“Industry will probably never work in UK”
The Conservative MP, Lee Rowley, whose constituency includes the Ineos site at Bramleymoor Lane, said:
“As residents know, I have long opposed fracking and it’s time to recognise that the industry will probably never work in the UK. And Ineos can’t have it both ways – criticising the regulations today having previously said they go ‘some way to assuring the public of the minimal risks’. Even the industry is now saying fracking is probably unworkable in the UK. I agree. So let’s not bother.”
Ken Cronin, chief executive of the industry body, UK Onshore Oil and Gas, said:
“I can understand the frustration of our membership. In 2012 it was recognised by the Government that the traffic light system to regulate micro-seismicity was cautious and would be reviewed as experience developed. This is backed up by guidance from the Oil and Gas Authority. These statements are the basis on which investors have invested – to date – many hundreds of millions. In the last 100 days there have been 88 seismic events recorded by the BGS in the UK, yet none of the Lancashire events featured in the top ten and only 1 in the top 25. None of these seismic events recorded caused harm to people or buildings.
“Leading geoscientists have commented that a review of the micro-seismicity rules can be accommodated safely. We now have the data and experience and hope that Government make good on their commitment to review the rules based on the evidence and science. The current rules for shale gas extraction are the strictest in the world and are much stricter than for any other industry involved in creating seismicity in the UK. From the data gathered so far we know that there is good quality gas in the Bowland Shale.
“Against a backdrop of nearly 75% of our gas being imported within the next 16 years, increasingly from countries that have both work and environmental regulations significantly below our standards, there is a moral, economic and environmental imperative to be looking at our onshore oil and gas resource.”
- DrillOrDrop invited the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to comment. This post will be updated with any response.
DrillOrDrop found evidence of two states in Canada, Alberta and British Columbia, which use the 4ML threshold. In December 2018, fracking operations in north eastern British Columbia were suspended for at least 30 days after seismic events measuring 3.4-4.5ML.
We also found evidence from US states which use thresholds above the UK’s 0.5ML but well below 4.0. The threshold in Oklahoma was lowered in February 2018 from 3.0ML to 2.5ML, with a mandatory delay of six hours. The threshold for activity to stop in Ohio is 1.0ML.