Data from Cuadrilla’s fracking site near Blackpool has confirmed that the company vented the powerful greenhouse gas, methane, while it was testing the well last month.
According to monitoring by the British Geological Survey (BGS), methane concentrations at the Preston New Road site peaked several times at about 400% above typical levels.
Cuadrilla released its own methane monitoring reports this week and said in a statement there had been three short spikes in the records in mid-January 2019:
“this was a controlled release of methane through the flare during the well testing phase.”
The gas failed to burn, the company said, and was emitted into the atmosphere.
The well test, which sought to measure the flow rate of shale gas, followed a problematic period of fracking last year. The company said it fully fracked just 5% of the well, blaming the rules on induced earth tremors. Despite this, Cuadrilla said gas had flowed at a peak rate of more than 200,000 standard cubic feet per day.
Venting unburned methane is prohibited in the environmental permit for Preston New Road “except where necessary for safety reasons”.
Nick Mace, Cuadrilla’s environmental manager, said the releases were “very low in absolute volume” and short-term spikes in data were “not uncommon because of background methane”. He said there were no health consequences from what he described as “very short-term emissions of methane at these low concentrations”.
DrillOrDrop twice asked Cuadrilla what volume of methane had been released into the atmosphere. The company has not replied.
Cuadrilla’s monitoring reports, compiled by the consultancy GGS, contained graphs but not the raw data.
The British Geological Survey (BGS), however, published round-the-clock sampling results from its separate monitoring project carried out with the University of Manchester.
The BGS said the typical methane concentrations at the Preston New Road site were 1,857-2,544 parts per billion (ppb).
During the period 1 December 2018-17 January 2019, the BGS recorded concentrations of methane exceeding 10,000ppb four times on two dates. Methane exceeded 9,000ppb nine times on a total of three days, and exceeded 8,000ppb 19 times on a total of four days.
None of the 68,604 BGS readings were as low as 1,857ppb, the bottom of the typical range. More than 3,573 readings, about 5%, were above the top of the typical range.
Some of the peaks were for a matter of minutes but there were periods which exceeded typical levels for at least an hour.
The BGS has conceded that the south easterly wind direction during December 2018 did not help monitoring emissions from the shale gas site. But in January, the wind direction meant that the sampled air had passed directly above.
According to the BGS, the results showed “clear enhancement in methane concentrations, relative to baseline (pre-operational) conditions”.
A report on the BGS research said the enhanced levels of methane happened during periods of relatively high wind speed and were not associated with increased concentrations of carbon dioxide. This is key because higher levels of carbon dioxide would indicate that methane from the well was being burned in the flare.
According to the BGS report, methane levels peaked in the period 11-17 January 2019 and on 7 December 2018.
The report concluded that the source of the methane appeared to be intermittent and episodic. But it said it was difficult to say whether the variation in methane concentrations was because the source strength changed or because the wind speed and direction varied.
“the absence of concurrent enhancements in carbon dioxide concentration suggest that the observed emissions took the form of non-combusted methane”.
“All the available evidence indicates that these were as a result of emissions of non-combusted methane from the site.”
Cuadrilla confirmed in its statement this week that it had pumped nitrogen gas into the Preston New Road well to lift the shale gas and stimulate flow rates – known as a nitrogen lift.
The company said for a short period the nitrogen and methane formed a non-combustible mix in the flare at Preston New Road. Cuadrilla said:
“the flare pilot light was ignited to try and combust the mixture and propane was also added for the same purpose, but the methane and nitrogen gas mixture could not be burnt.”
The gases were released into the atmosphere.
Cuadrilla expressed its data in parts per million (ppm) and said the highest spike was 30.5ppm. It said this was “less than half of the highest level recorded during the baseline period”.
On another occasion, in October 2018, Cuadrilla said methane spikes were linked to emissions from a storage tank.
Problems with venting
In the short-term, methane warms the planet by 86 times more than carbon dioxide, making it a potent greenhouse gas.
Venting and other fugitive methane emissions from well sites, could, if high enough, negate the carbon benefits of gas, compared with coal.
The industry organisation, UK Onshore Oil and Gas, says on its website:
“Flaring and venting are only used when absolutely necessary”
It added that both flaring and venting release greenhouse gases, sulphur dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.
Earlier this month, DrillOrDrop asked the Environment Agency (EA) whether there had been venting from the Preston New Road well.
The EA said it would treat our question as a Freedom of Information request and it has not yet replied. But, we understand that the EA confirmed in response to an FOI from Mike Hill, a Chartered Engineer who lives near Preston New Road, that there had been venting at the site in November 2018.
Mr Hill has been calling for a more comprehensive and more extensive monitoring programme by the regulators, including the BGS and EA, since 2012.
He detailed this in Briefing Notes to ministers at the then Department for Energy and Climate Change, outlining a system that would be wind direction independent and entirely independent of the operators with real time publishing of data to the web.
He said today the BGS data did not include levels of other gases, which from peer reviewed studies, are likely when fracking. There is a real possibility that venting could have also have released radon, sulphur dioxide or BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene), he told DrillOrDrop. There are known carcinogens amongst them, he said.
Mr Hill said:
“I suspected cold venting long before the Environment Agency admitted this because, ironically with such poor recoverability and inefficient fracking, then the need to burn the gases at 800 deg C+ becomes much more difficult.
“The BGS report admits that its monitoring was not particularly effective unless the wind happened to be blowing in a certain direction.
“When the wind was in that direction, the BGS saw a significant increase in methane levels, up to 400%.
“Bearing in mind methane is a much more damaging greenhouse gas than CO2, then these fugitive emissions could easily wipe out entirely all the benefits of gas over coal, as has been studied in the US. This would, in effect, make shale gas “dirtier” than coal in terms of greenhouse gas impact, the exact opposite of what the government tells us.
“The increase in methane also begs the question what other potentially very dangerous gases are being released and in what quantities? Is this happening much more than we realise when the wind is not “blowing in the right direction?
“The risk to the population downwind increases significantly with venting. Places including Wrea Green, Kirkham, Wesham, Elswick and Roseacre are all very much in the firing line.
“Without effective plume distribution modelling and an independent air emissions monitoring system similar to the one I proposed in 2012 then we are clearly operating in an opaque environment and one that is not making use of science, as the energy minister, Claire Perry, suggested.
“We are literally and metaphorically putting our fingers in the air and hoping the wind in not blowing in our direction from the fracking pad.
“This is an absurd situation and it makes me frustrated because I predicted this and indeed the earthquakes issue some seven years ago and told the government. and public so in meetings. The government listened but did not act. There is a real possibility that the children of the local schools and local residents are having their health put at risk.
“I am not stating that the risks are high or that Cuadrilla has vented BTEX or other gases.
“But we do need independent evidence that it has not done so and we do need a system that can detect these gases so that precautionary measures up to and including evacuation can be made at local schools and areas as and when required. Certainly, the topic is worth additional investigation.”
A spokesperson for the local campaign organisation, Preston New Road Action Group, said:
“The recent spikes in methane are of major concern to the residents living close to the site at Preston New Road. Even after only a partial frack we are seeing impacts on the air we breathe. We should be reducing gases that contribute to climate change rather than increasing them. We need to be protecting our environment for the generations to come, proceeding with fracking will not help with this.”
Updated 2/3/2019 with reaction quotes