UK oil and gas companies are regularly breaching regulation of their operations with little consequence, new research published today concludes.
A study by Keith Taylor, the outgoing Green Party MEP for south east England, dismisses government statements that UK regulation is “gold standard” and “among the most robust and stringent in the world”.
He says there are systemic failings in the regulatory system and he doubts whether it can be improved enough to protect people and the environment.
The report, Far From Gold Standard – The Flawed Regulatory System for Onshore Oil and Gas, compiled what it described as “an extensive set” of breaches of planning, regulatory and environmental conditions at nine sites across England. It said the industry was difficult to monitor and regulations were weak, conflicted and failing to keep up with developments.
Mr Taylor, an opponent of many UK onshore oil and gas operations, said:
“This report reveals what campaigners have been saying for a long time; that the claims about ‘gold standard regulations’ are a joke.
“The regulators cannot be on the ground 24/7 to monitor operations, and the reliance on self-regulation and form filling is failing local communities and environmental protection.
“It is time for the regulators to send a strong message to companies who might be tempted to play fast and loose with the rules; companies found deliberately or negligently flouting the rules should not be allowed to drill for oil and gas.”
He said concerned residents were taking on the job of monitoring sites, which he said should rightly be done by regulators.
“This reality is leading to a whole range of negative consequences, including broken trust and confidence in the industry and decision makers.”
The report makes recommendations for improvement but acknowledges they would be expensive to implement. It concluded:
“There is a real danger in the Government promoting an industry where standards are not good enough, and possibly cannot be made good enough to protect our communities and environment. There should be no expansion of this industry – the focus should be on properly regulating our historic wells.”
The report found regulatory failings at sites in Surrey (Bury Hill Wood/Leith Hill, Brockham and Horse Hill), West Sussex (Lidsey, Broadford Bridge and Markwells Wood), North Yorkshire (Kirby Misperton), East Yorkshire (West Newton) and Lancashire (Preston New Road).
It said the failings involved all the regulators: Environment Agency, Health and Safety Executive, Oil and Gas Authority and planning authorities.
- Breaches of permit or permission conditions
- Working without permission
- Out-dated permits
- Lack of coordination by regulators
- Lack of communication with communities
- Poor monitoring
- Financial uncertainty
- Over-reliance on self-regulation
- Unsuitable sites
- Failure to meet licence conditions
- Delays in decommissioning
The report said the drilling of a sidetrack without planning permission at Brockham highlighted a lack of joined-up working between the regulators and the need for vigilance.
“Had it not been for a group of residents and a protection camp monitoring and reporting about activities on site, this serious breach might never have come to light.”
At Markwells Wood, the site was never issued with an environmental permit so the Environment Agency had no regulatory remit for decommissioning.
Residents living near the Broadford Bridge site reported Sunday working, against planning conditions, but the local authority took no punitive action against the operator.
There were breaches of planning and/or permit conditions at Kirby Misperton, Preston New Road and West Newton.
Mr Taylor said:
“The public should be able to expect regular and independent monitoring and sufficient and robust enforcement, even on seemingly minor issues like traffic breaches or with respect to lighting or noise at night/outside normal working hours. There are good reasons for these rules; these activities cause disturbance to local people and harm their environment.”
- Clearly define conventional and unconventional reservoirs and operations
- Review volume-based definition of hydraulic fracturing
Use of acid
- Establish government-led investigation into operations using acid
- Regulate acid operations in the same way as hydraulic fracturing
- Fast-track permitting of older sites
- Close regulatory loophole on decommissioning of older sites
- Require companies to publish daily operational logs
- Extend the traffic light system to cover acidisation, water reinjection and pressure release
- Require operators to pause operations for longer after more powerful seismic activity
- Require operators to install geophone arrays around well sites in the absence of 3D seismic surveys
- Require operators to provide operational information to allow correlation between activity and seismic events
- Require a moratorium on operations where there is no identifiable cause of induced seismicity
- Apply the Civil Contingencies Act to all oil and gas sites
- Require Local Resilience Forums to advise schools, residents and businesses of risks
- Keep decisions on oil and gas sites with local authorities
- Require local consultation on all applications
- The Oil & Gas Authority should cease renewing licences where operators have failed to carry out work commitments
- Licences should be surrendered where not suitable site can be found within licence phases
- Introduce independent scrutiny of the Oil & Gas Authority’s roles as promoter and regulator of the industry
- Oil & Gas Authority should scrutinise financial information provided by companies
- Stock Exchange should carry out more rigorous monitoring and enforcement
- Require bonds as a condition of any planning approvals
- Attach a statement of liability to planning decisions to make it clear who is responsible for future problems
- Establish an agreed procedure and order for obtaining permits and permissions
- Set out a protocol for liaison between regulators for individual sites
- Require companies to consult the public before they make a planning application and at all stages of the planning process
- Establish a recommended procedure for community engagement
DrillOrDrop invited representatives of the regulators to comment on the report. This post will be updated with any response.
Katherine Gray of UK Onshore Oil and Gas said:
“While this document goes to great lengths to highlight a few minor permit breaches, it conveniently fails to mention that compared to every other industry the Environment Agency regulates, onshore oil and gas was by far the best performing in the latest available data.
“It appears some see things differently, but I for one would be very concerned at a regulator that never found anything to regulate. Indeed, this paper serves only as an encouraging progress report for the diligence and stringency of our five separate regulators.
“It may be of note to the authors that the Environment Agency regularly visits our sites to conduct assessments, through regional and national permitting teams. Similarly, we take issue with the opinion that we fail to engage with the communities near our sites. Between the public exhibitions, local newspaper adverts, community meetings, telephone calls, newsletters, local business discussions and social media updates, it seems the only people who aren’t engaging with our industry are activist groups committed to scaring local people with tired myths.”
Ann Stewart, of the Weald Action Group, said:
“The government boasts about our “gold standard” regulations to promote industrial drilling in the green belt and in rural communities.
“These communities find that the reality is different. Regulations are frequently breached and the systems to deal with this are flawed and inadequate.
“We are grateful to Keith Taylor for collecting evidence and documenting the many weaknesses in our regulatory system.”