An oil exploration well in one of the most sensitive parts of the country has lacked scrutiny because of legal loopholes.
The site at Markwells Wood is in an area of the South Downs National Park that feeds springs which supply drinking water to Portsmouth.
Local people have discovered that drilling fluid was lost during well construction in 2010. They also commissioned a report which showed that pollutants could travel rapidly underground through chalk channels to the springs.
But Markwells Wood was drilled before onshore oil and gas wells required an environmental permit. This means the Environment Agency (EA) has had no responsibility for on-site monitoring and regulation of operations.
The site is now being decommissioned and the lack of a permit means the EA has no role in that process either.
Responsibility has passed instead to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) but this will last only until the site stops being a workplace. Then no regulator will, apparently, check what happens.
The community group, Markwells Wood Watch, told DrillOrDrop:
“We are astounded that this major operation of decommissioning in such an environmentally-sensitive location can take place with so little scrutiny. An independent well integrity test, prior to plugging, is the minimum that the community would expect to have been carried out.”
Group member, Michael Harbour, who has investigated the role of the regulators at Markwells Wood, said:
“It seems extraordinary that, despite the significant loss of drilling fluids and an independent hydrogeological report that pointed to the vulnerability of the aquifer beneath Markwells Wood, the EA and the HSE adopted a ‘hands off’ approach. No on-site monitoring, no analysis of well stimulation methods and no proper risk assessment of the vulnerability of the hydrogeological zone were carried out by either the EA or the HSE.
“The criteria for plugging and abandoning wells may be of the highest standard, but without on-site supervision there is no guarantee that the work will be completed satisfactorily. Should it be done badly, and pollutants enter the water supply, the damage could be irreversible.”
Markwells Wood Watch has called for permit regulations introduced in 2013, which post-date drilling the Markwells Wood well, to be applied immediately to all older onshore oil and gas sites. It also said site inspections should be conducted during all phases of operations.
The group said there should be “meaningful collaboration” between the regulators. Local planning authorities should also require financial security for decommissioning and aftercare of wells to avoid taxpayers having to fund clean-ups if an operator went out of business.
Investigations reveal regulatory loopholes
Through a series of questions to the EA and HSE, Markwells Wood Watch uncovered legal loopholes that have left the well largely unregulated.
The EA told Markwells Wood Watch:
“The EA were never in receipt of an application for a Permit for this site.”
No site visits
Asked whether the EA had visited Markwells Wood, the agency said:
“As this well was drilled prior to 2013, this information was not a requirement and as a result we do not hold any information on this.”
Asked about whether there would be monitoring of the site after abandonment, the EA told Markwells Wood Watch:
“As an application was never made, we did not issue a Permit. As no Permit is in place for this site, we have no monitoring requirements or parameters to monitor against. The only potential permitting implications would be if the Operator were carrying out a groundwater activity during this process. We have requested and received information and have assessed it accordingly and have deemed that no groundwater activities are taking place and a Groundwater Permit will not be required.”
Michael Harbour said:
“It is unacceptable that the EA has relied on the operator to confirm that there was no groundwater activity in the decommissioning of the well. There could have been contaminants on or around the membrane that covered the surface of the site, as a result of the drilling works or from the storage and transport of hazardous wastewater, which could have leached into the soil.”
No EA role in decommissioning
Usually, operators have to demonstrate to the EA that a site has been decommissioned safely and returned to its original condition. The EA will not allow an operator to surrender its environmental permit until it is satisfied that the well has been decommissioned according to requirements and that no pollution has occurred.
On decommissioning at Markwells Wood, the EA said:
“A permit was never issued by the EA for the Markwells Wood site and therefore we do not have any regulatory remit for it.
“As a result, the plugging and abandonment of this site will fall under the regulatory remit of the Health and Safety Executive.”
The EA added:
“We have not received any formal notification from UKOG as to the activities at the site.
“The decommissioning and plugging and abandonment activities of the well will fall under the remit of the HSE who will assess any programme of works proposals and assessments of the integrity of the well. Any Planning requirements/conditions will fall to the Local Planning Authority to control. This may include the reinstatement of the site.
“As the site was never granted a Permit, the EA have no provisions to inspect the decommissioning/monitoring of any plugging and abandonment activities.”
Markwells Wood Watch criticised the regulators for “a rigid bureaucratic approach to their roles” and questioned why the EA had not been prepared to consider extraordinary permitting.
The EA said it had issued a Regulatory Permission Statement for decommissioning oil and gas wells drilled onshore before 2013. This required operators to, among other things, “make sure there’s no evidence of pollution”. Operators must also not carry out a groundwater activity, cause risk to water, air, soil, plants or animals, cause a nuisance from noise or smells, or “adversely affect the countryside or places of special interest”.
Markwells Wood Watch said the permission statement offered “no assurance that proper standards were being met” because the EA relied on operators to confirm that they had complied.
Questions to the HSE
Markwells Wood Watch also put a series of questions to the HSE about its responsibilities for the oil site.
The HSE and EA produced a Memorandum of Understanding in 2000 to ensure regulation of sites and processes were coordinated. In 2012, they produced a joined policy statement called Working together to regulate unconventional oil and gas developments.
Markwells Wood Watch said the responses to its questions suggested that the two regulators had not worked closely at Markwells Wood.
Work place only
The HSE confirmed in response to a Freedom of Information request the limits of its responsibility:
“Once the abandonment process is complete and the site ceases to be a workplace HSE has no further jurisdiction (or vires) to regulate.” source
In response to questions on post-abandon monitoring, legacy plans, risks to the chalk aquifer and contingency if UKOG went out of business, the HSE said
“This is not within HSE’s remit” source
The HSE confirmed
“HSE has no records of any site monitoring or inspections of the Markwells Wood-1 and Horndean well sites [a neighbouring oil site] carried out by us” source
No risk assessments
Asked about risk assessments, the HSE said:
HSE had “not conducted any risk assessments regarding well integrity at any of the wells at the Horndean, Singleton and Markwells Wood. HSE does not carry out risk assessments on behalf of operators, but may inspect assessments carried out by them” source
The HSE also told Markwells Wood Watch it could not provide information on well stimulation, the process to improve the flow of a well, or the independent well examiner for the site:
“HSE does not hold any data or details of the well stimulation methods used at Markwells Wood or Horndean with regard to well operations.” Source
“Under regulation 18 of DCR it is the well operator’s duty to make arrangements for the examination of the well by an independent and competent person. There is no duty placed on the well operator to provide HSE with the name of that person and this information is not held by HSE.” Source
“Risk of severe consequences”
Markwells Wood was drilled and operated by Northern Petroleum until 2014. The current operator, UK Oil & Gas, has provided notifications to the HSE of its intention to decommission the site. But Markwells Wood Watch said the company had not informed the EA, South Downs National Park Authority (the local minerals authority) or local people – nor was it required to do so.
The National Park Authority has required no financial security for restoration and aftercare of Markwells Wood in case the operator becomes unable to restore the site.
Michael Harbour said:
“In the long term there is an issue about who will monitor the integrity of orphaned wells in the UK. Under current legislation there are many such sites that fall outside the remit of the EA and that pose potential risks to the environment.
“All organisations develop their own cultures – ‘how we do things here’ – some good and some bad. Without independent challenge and scrutiny bad practice can become the norm.
“Our investigations at Markwells Wood revealed that the regulators (EA and the HSE) relied on the operators to self- monitor and to report that they had complied with all regulations concerning well design, operation and decommissioning.
“We find this to be unsatisfactory. Such a system would not be tolerated in the inspection of schools or hospitals and should not be accepted in the minerals industry where poor workmanship could result in severe consequences for public health and for the environment.”