A group of 48 geoscientists, many with links to the oil and gas industry, has called for a government review of the rules on fracking-induced earth tremors.
In a letter to The Times, the group said the regulations, known as the traffic light system, threatened “the potential development of a shale gas industry in the UK”.
The call for a review follows similar comments last week from Cuadrilla, which induced 57 seismic events at its shale gas site near Blackpool last year, and Ineos, the country’s largest shale licence holder.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Oil & Gas Authority have both said there are no plans for a review.
Opponents of fracking responded to the letter saying it was “amazing” that there were calls for gold standard regulations to be relaxed after operations under the traffic light system at just one site. The network, Frack Free United, said the industry must prove fracking could be done safely.
Traffic light system
The current rules were introduced after Cuadrilla induced about 50 seismic events in 2011 during the UK’s first high volume hydraulic fracturing operation at Preese Hall, also near Blackpool.
The traffic light system requires companies to pause fracking for at least 18 hours if operations induce seismic activity measuring 0.5ML (local magnitude) or above.
The geoscientists’ letter said the threshold was “very far below the levels set in other countries” or in other industries in the UK, such as quarrying, mining and deep geothermal energy.”
It also said:
“The scientific rationale for this trigger level is debatable”.
The signatories did not include the three authors of a government-commissioned study which recommended the 0.5ML threshold in 2012.
Green, Baptie and Styles based their argument for 0.5ML on what happened at Preese Hall. There, a tremor of 2.3ML was felt across the area and led to deformation of the well casing.
Had the threshold been set at 1.7ML, which Cuadrilla consultants had proposed at the time, there would not have been a pause in fracking before the 2.3ML earth tremor happened. (More details)
“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.”
He also said he and his co-authors recommended what he called “ a more nuanced traffic light system” than the one adopted by the government.
Who signed the letter?
The signatories described themselves as “practising geoscientists working in UK universities and institutions”. But they did not give details of where they worked or what were their roles.
Research by DrillOrDrop found that seven appeared to have connections with Leeds University, five with Manchester, four at Imperial College and three at Aberdeen. There are 15 professors on the list, three of which are emeritus (retired) titles.
Of the 48 names, we found evidence that at least 14 worked for consultancies, some of which offer services to the oil and gas sector or are supportive of it. The consultancies included the development and infrastructure company, Peter Brett Associates (2 names); the environmental and engineering services company, RSK Group (3); the drilling equipment company, PR Marriott Drilling (1); the upstream oil and gas consultancy Geosphere (1); and NAUE Geosysynthetics Ltd (1).
“Up to the industry to prove it can frack safely”
Last week, the latest government public attitudes survey about fracking showed that support had fallen to 13%, a joint-record low. Opposition had risen to 35%, a near-record high. Concern about earthquakes, as a reason for opposing fracking, rose from 25% to 40%.
Steve Mason, of the anti-fracking network, Frack Free United, said:
“It’s amazing that after just one frack there are now calls for the ‘Gold Standard Regs’ to be relaxed, especially as the regulations were set up with the input and agreement of the fracking industry.
“There are so many questions that need answering and what you can feel on the surface is only part only part of the conversation. What about the energy released under the ground? What about fugitive emissions and fluid migration? What about well integrity? What will happen if you frack in known areas of seismicity, such as old mining areas, where damage to infrastructure due to induced seismicity has been proven?
“Before any discussion of a review takes place, surely comparison data needs to be gathered from multiple sites across the UK’s complex geology. This is something that the Government ministers stated as far back as in 2015. In the leaked letter to George Osborne, Greg Clark, now the minister in charge of fracking, said ‘We need SOME exploration wells, to clearly demonstrate that shale exploration can be done cleanly and safely here’.
“Clearly this has not happened as so far in UK we have had two shale gas wells fracked and both led to earthquakes of various levels.
“As a campaign we are told evidence from around the world should not be taken into account as our regulations are the best. If that’s the case then consistency is needed and the evidence from the United States on seismicity must be disregarded in the same way Public Health England has disregarded the international studies from around the world showing real concern of the health impacts from onshore oil and gas sites.
“We applaud the government in its stance of keeping the precautionary principle in place and acting to reassure communities across the country. It’s up to the industry to prove they can frack safely, something I doubt will ever happen.”