The Environment Agency has warned Cuadrilla over allowing climate-changing methane to vent into the atmosphere from the Preston New Road fracking site.
The company breached three conditions of its environmental permit and has been instructed to update its procedures.
The breaches emerged during an audit of flaring and gas management at the site near Blackpool during February and March 2019.
An estimated 2.7-6.8 tonnes of methane were sent unburned through the flare, the Environment Agency (EA) said.
The regulator concluded in a compliance assessment report released today:
- Cuadrilla vented methane for reasons other than safety, against permit conditions
- Cuadrilla failed to follow operational procedures for the flare
- Cuadrilla failed to follow the permit condition on monitoring methane concentrations in the flare
The EA said the permit breaches did not represent a risk to people and had “minimal to no impact on the environment”.
But a local community group questioned whether similar failures could happen in future with more serious consequences.
Cuadrilla has previously been warned about other minor breaches of its permit at Preston New Road:
- Two in October 2018 (details)
- One in April 2018 (details)
- Seven times in 10 months in 2017 (details)
These breaches covered issues including methane levels, monitoring frack fluid, waste management and surface water and site drainage.
The methane problems arose when gas levels from the fracked well were low, the EA said.
This followed the failure of the company to fully frack the stages of the well during October-December 2018.
Cuadrilla added nitrogen to help lift the methane to the surface of the well. But this reduced the concentration of methane to less than 40% and, on one occasion, down to 30%. This meant that the gas mixture, now including large amounts of inert nitrogen, would not burn in the flare.
The environmental permit for Preston New Road has a condition which states there should be “no venting except where necessary for safety purposes”. (permit condition 2.1.1)
The EA said:
“The flare register provided by the operator up until 31 December 2018 … shows that venting had occurred for reasons other than for safety purposes”.
It said unburned methane was recorded by the monitor at the site boundary. It gave as examples: 35 minutes on 14 January 2019 and 80 minutes on 20 January 2019.
The EA said there were four reports of methane above the external notification threshold of 7.1 parts per million (ppm) and two reports above the internal threshold of 5.0 ppm.
At the lower level, Cuadrilla should review onsite activities for the cause of the methane levels. The higher level should prompt a report to the regulators.
The EA said:
“We consider that the risk of incurring elevated levels of methane at the site boundary was reasonably foreseeable in these circumstances”.
It said Cuadrilla had not submitted an impact assessment or management plan with the permit application, or an assessment of appropriate measures to mitigate potential pollution.
Breaches of environmental permits are classified from 1-4, where 1 is the most serious and 4 the least. Methane venting at Preston New Road was classed as a category 3 breach.
The EA said:
“In respect of the … non-compliance you have been issued with a warning. At present we do not intend to take further enforcement action. This does not preclude us from taking additional enforcement action if further relevant information comes to light or offences continue.”
The company was told to provide the EA with an update on whether it wanted to apply to vary its permit condition on venting.
Cuadrilla had propane on site at Preston New Road as a booster fuel for the flare when methane levels were low. But the EA said the company chose not to use it.
The procedures for operating the flare, as part of the permit, required:
“where sustained periods, but inadequate quantities of combustible well returns are encountered, the flares will be supported with supplemental fuel after five minutes” (condition 2.3.1 (a)
The EA said:
“Contrary to the approved procedure, the operator chose not to add the support fuel (propane) as this may have resulted in increased emission, there being a high probability that propane could also have been released unburnt.”
The breach was classed as a category 4 (least serious). The EA said Cuadrilla should review operational procedures to take account of high volumes of nitrogen in gas returns.
A third condition of the permit required the operator to carry out continuous methane concentration monitoring of the gas in the feed to the flare.
The EA said:
“The operator monitored at a frequency of 30-minute intervals instead of 10-minute intervals as stated by their procedure.” (permit condition 3.5.1 (a)
It added that there was no impact on human health, quality of life or the environment from the breach of the condition. It was classed as another category 4 breach.
The EA added:
“Operational procedures are required to be submitted to take account of any updated monitoring frequency.”
“Non-compliances are very worrying”
The EA said it had reviewed data at Preston New Road for other substances, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes, during the period of venting. UK air quality objectives had not been exceeded and there were no likely health impacts, it said.
But the Preston New Road Action Group, which has campaigned against Cuadrilla’s fracking operations, said this evening:
“For those of us who live close to the site to read about these non-compliances is very worrying. Methane has been released into the air we breathe and will also be exacerbating our climate change emergency.
“Approved procedures have not been correctly followed and the permit has been breached. How can we be certain that other failures like this will not happen again in the future, with far more serious consequences?
“This report shows that the amount of gas returning to the surface is pitiful, as they were only able to light the flare 6 times. Is it really worth all the problems it is causing? ”
“Most monitored site in Europe”
Nick Mace, permitting, planning and environmental manager at Cuadrilla, said the team continued to work closely with the Environment Agency in a proactive and transparent manner.
“We are fully committed to delivering our shale exploration operations in a safe and environmentally responsible way as a top priority and have amply demonstrated how we do this on a day to day basis. We publish a range of monitoring data each month online so people are able to hold us to account and be reassured about the high standards we have in place.
“The nitrogen lift relates to a standard oil and gas procedure which is performed by operators throughout the world. The impact of the non-compliance is considered minor, with minimal to no impact on the environment. The resulting emissions did not represent a risk to people and the EA confirmed there were no exceedances of the UK air quality objectives and no likelihood of health impacts. Cuadrilla will work will the Environment Agency to proceduralise this approach for future operations.
“Local people can be reassured that Preston New Road is the most monitored site in Europe and we continue to work closely with a range of regulators each and every day.”