MYTH #5: “The UK has gold standard fracking regulations.”

Dead hare in a ditch at West Newton

Dead hare in a ditch at West Newton

FACT: This myth underpins the government’s argument for their ‘dash for gas’, and their belief that whatever problems there have been in every other country that has allowed fracking, and whatever the risks to public health, air and water quality, the environment and pretty much anything else, it can all be avoided because in the UK we have ‘”gold standard fracking regulations.”

However, the regulations that would govern fracking were created for the conventional oil and gas industry, not fracking, despite the very different – and in the UK, untried – technology that would be used. An important paper called ‘Fracking – Minding the Gaps’ by Joanne Hawkins in the Environmental Law Review has examined the current legislation in detail, and concludes: “These controls were designed pre-fracking and their application leaves a number of gaps, which may risk harm to human health and/or damage to the environment. Under the current regulatory system, the uncertainty and risk associated with fracking is not justifiable.” We strongly recommend that you read the whole paper, which is well-written for non-technical readers and is only 14 pages long, but if you don’t have the time, this interview with Joanne Hawkins is also very illuminating.

So, we have a regulatory system that has been designed for conventional gas production, not the new technology of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing, or ‘fracking’ for short. But how well does this regulatory system work for the conventional gas industry? Back in 2012, the Guardian reported that “companies operating in the North Sea have been fined for oil spills on just seven occasions since 2000, even though 4,123 separate spills were recorded over the same period, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has confirmed“. That doesn’t sound like ‘gold-standard regulations’ to us.

Whenever the government is challenged on fracking regulations, the government uses the same tactic as it does when questioned on health, by always referring back to one particular report they commissioned back in 2012. This report, by the Royal Society and the Royal Institute of Engineering, is called Shale gas extraction in the UK: a review of hydraulic fracturing. This report, which is now over four years old, suggests that shale gas extraction can be managed safely only if 10 recommendations – shown on pages 6 and 7 of this report – are implemented in full.

However, it is very questionable whether these recommendations have been implemented, a view supported by Joanne Hawkins in her paper in the Environmental Law Review referenced earlier. A paper by Michael Hill, B.Sc. C.Eng. MIET, which was presented at a conference of the Engineering Institute of Technology, concludes that only one of the ten recommendations has been implemented in full. You can read the paper by clicking on the link below.
Mike Hill Paper on RS Report and Current Status – Final4

Also, many people believe that however strong the regulations, they cannot prevent the harm that fracking may cause. This view is also held by Louis Allstadt, Retired Executive vice-president of Mobil, who said in April 2014, “Making fracking safe is simply not possible.”

However, for the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume that the regulations could make fracking safe. In fact, this is a requirement of the Natural Health England report referred to in Myth #5, which states: “In conclusion, the currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health from exposure to the emissions associated with shale gas extraction will be low if the operations are properly run and regulated. In order to ensure this, regulation needs to be strongly and robustly applied.”

The Environment Agency (EA) is the main body responsible for policing the fracking industry – the same EA that has failed to maintain flood protection across the UK for the last few years. How can they be trusted to monitor this new and potentially dangerous new industry if they can’t maintain our flood defences adequately?

Also the EA have been on the government’s hit list for cuts over the last few years. In 2013 the EA cut 1,700 jobs when they lost 15% of their budget, and DEFRA, which funds the EA, is suffering budget cuts of up to 30% over the next four years. How could they possibly cope if there were thousands of new fracking wells to monitor?

Fracking and gold-standard regulations – the story so far …

The onshore gas industry is still very much in its infancy in the UK, but the regulatory system already seems woefully adequate, as these examples show.

  • At Preese Hall in Lancashire, at the only well that has so far been fracked, there were two mini-earthquakes. One earthquake, perhaps, you could forgive – but why wasn’t the site shut down before they caused another one? Where were the regulators? Interestingly, at that time there were no regulations covering fracking and seismic activity, although a new traffic light system has been brought in since.
  • The West Newton exploratory well-site in East Yorkshire made national headlines last September when neighbours complained about a foul smell coming from the site. However, this was just one of a series of problems facing West Newton over the summer and early autumn of 2014. During that period the site and its operator, Rathlin Energy breached environmental permit conditions eight times in three months. To find out the details, please read this Drill or Drop investigation. Why was this allowed to happen? Where were the regulators? And amazingly, despite these multiple infractions, Rathlin were still given permits to continue the operation at West Newton for another three years.
  • It was revealed in 2015 that a Coal Bed Methane site at Doe Green, between Warrington and Widnes, has been operating without any Environmental Permits at all. The site, which is operated by IGas, has been producing coal bed methane since 2009 and now generates electricity from the gas. You can read more about this lack of regulation here.
  • At the Barton Moss exploratory well-site, near Manchester, an environmental expert found ‘dangerously high levels of contaminated mud’ near the site, as reported in the Manchester Evening News. Why was that not prevented by our ‘gold standard regulations’?
  • Another big concern about fracking is fugitive methane leaks, both during production and also after the well has been decomissioned and abandoned (see Myth #8). One would think that conventional gas wells that had already been abandoned would be monitored regularly by the Environment Agency, wouldn’t you? Well, you’d be wrong. A survey by Durham University’s industry-funded fracking research group, ReFINE, shows that 30% of abandoned wells are quietly leaking methane into the atmosphere, with no EA oversight. You can read more about this on Drill or Drop, which includes a link to the original survey. Imagine the scenario in, say, 50 years’ time, if tens of thousands of wells have been drilled, fracked and abandoned, and 30% are quietly leaking methane.

And that’s all before fracking has even got started. The truth is that once a company has got the necessary permits, the industry is effectively self-regulating and there is very little inspection by the regulatory bodies. Companies are only required to send in data from the well-site every few months, and there are hardly any on-site inspections – and no random unannounced inspections.  That is clearly not the case now, and is less like to be true once there are thousands of fracking wells all over the country.

So the government’s argument that fracking can only be safe if regulations are “strongly and robustly applied” does not stand up to scrutiny, as no matter how strong the regulations are on paper, if they are not applied, then they are worthless. As Kevin Hollinrake said to FFR supporters ast the Malton Show last year, “industry doesn’t do what’s expected, it does what’s inspected.”

This may be one of the reasons why supporters of fracking are so keen to push the next myth, as they know that this is the one that will worry a lot of people, whatever their views on the safety or otherwise of fracking.