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. Beware what you wish for!

    A review may decide to decrease the limits due to the danger from repeated ‘bangs on the head’ causing cumulative damage.

  2. “Opponents say industry must prove it can frack safely”.

    As far as the UK is concerned, that has been achieved to date. Safely means causing no damage to others, not avoiding seismic activity as fracking is aimed at producing activity which will be measured seismically. So far, so good. Nothing to get excited about-even my gas cooker delivers more if I turn the tap a bit. Neighbours unaware when I do.

  3. Excellent – it’s about time that people with expertise in this subject started to make their voices heard. The 0.5 Ml limit is totally ridiculous – if this was also applied to hydroelectric and geothermal we would be in a lot worse position to start reducing GHG emissions


      YOU , should completely DISCREDIT what these 48 geoscientists are saying , if you were to go by your own standards JUDITH.

      AFTER ALL Ladies and Gentleman , let’s not forget how JUDITH ONLY acknowledge PEER reviewed studies.

      These scientists, AT whatever level they may be at in whatever field , WE DON’ T KNOW, are approaching the government empty handed JUDITH, where are their PEER reviewed papers ?????????

      OR does the need for PEER reviewed studies only apply with evidence that anti frackers put forward on this forum????????

      WELL ??????

      • It’s rather difficult to understand your point when it’s not written in English. Are you asking for peer reviewed papers – if so on what specific subject would you like them to address?

        • JUDITH,

          PLAY stupid if you want .

          Trying to split hairs is giving us all a good laugh .

          WILL YOU be using YOUR OWN benchmark in this case and totally discredit ALL that these 48 Geoscientists are saying ???????

          Remember Ladies and Gentlemen, JUDITH , every time insists on PEER REVIEWED evidence from the ANTI Frackers.

          [Typo corrected at poster’s request]

          BUT with these 48 geoscientists that are approachingthe government with nothing more than their own OPINIONS, she is strangely full of praise.

          TALK ABOUT FLIP FLOPPING on your own standards .

          • JacktheLad – from what I’ve read all the scientists have done is to ask the government to review the limit – they aren’t recommending a new limit. If they were recommending a new limit I’m sure they would have provided evidence to back up their recommendations.

            • Well that’s fine then Judih. They can review any evidence that suggests that there is a valid safety reason to increase the limit (that won’t take them long now will it?), then they can review the evidence that suggests that there is a valid safety reason not to increase the limit (basically if they can’t frack and keep within the limit there is a very logical reason not to increase it). They can then leave the limit exactly as it is and you and your friends can stop whining about how unfair the limit you all agreed to 7 years ago is.

              Having said that if I get a speeding ticket I wouldn’t expect the police to waste money reviewing whether they should increase the speed limit, so really can’t see why government money should be wasted here.

              Maybe they should send Francis on a seismic awareness course?

            • Refracktion – I’m sure they’ll do a professional job and highlight reasons why the level is different to other countries and other industries. The latter is important as I’m sure you would t want overly cautious limits impacting our green energy industry would you?

  4. Great response from Steve Mason to this clearly orchestrated campaign by scientists who are paid by the oil and gas industry. Surely no industry should consider relaxing so-called gold standard regulations on seismicity on the evidence from a single test frack at one particular well. Any respectable scientist should know that you can’t make policy from one piece of evidence, you need at least a range of different results from different places. It’s embarrassing and worrying that these so-called experts are happy to add their names to this letter when what is being called for is the very definition of unscientific. Clearly they are worried about future funding for their research by the oil and gas industry, who now have their tentacles in most universities in this country.
    Whatever the merits of relaxing the rules or not, to do so as a result of pressure from the oil and gas industry and scientists who are funded by them on the basis of results from one well is simply not good enough. And if we’re going to start taking into account seismic data from other countries, then we should be taking into account hundreds of papers and other research on the health impacts of fracking too.

    • Ellie – I think you’ll find that industry funding to universities as fallen because of fracking. Also, I read the letter and basically it’s just asking that the science be relooked at – surely that wouldn’t worry you would it?

  5. well I think caudrilla made there point by showing the UK level is the lowest in the world by a good margin leaving room for reviewing if the uk is over cautious.

    • Well clearly the UK is not. The regulation appears to have done exactly what it was set up to do Gasman. Pity for the industry that it miscalculated so badly, but maybe that just demonstrates how little they actually know about what they are doing?

    • So Jackthelad – please define what “the will of the people” means? Who are “the people” ? Please list geoscience experts who have no links to the industry, but have professional experience about the industry? This is a very specialised skill. Note the article by Channel 4 News is framed editorially to undermine the technical expertise of the those who signed the letter – & fails miserably. It’s about the science. It’s about the evidence base. It is only asking for a review. The reason it is asking for a review is that the TLS system itself when set up, acknowledged it was a cautious limit & could be reviewed when new evidence came available.

Leave a Reply to Judith Green Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s