Fracking 'should continue with checks'

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A controversial gas extraction method which triggered two earth tremors near Blackpool last year should continue, but under strict conditions, a government-named panel of experts says.

The process - fracking - involves pumping water and chemicals into shale rock at high pressure to extract gas.

Shale gas is seen as a way of ensuring relatively cheap energy supplies.

But critics have warned of possible side effects - including the contamination of ground water.

Test fracking (short for "fracturing") by the Cuadrilla company near Blackpool stopped in 2011 when two earthquakes were felt at the surface.

Start Quote

We don't need earth tremor-causing fracking to meet our power needs - we need a seismic shift in energy policy”

End Quote Andy Atkins Friends of the Earth

The government-appointed panel believes there will probably be more quakes but that they will be too small to do structural damage above ground. It recommends more monitoring.

The panel's report now goes out for a six-week consultation period, with the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) issuing a firm set of regulations at some point after that.

The panel agrees with a Cuadrilla report from late last year that test fracks at the company's Preese Hall site did cause two earthquakes of Magnitudes 2.3 and 1.5 in April and May.

"[Cuadrilla's experts] said there was a very low probability of other earthquakes during future treatments of other wells," said one of the report's authors, Prof Peter Styles from Keele University.

"We agree that [last year's] events are attributable to the existence of an adjacent geological fault that had not been identified.

"There might be other comparable faults, (and) we believe it's not possible to categorically reject the possibility of further quakes."

Report author Prof Peter Styles says any earthquakes are "not likely to cause significant damage"

Such events might well be felt at the surface but are extremely unlikely to be significant, he said.

Shale gas is found in layers of relatively weak sedimentary rock, typically several kilometres underground.

Coal mining has generated thousands of earthquakes down the years; and on the basis of all the data gathered from this, the panel says, fracking is unlikely to produce anything larger than a Magnitude 3.

"There's no record of a quake at this size doing any structural damage," said Prof Styles. "But they would be strongly felt, and there is a possibility of superficial damage."

When asked on the BBC's Today programme whether he was any more concerned about fracking than coal-mining, Dr Brian Baptie, head of seismology at the British Geological Survey (BGS) said: "No; given appropriate guidelines and appropriate monitoring, I see no reason why it shouldn't go ahead."

The panel recommends four precautions regarding Cuadrilla's Preese Hall operation and other projects in the Bowland Shale area of Lancashire:

  • all injections of fracking fluid must include a preliminary injection, followed by monitoring
  • the growth of fractures in the shale should be monitored
  • operations should monitor seismic events in real time
  • operators should observe a "traffic light" regime, with quakes of magnitude 0.5 or above triggering a "red light" and an immediate halt, followed by (unspecified) remedial action.

Magnitude 0.5 is a considerably lower threshold than the 1.7 proposed by Cuadrilla's experts, though the panel emphasised that other countries such as Switzerland use the still higher threshold of 2.3.

"We've opted for a much lower, more conservative option," said Dr Baptie.

"Even with real-time monitoring, there will be a time lag between what we've put into the ground and what we get back out in the form of earthquakes."

Operators should also minimise quakes by allowing the fracking liquid to flow back up the well soon after injection, the panel says, rather than keeping the rock under prolonged pressure.

Fracking graphic

It also recommends that seismic hazards should be properly assessed before new exploration is permitted.

This would involve seismic monitoring to establish what levels of activity are normal in that location, analysis of geological faults, and the use of computer models to assess the potential impact of any induced earthquakes.

The three members of the panel - Prof Styles, Dr Baptie and Dr Chris Green, an independent fracking expert based in Lancashire - said this information should be publicly available.

Mark Miller, Cuadrilla's chief executive, welcomed the report.

"We are pleased that the experts have come to a clear conclusion that it is safe to allow us to resume hydraulic fracturing, following the procedures outlined in the review," he said.

He said the company had already begun to amend procedures in light of expert advice.

Richard Moorman, CEO of Tamboran Resources, a company with permits to frack in Northern Ireland, said the risk of tremors or water contamination was low.

"The reality of any kind of incident would be extremely local; it's also extremely uncommon."

Map showing shale deposits across the UK

The government sees shale gas as a valuable energy resource for the future.

Cuadrilla claims that the site it has explored in the Bowland Shale contains 200 trillion cubic feet of gas, more than the UK's known offshore reserve - though only a portion of this would be economically recoverable.

"If shale gas is to be part of the UK's energy mix we need to have a good understanding of its potential environmental impacts and what can be done to mitigate those impacts," said David MacKay, Decc's chief scientific adviser.

"This comprehensive independent expert review of Cuadrilla's evidence suggests a set of robust measures to make sure future seismic risks are minimised - not just at this location but at any other potential sites across the UK."

Other companies want to explore for shale gas in Fermanagh, the Vale of Glamorgan, Somerset, Kent and Sussex.

But local groups are concerned about groundwater contamination as well as earthquakes, while environment groups point out that basing the UK's energy strategy on gas will make it much harder to achieve climate change targets.

Speaking on the Today programme, Tony Jupiter, former head of Friends of the Earth UK, said that the recommendations needed to go further:

"I remain to be convinced... that this is a credible part of meeting the 80% reduction targets in greenhouse gas emissions that are enshrined in law in this country."

"We don't need earth tremor-causing fracking to meet our power needs - we need a seismic shift in energy policy," said Andy Atkins, director of Friends of the Earth UK.

"We should be developing the huge potential of clean British energy from the sun, wind and waves, not more dirty and dangerous fossil fuels."

But Simon Moore, environment and energy research fellow at thinktank Policy Exchange, thinks that shale gas could also be an "environmental opportunity".

"It's something that can potentially help with meeting our climate change gas goals".

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  • rate this

    Comment number 312.

    @292. Little_Old_Me

    "That "research" assumes using ONLY wind"

    No it doesn't - it examines the contribution made by existing wind-farms to the grid. But since you responded within 3 minutes, I'm guessing you didn't even read it.

    I suspect though that numbers probably confuse you - far simpler to just close your eyes and continue to spout the same unfounded dogma.

  • rate this

    Comment number 311.

    the cost of extracting 'new' gas and oil reserves discovered recently is infinitely more expensive than when these reserves were plentiful and, easy to extract. If you spend £10 to get £1 of gas/oil where's the logic in that?
    Use the £10 to get a better return on your investment, look to be developing sustainable energy supplies while you still have the £10. Too late when your £10 has gone

  • rate this

    Comment number 310.

    North sea oil revenues were certainly wasted.

    From the very moment North sea oil production began the Government of Norway wisely started a fund into which the surplus wealth was deposited. The fund is commonly referred to as The Oil Fund and has total assets of more than $500 billion.

    What does the UK have to show from North Sea oil? Almost nothing by comparison.

  • rate this

    Comment number 309.

    Fracking hell!
    I bet that extracting the fracking gas from the fracking shale won't reduce our fracking fuel bills.

  • rate this

    Comment number 308.

    Dunno about you, but I'd hate to be stuck up Blackpool Tower during an earthquake.

    And for those who claim fracking doesn't harm the environment, here are just some of the contents of Fraccing Fluid:

    Ethylele Glycol (used in houshold cleaning fluid)
    Borate Salts (cosmetics)
    Sodium /Potassium Carbonate (detergents)
    Isopropanol (deoderants)

    Oh, and it also becomes radioactive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 307.

    Fracking, deepwater drilling, tar sands, oil conflict....It's becoming more difficult and more expensive to get energy from fossil fuels. How hard does it need to become before people, and their leaders, consider and embrace a meaningful change in the way we gather and use energy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 306.

    My understanding is that this process uses an awful lot of water, can someone tell us where this is going to come from when apparently we already have a shortage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 305.

    Odd, isn't it, that the government has reservations about fracking, but is actully offering £1 bn to anyone who can come up with a viable scheme to 'bury' CO2 - presumably at high pressure - underground.
    What could possibly go wrong..?

  • rate this

    Comment number 304.

    What many people are overlooking, is that electric power generation from natural gas produces far less CO2, for a given energy yield, than does making it from coal or heavy oil. Methane is mainly hydrogen, not carbon, like coal is.

    This resource, if properly used, could significantly reduce our GHG output.

  • rate this

    Comment number 303.

    Typical....anything for money for the cronies isn't it.

    None of the proceeds will come my way, but just like with banking, I will just be expected to fork out when it all goes disastrously wrong...

  • rate this

    Comment number 302.

    Shale gas is a godsend that will increase prosperity, reduce our dependence on imported fuel and reduce harm to the environment.

    The government knows this and is already quietly rowing back on all those ridiculous green policies – vetoing more wind farms, scrapping plans for more green taxes etc.

    The dark age of pessimism driven by green hysteria is finaly coming to an end.

  • rate this

    Comment number 301.

    That's fine as long as the panel of experts and Caudrilla are prepared to pay for all damage they cause. If my house develops cracks then they will be getting sued.

  • rate this

    Comment number 300.

    "235.Mr W
    Speaking as a lancastrian , i think when it comes to things happening to the ground beneath our feet its the people of Lancashire who should derive any benefits from fracking . ."

    So if i move to Lancashire.. I'll get a slice of the Fraccing Pie????

  • rate this

    Comment number 299.

    //Rebecca Riot
    12 Minutes ago
    Thatcher Government defeated miners to replace our coal fired power stations with gas,//

    No, she defeated them because they were a bunch of fascist thugs, widely despised by the working classes. She could not allow them to hold the country to ransom. In fact, they defeated themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 298.

    In the same week that has seen the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic (Steering at 22 knots, in the dark, in a known iceberg area was such a good idea.)
    The potential for creating earthquakes close to 3 nuclear power stations at Heysham also seems such a good idea!

  • rate this

    Comment number 297.

    Even if they do manage to get gas from shale in the UK, you can be assured that the public will not benefit - this will all be controlled for the benefit of the global megacorps and banking elite that now rule the western democracies. The energy bills for the likes of you and I will only go in one direction - up. []

  • rate this

    Comment number 296.

    wvpTV . Surely your calculations are assuming all this is released in one year. This reserve of energy will last many many years so if your calculations regarding the total are correct it will be spread over a long period.

  • rate this

    Comment number 295.

    279.Rebecca Riot
    You haven't read my comment properly - I said Aberdeen became ONE of the wealthiest cities in the UK thanks to the oil boom. Please provide evidence to show what % of oil profits went to Enron. There were dozens of companies including UK, European and American, employing tens of thousands of UK workers in the north sea - companies and local individuals all profited.

  • rate this

    Comment number 294.

    Independence for Lancashire? As well as gas we can also supply the rest of you with water at a price.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 293.

    Not extracting this gas is paramount to refusing to open the fridge door and then moaning about being hungry.


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