Geoscientists join call for review of fracking tremor rules – opponents say industry must prove it can frack safely

pnr 181121 Ros Wills5

Cuadrilla’s fracking site at Preston New Road, near Blackpool, 21 November 2018. Photo: Ros Wills

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”.

Times 1

Letter to the Times, 9 February 2019

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)

Dr Baptie has since said that he thinks the 0.5ML limit could be increased with little risk to people. But Professor Styles told DrillOrDrop in response to Ineos comments last week:

“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?

Times 2

Signatories of the letter to the Times, 9 February 2019

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.”

58 replies »

  1. Professor Rutter for one has had funding from Cuadrilla, how many of the others have also been subsidised by the Industry?

    • From what I’ve read, Prof Rutter seems to be an amazing academic; he’s respected by everyone in the subject on which he works and since retiring has been working for free to improve the education of Undergraduates and Postgraduates in Manchester. You’re totally misguided thinking this is anything about research income. In fact, the letter shows the opposite, the people who haven’t signed, but who clearly share the opinions of those who have, are the ones worried about research income.

  2. If they understood the geology, they simply wouldn’t be drilling through critically stressed faults and triggering this seismicity. Instead they they get their stooges to ask for bigger earthquakes. It seems they have learnt nothing from the abandoned PH-1 well, otherwise they wouldn’t keep repeating the same errors at PNR.

    • What do you mean by ‘critically’ stressed faults? All geology in the UK is under stress, all of it. Do you think this list of people don’t understand what geomechanical stress is? Because I assure you, the names that I recognise in that list most certainly do know a thing or two about rock mechanics.

  3. In 2012 when the TLS was first introduced, DECC was very clear that it was ‘subject to review’. The OGA says in its guidance that the 0.5 ML level ‘could be adjusted upward.’ The Baptie, Green and Styles report on which it was loosely based, also said it should be reviewed in the light of emerging evidence. So, it’s been clear for the past 7 years that it could change – trying to suggest that the 0.5 ML was always some sort of indefinite absolute and that a review in someway amounts to a weakening of regulation is just plain wrong.

    • They also recommended that “seismic hazards should be assessed prior to proceeding” which should include “characterisation of any possible active faults in the region using all available geological and geophysical data”.
      Since they have failed to do this it obviously isn’t appropriate to remove the existing safety limits.

      • Dorkinian, three things: firstly, how do you know, categorically, that Cuadrilla hasn’t characterised all and any possible active faults in the region using all available geological and geophysical data? Secondly, I don’t think anyone is asking for the removal of any safety limits, and, thirdly, in their letter, the 49 scientists appear quite clearly to be asking for an evidence-led review, nowhere do they suggest the 0.5 ML should definitely be raised and that’s presumably because, as proper scientists, they understand the value of applying real vigour to robust scientific inquiry (i.e. they know that it is poor scientific form to put the cart before the horse).

    • And the evidence has not been gathered. Fracking one well and failing to keep within the agreed regulations is not evidence. Just because the industry and their supporters demand otherwise does not equal evidence. Just as many scientists can be easily gathered to argue the limits should not be raised. Cuadrilla stated they were confident they could keep within the TLS regulations and advised government of this just before they fracked. Now they find they can’t. That is no basis to change regulations. Tough! INEOS’ own geologist, with extensive fracking experience in the US, informed parliament that he considered the geology of the Fylde very complex in terms of fracking and there are more suitable shale basins in the U.K. In other words he didn’t like the look of it and it would appear he is being proved right. Preese Hall and PNR have been failures and have done nothing to instil confidence. As Mark Menzies said, the industry has had eight years to challenge, discuss the TLS if they believed it was so unworkable but they have not, so that ship has well and truly sailed. The industry has made numerous demands for changes and support from government over the last eight years so why would they not have raised concerns before now? The statements they made before fracking and their silence on this would indicate the did not have concerns. Or are they simply incompetent? Another good reason not to relax regulations.

    • Lee – you seem to be under the (wilful) misapprehension that just because they said the 0.5 ML level ‘could be adjusted upward.’ that that means it should be.

      If Cuadrilla had managed to do what Egan said they could/would and fracked with the full volume with the full quota of sand and completed fracking and flow test on 40 stages each on 2 wells then I doubt many people would be up in arms if someone then said “OK let’s lift the limit a little and see what happens”.

      This is absolutely not the case – just 2 stages fracked and Cuadrilla admitting to have back-pedalled on the sand but still having caused 57 seismic events, 17 of which were in the 0-0.5 Ml range and 8 of which were greater than the 0.5 Ml limit.

      It seems that you and your friends are trying to say “Look, we couldn’t work within the science-based limit we agreed to to so you are going to have to allow us to increase that limit to allow earthquakes that are 32 times bigger and 177 times stronger than the limit we couldn’t keep to before.

      You aren’t changing many opinions so you might want to think about that rather conceited sounding name.

  4. Cuadrilla admit they have fully fracked 2 of the 41 stages, that’s just 5%, of one well and were able to inject only 14% of the sand required. They took far longer than such a job would normally take and didn’t use full pressure yet this still resulted in 57 seismic events, the highest being 1.5ML. Just what kind of events would have occurred if they had operated at full pressure is the question. That, after all, is surely the ultimate intention of any shale gas company if they are to go into commercial production.

    • Pauline,

      Cuadrilla recorded 40,000 micro seismic events during the course of their fracking operations.

      This data can now be used not only to refine their fracking operations and procedures, but also in any review of the TLS limit.

  5. Well, you ask the question Pauline, and welcome from the dark side.

    How will they establish what you question?

    Oh, I have an idea. Lets look at which sections and which pressures/conditions were used with best results and utilise that to go forward.

    That’s what tests are for-to refine process.

    48 geoscientists and some of them have done some work for the oil and gas industry! Shock/horror.

  6. Ruth, I was very happy to sign the letter. The vast bulk of my career has been in the public sector. I have helped UK industry be successful in oil & gas in the N. Sea, onshore UK & in the former Soviet Union, with my own skills, which no-one else could supply, with successful outcomes. Whilst I was in the public sector I had no personal financial gain. I turned down many headhunter approaches. I have also been involved with many of my UK & European colleagues in researching & promoting solutions to decarbonising fossil fuels. Indeed in forming a European not for profit research company (CO2GeoNet). When I left public service, which was not my first preference, I set up my own company, it is not for profit, all profits are fed back into research (like CO2 GeoNet). There is a lot more I could tell. That is for another day. Regarding the seismic affect at surface on the Fylde. Blackpool trams create far more vibrations than Preese Hall & Preston New Road have ever done. Indeed millions of people in London, daily experience seismic affects at the surface which are much stronger than anything caused by what shale exploration in the UK has ever caused. Most will in London not even be aware of the the seismic vibrations. I have 2 sons & daughters in law living there, as well as 2 grandchildren. I am much more worried about other risks to their safety than seismic risk. You only need to read, see, or hear the news daily to get my drift. So why is it that people who protest against fracking & seismic risk do not realise that millions of people in London (including members of parliament) go about their daily lives unaware, or not bothered, about the 24/7 human induced seismic events in a city of millions of people, which are stronger than anything that Preese Hall or Preston New Road has induced, in the short period required to frack? Please tell me why that is? Thank you

    • Hi Nick

      What do you make of Professor Style’s comment regarding the 0.5 limit?

      “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.”

      Also,what about problems caused by trailing events, tremors which occur after drilling has stopped. A red-light level of 1.5 could lead to a trailing event of up to 2.4ML many hours later. The 2.3ML earthquake at Preese Hall woke people up and was reported on the national news. So I wonder, would it be acceptable to people to face the possibility, over a period of months, of being woken up by a tremor caused by fracking?

      I lived in London for many years and was never woken by human induced seismic events, just by early-morning planes waiting to land at Heathrow.

      • Hello Paul,

        Prof Styles gave us this comment last week which we’ve included today in this Lancashire For Shale blog

        As for damage to the wellbore, after each >0.5 ML, Cuadrilla had to report on well integrity to the EA, HSE and OGA, and would not have been given permission to proceed with further fracks had it not been able to prove to their satisfaction that the well was unaffected.

        That is not the only reassurance we have though, because at PNR, local groundwater quality was monitored for 12 months prior to operations commencing (a requirement of the Infrastructure Act 2015) and during the Oct-Dec fracking activity last year, despite the micro-seismic events that were detected, there has been no appreciable deterioration in groundwater quality from what I can see on the Cuadrilla environmental monitoring portal – indicating that there have been no unplanned releases to the environment from within the wellbore.

        It’s important to remember that Cuadrilla has a commercial incentive not to let its wells leak because that would mean it would recover less gas to the surface to sell into the market and would therefore lose revenue and margin, and that’s not in its best financial interests – in the same way that a manufacturer of widgets wouldn’t intentionally operate a production line that is responsible for producing lots of defective parts, because more rejects equals costly rework, lower sales volumes of finished product and, together, less profit.

        I think people overlook the fact that maintaining well integrity is a commercial imperative…

      • Paul, Thanks for the question. I am very familiar with the reasoning that Peter Styles had (& may still have) about recommending setting the 0.5 limit as the threshold in the first instance. It was recognised as being a cautious approach, but it did also suggest that the TLR could be reviewed as new information became available. Peter also had a view (which he may or may not hold now) that one can calculate the maximum size of an induced seismic event from fracking in a sedimentary sequence, such as in shales & associated sediments in UK Carboniferous shale settings in N England. We now have an excellent data set from the monitoring of PNR. Review in my opinion requires a consensus based on the new data, involving academic & industry experts & experts within the relevant regulatory bodies. It may be that the consensus is to hold the threshold where it is, or it might suggest a phased rise in threshold on a case by case, even temporary basis, in order to obtain more data/experience & learn more. It’s not my call. You ask “So I wonder, would it be acceptable to people to face the possibility, over a period of months, of being woken up by a tremor caused by fracking?” The answer to that is what do people already experience from other activities that regulators allow, such as construction, quarrying, rail-road-tram vibrations, agricultural equipment, aircraft, etc. Also what are the natural events like that people are exposed to in the UK, indeed in NW England. I have experienced several onshore earthquakes in the UK, far stronger than the Preeshall event, including 2 where I could feel & hear the “P” wave, and the delayed S wave. No damage done to mine or any houses where I live. I also remember being woken in the night when I lived in the Ribble Valley by a natural seismic event. I suppose you have already seen the link I have given before about human induced seismic events in London? I certainly can sense underground trains vibrating the ground (especially in the Piccadilly, Oxford Rd area of Central London), every time I visit, & these vibrations are at regular short spaced intervals day & night, 365 days a year (unless there is a tube strike). Fracking, as you have pointed out is time limited. Here is the link about London’s human induced seismic activity/monitoring.

        • The point I made Nick was that underground train vibrations and other human-made seismicity tend not to wake people up. We have trains running under our house in Lewes which we can hear, but don’t wake us. However the Prese Hall 2.4 tremor did wake people. Do construction, quarrying etc wake people in the middle of the night, in the way that a trailing event from a frack might do?

          And don’t forget too that some fracking operations are likely to take place in quiet rural locations, chosen by people for the peace and lack of disturbance.

          So, would you be happy with a situation where people across Blackpool might, over a period of months, be woken by trailing events in the middle of the night?

          • Paul, When I stay in hotels in central London, vibrations from trains do wake me up. But if I lived there all the time I would get used to it. As seems to be the case at your house in Lewes. What can be said is that felt events from fracking are not going to be as frequent as many other sources of human induced seismic are experienced at the surface. I take your point about the countryside – but there are many sources of noise & vibration in the country side associated with modern farm machinery moving around. At harvest time, where I live big machinery works through the night & day, we don’t complain, we know its time limited & necessary to get the crops in.

            • Nick, well one thing, if it has got to the stage where a key argument of the anti-frackers is that one might get woken up at night due to small differences in the frequency content of the insignificant level of elastic energy released by tremors as oppose to traffic then their rational for opposing shale gas production is a little thin to say the least.

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