BBC admits “inaccurate” claim on fracking earthquake fears

The BBC has admitted it was inaccurate for a presenter on a flagship news programme to say that scientists had debunked fears about earthquakes near fracking sites.

The broadcaster has published a correction on its website.

Maps showing the intensity of the 2.9ML earth tremor based on reports to the British Geological Survey.
Source: Brian Baptie, BGS

The claim was made by the Today programme presenter, Justin Webb, in an item including an interview with Cuadrilla’s chief executive Francis Egan in April 2022.

Mr Webb said the UK’s decision to stop fracking in 2019 was based in part on fears about earthquakes being caused in areas around fracking sites. He said: “fears that were debunked at the time by scientists”.

In August 2019, fracking by Cuadrilla at its Preston New Road site near Blackpool caused a 2.9ML earthquake, which was felt across the region and led to reports of damage to buildings.

John Hobson, a local campaigner against fracking, complained to the BBC about the claim.

In its response to him, the BBC said:

“The Government placed a moratorium on fracking in 2019 after the Oil and Gas Authority reported that the causes of seismicity are heavily reliant on local geology.

“A Ministerial Statement on 4th November said ‘the limitations of current scientific evidence mean it is difficult to predict the probability and maximum magnitude of any seismic events, either in the Fylde or in other locations’.

“We agree that it was therefore inaccurate to suggest scientists have ‘debunked’ fears about earthquakes near fracking sites.

“In this case the presenter was alluding to a much earlier report by the Royal Society which suggested that seismic risks from fracking were low and likely to be of smaller magnitude than the UK’s largest natural seismic events or those induced by coal mining.”

Mr Hobson told DrillOrDrop:

“It is good that the BBC has finally recognised that the Mr Webb’s comment was ill- informed and misleading. It is frustrating that it took them nearly 6 months to get around to it.”

Two days after the BBC’s response, the government published a report from the British Geological Survey on fracking-induced earthquakes.

The report said forecasting the occurrence and magnitude of earthquakes remained “a scientific challenge for the geoscience community”. It also said there were “significant gaps in our knowledge of the sub-surface structure of potential shale resources” in parts of the UK.

15 replies »

    • I think one issue is one of terminology. The Online Encyclopaedia Britannica describes an earth movement of 2.9 on the Richter Scale as “generally not felt by people, though recorded on local instruments” and may be better described as an earth tremor or a mini earthquake. There is of course no doubt that fracking shocks the underlying earth crust, indeed that is it’s purpose, to split the shale rock, let out the gas and fill the cracks with sand and fluid to act as tiny pitprops. The vibration from the Cuadrila frack has been likened to a large lorry passing in the street outside. I remember that when seismic monitoring was set up at Balcombe the instruments were swamped by the vibration from the London- Brighton train passing nearby.

      Perusing online research suggests that all underground industrial activity gives rise to seismic effects, the Thoresby Colliery in Notts was recorded as producing 300 earth tremors a year. Drilling for geothermal heat extraction has undoubtedly led to quakes and/or tremors. A Scientific American article concludes “ All sources of energy—hydropower, nuclear, wind or coal—have advantages and disadvantages. Geothermal energy has the advantage of being clean and renewable, but earthquakes are a downside.”. This leads me to the crucial point that the issue of risk is not an absolute one but one of RELATIVE RISK, in other words a comparison of risk from various methods of energy production combined with a risk-benefit calculation.

    • Shalewatcher,
      PNR, Little Plumpton experienced a 2.9 ML fracking induced earthquake ”caused by a fault that could not have been detected on survey data.”
      There were 197 reports of structural or household damage to the British Geological Survey (BGS)
      Cuadrilla has not revealed how many complaints it received, nor the value of any damage or compensation paid.
      The BGS said it also received several thousand reports from people who felt the earthquake.
      BGS recorded the seismicity at intensity level 6.: ”Felt by all, with some minor structural damage eg fallen chimneys etc.”

  1. It’s all very well publishing a correction on the BBC website in a place which is viewed by few people, when the misinformation was broadcast on the very prominent Today programme. The BBC should now make their error clear and correct it on the same programme, where hopefully the same audience will have more chance of hearing it.

  2. I am trying again, even though I failed 5 years ago, to try and convince the UK agencies, the OGA (now NSTA), BGS and also the BEIS, that the Bowland-Hodder shale can’t be hydraulically fractured, and Cuadrilla at Preston New Road were not fracture enhancing the shale, but opening slick bedding planes so the injected fluids could propagate kilometers to a critically stressed fault – see At PNR, the UK agencies and Cuadrilla recklessly exposed the public to unacceptable induced seismicity risks.

    • In other news America, Australia and Russia do not want the UK to prospect their 1.3tcf (Trillions of standard cubic feet of gas) of onshore gas reserves, as it currently stands, as these countries are bound to lose out on huge export of such gas when the UK become self sufficient for the next 30 years by only producing 10% of the currently estimated reserves in place, and as a prescience becoming a net exported of such gas to other European countries, further making the American, Australian and Russian gas Less economic to import!!

      • Ellie seems to have missed the memo about the BGS downgrading gas in place estimates by 90% 3 years ago, and the geology not being suitable anyway.

        Prescience LOL

        • Refraction the process of Refracking an existing infrastructure John!! Downgrading or Not, YOU Anti’s will suckle at any teat in order for you push your misinformed agenda!
          Predictive text, it’s a darn shame John LOL

          • It’s Refracktion not Refraction. It’s a play on words Eli.

            So you think the BGS scientists are misinforming people do you.?That’s an interesting take. LOL

            And we are Antis not Anti’s btw x

    • Good luck with that. I submitted FOI requests to all the agencies you contacted, to explore what they did with your comments. The OGA had simply notified Cuadrilla, who effectively said ‘nothing to worry about’. No further discussion was admitted.

    • Hi Grant
      Thank you for continuing to bang your head against closed doors. Your scientific explanation for the earthquakes at Preston New Rd and Newdigate, explaining each according to its unique geology, are very persuasive and one day will be listened to. Also, describing all magnitude 3 earthquakes as tremors fails to take account of the shallow depth and soil conditions in PNR and Newdigate

  3. Headline: Ministers hope to ban solar projects from most English farms. Given the far more adverse consequences from onshore oil and gas installations on the land, I suggest they need to add this to the ban.

  4. BBC should be pulled up on this comment.
    We had a series or small tremors in Newdigate that had to be linked to activities at Horse Hill.
    3.1 on the scale centred around Newdigate was felt in my garden in Beare Green, it was not only a Big Bang but also caused bricks to fall of my tall garden wall – when I was next to it!

  5. Except it was investigated, Caroline, and declared not to be linked. So, I fear you are conflating BBC inaccuracies-frequent-and scientific appraisal.

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