On the first anniversary of the moratorium on fracking, shale gas industry proposals to deal with earthquakes have been dismissed as “insufficient”.
The industry regulator said today the proposals would not “satisfy us that associated hydraulic fracturing could take place consistent with the government’s policy aims”.
A year ago, the government announced a presumption against approving high volume hydraulic fracturing in England. It said current technology could not accurately predict the probability or magnitude of earthquakes linked to fracking.
The announcement followed a series of small earthquakes induced by fracking at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site in Lancashire in 2018 and 2019. They included a 2.9ML seismic event on 26 August 2019, the largest fracking induced earthquake in the UK.
A written ministerial statement said the moratorium would stay in place until “compelling new scientific evidence is provided which address the concerns about the prediction and management of induced seismicity”.
Cuadrilla has predicted the moratorium would be lifted once “appropriate measures” were put in place to manage and mitigate risks from induced seismicity. Today, the industry maintained it was taking a “science-led approach” to lift the moratorium.
But the regulator, the Oil & Gas Authority (OGA), which advised the government on the moratorium, told DrillOrDrop:
“In reviewing recent publications and work on induced seismicity, the OGA’s view remains unchanged.
“The OGA has had some high-level exchanges with the industry on the nature and scope of the new scientific evidence that needs to be undertaken to address the concerns set out in the government moratorium, and has given feedback that the research proposed thus far by industry would be insufficient to satisfy us that associated hydraulic fracturing could take place consistent with the government’s policy aims.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which announced the moratorium and oversees the OGA, told us:
“The government’s position on fracking has not changed and we are committed to cutting our emissions to net zero by 2050 while growing our economy.”
In January 2020, a BEIS minister said lifting the moratorium would need “a geo-mechanical survey of the specific basins concerned”. The government did not intend to commission this work but the OGA would “oversee the determination of the criteria for such an examination”.
The minister, Lord Duncan of Springbank, added:
“We would have to make sure that whatever emerged from that would guarantee the safety and sustainability of the resource and of the local communities.”
DrillOrDrop asked the OGA whether the industry was undertaking the geo-mechanical survey.
The OGA said it had commissioned four further studies to investigate data from fracking of the second well at Preston New Road (PNR2), which caused the 2.9ML earthquake.
These would follow studies on PNR1z, the first Preston New Road well that was fracked in 2018, the OGA said.
The studies were “separate to the comprehensive geomechanical study”, it added.
The OGA said:
“the objective of these studies is to better understand both the subsurface causes and surface impacts of the felt seismicity at PNR2, and to explore further predictive methods for induced seismicity.
“It is anticipated that these studies and the datasets acquired from the PNR2 operations will be published on the OGA website shortly.
“It is not the purpose of this work to address the need for the considerable body of new evidence from industry required to demonstrate that hydraulic fracturing can be conducted safely, sustainably and with minimal disturbance.”
The representative of the industry, UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG), told DrillOrDrop today:
“We continue to work with the science and our regulators to address the issue of seismicity.”
UKOOG’s chief executive, Ken Cronin, said:
“Our members will continue to take a science-led approach and are engaging with Government and our regulators to lift the moratorium and provide a reliable, lower carbon source of indigenous natural gas for the UK’s homes, businesses and industry.”
Mr Cronin said seismicity was caused by a wide variety of sources, and industries. He said it was “less of an occurrence during hydraulic fracturing activity than critics would suspect”.
“Indeed, recent research has shown that overall, cases of induced seismicity associated with hydraulic fracturing are rare when compared with the total number of stimulated wells drilled and the occurrence of seismicity is highly variable between different basins and their formations.
“Thousands of small seismic events occur every year across the UK, whether natural or induced. In just the last two months, multiple seismic events of up to 1.6 in magnitude have occurred at one geothermal site in Cornwall due to flow testing of the wells. Events such as these similarly happen at quarrying and large construction sites – but ultimately we permit them due to the net gain the activity delivers.”
UKOOG said gas would “continue to play an important role in the years leading up to 2050 and beyond”. It said it agreed with the government’s conclusion that gas was a “source of secure and affordable energy” and that it was critical that the UK had good access to domestic and international gas markets.
“Fracking is over”
There has also been no work at Ineos shale gas exploration sites in north east Derby and south Yorkshire which have planning permission.
In June, the energy minister, Kwasi Kwarteng” told BBC North West Tonight that “fracking was over” and the government had “moved on”. In September, he told parliament the government had sent a “clear message” to the industry that fracking was “extremely unlikely” to happen in England.
But other forms of well stimulation are not covered by the moratorium. It applies only to associated hydraulic fracturing which is defined in law by the volume of water pumped into a well.
In February, more than 600 academics, politicians and campaigners signed a letter calling on the government to replace the moratorium with an outright ban and extend it to other forms of well stimulation, including the use of acid.
Mr Kwarteng responded saying the government had no plans to extend the moratorium on fracking to other forms of well stimulation. He described acidisation, a process that has concerned campaign groups, as “a common technique carried out to clean and develop wells”.
In September, Egdon Resources confirmed that it planned an operation, described by the Environment Agency as “small-scale hydraulic fracturing”, at its Wressle oil site in north Lincolnshire.
On the anniversary of the moratorium, the community campaign group, Brockham Oil Watch, said recent research highlighted “the need for an expanded ban for all well stimulation treatments for oil and gas exploration and production”.
2 November 2019: Government statement ending support for fracking
4 November 2019: Written ministerial statement on the moratorium from Andrea Leadsom, then secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy
9 January 2020: Questions to Lord Duncan of Springbank about lifting the moratorium