A fracking firm caught up in a growing public outcry over earthquakes has made a staggering demand, as reported in the Times. It says that the rules around how strong earthquakes near fracking sites are allowed to be should be relaxed even more. Campaigners have obviously hit back.
Fracking in chaos
Preston New Road is becoming the eye of the storm over fracking. Cuadrilla has permission to drill the site for shale gas, which has pitted it against local people. In July, the government officially gave Cuadrilla the go-ahead to start extracting shale gas. But the decision drew more protests from locals. Then, a judge jailed three activists (whom another judge promptly freed). But after a court case, bad weather and protests stopped it, Cuadrilla finally began work on 15 October. People met this with further protests.
As The Canary has been reporting, since 18 October the British Geological Survey (BGS) has recorded 31 tremors near to Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road fracking site, as of 5pm on 30 October. The strongest of these happened on 29 October, with a magnitude of 1.1. Cuadrilla has stopped work several times, due to the magnitude of the tremors breaching the government’s traffic light system:
But now, Cuadrilla has told the Times it thinks that the 0.5 magnitude limit, which makes it stop work, should be increased.
Cuadrilla’s CEO Frances Egan spoke to the Times. As it reported:
[He] said the limit for a ‘red’ event which requires fracking to stop should be increased to a magnitude of 2. He said: ‘We appreciate the requirement for a conservative approach and will follow the traffic light system. That said, we consider that a red light limit of circa 2.0ML [local magnitude] would provide more than adequate assurance that no harm or damage could arise from fracking.’ He said the limit in the UK was far lower than in other countries, with fracking companies in the US getting a red light at between 2.7 and 4.5, depending on the state.
Mr Egan said the traffic light system had been designed to reassure people but the requirement to measure and report on tiny events was having the opposite effect, with each tremor above 0.5 ‘being treated as major news, heightening public concern’.
The problem with Egan’s cavalier attitude towards earthquakes is that research is increasingly proving him wrong.
The research says…
For example, researchers from Stanford University in the US have already warned of the risks; noting that small earthquakes “may be early indicators of bigger tremors to come”. They say that the process of fracking could destabilise faults that already exist underground, causing larger tremors. Their research also showed that earthquakes continued at fracking sites after the operations had stopped.
Also, as The Canary previously reported, a former UK government adviser went even further. An emeritus professor in applied and environmental geophysics, Peter Styles, called out the entire fracking industry. He questioned its ability to accurately map potential earthquake-causing fault lines on every site in the UK. Styles said:
Unfortunately the physics of it means you cannot see those faults with the (survey) waves that you put into the earth. To date it does not appear that any proper industry or government due diligence has taken place with regards to the fault lines mapped.
But Cuadrilla has been here before.
History repeating itself?
As New Scientist reported, in 2011 two earthquakes happened near Blackpool. These measured 2.3 and 1.5 in magnitude. At the time, the BGS initially put both events down to fracking happening at Cuadrilla’s nearby Preese Hall drilling site. The firm eventually admitted that fracking probably caused the tremors.
After this, Cuadrilla abandoned the site in December 2013. As the Blackpool Gazette reported, it said:
As part of its ongoing evaluation of its exploration sites in Lancashire, Cuadrilla has today announced that no further work will take place at its Preese Hall site, near Weeton.
Investigations afterwards found the fracking well had deformation but hadn’t lost ‘integrity’. It’s this ‘well integrity‘ which is part of people’s concerns over fracking. Because a breach of the well could cause gas and chemicals to leak into the environment.
So, what does this mean for Preston New Road?
Emeritus Professor of Geophysics, Professor David Smythe, told The Canary:
While the tremors induced to date are tiny, nevertheless the traffic-light system… does state that if a magnitude 0.5 event (or greater) is triggered by fracking, then the injection of hydraulic fluid must stop. But even this scanty piece of legislation has been poorly drafted, since it appears to permit tremors occurring after the end of a period of injection to be discounted.
Scientifically, Cuadrilla’s slice-and-dice approach to the overall fracking job in a well is untenable, because there is often a delay between the end of an injection stage and the onset of a triggered event caused by the injection.
For example, the Cuadrilla-commissioned report into the earthquakes triggered by… Preese Hall-1 well notes that the two strongest tremors (of magnitudes 2.3 and 1.5) each occurred about 10 hours after the cessation of injection…
The injection fluid needs time to seep along a fault zone until such time as enough of the fault has thereby been lubricated. If the shale is critically stressed – that is, it is ready to crack – the fault will slip, causing the earthquake. Cuadrilla was forced to admit that these earthquakes were caused by fracking at Preese Hall-1, although initially it denied any link. Unfortunately for Cuadrilla, all the shale in the Bowland Basin [the site of Preston New Road] seems to be critically stressed, so the problem won’t simply disappear.
Nothing to see here
But Cuadrilla maintained in the Times that the red light magnitude should go up. Egan said:
It may well be that we have reached that time not only for the UK shale gas industry, but also to address the concerns of local people who are becoming increasingly worried by reporting of tiny movements in the eart [sic], which occur thousands of times across the UK every day as if they were harmful earthquakes.
The government remains tight-lipped. As the Times reported [paywall], after the Preston New Road earthquakes the government has “no plans to make changes to the system” – yet.
“Pack up and leave”
But campaign group Frack Free Lancashire is furious. A spokesperson told The Canary:
Eminent geologists have warned that events of the magnitude experienced over the last two weeks could be the precursor to a more major seismic event like those that occurred at Preese Hall in 2011. These caused damage to the well bore and led to a seven-year interruption for the UK fracking industry.
The democratic decisions that have been taken by our representatives on fracking, and even the overturning of these decisions by the government were all conducted based on a set of assumptions which presupposed the existence of a tight regulatory framework. This framework included this traffic light system with today’s limits.
These regulations were put into place explicitly to protect the community and not to make the fracking companies’ job easier and more profitable. The suggestions from Cuadrilla and others in the industry that the regulatory goalposts should be moved simply because they are unable to manage their operations to stay within them is totally unacceptable. If the industry is unviable outside of this existing regulatory framework then they should pack up and leave.
It seems staggering that Cuadrilla can be so dogmatic when it comes to the earthquakes it may be causing. But, as is often the case, when there’s a profit to be made, people and planet can come low down in a corporation’s pecking order.
Featured image via Cuadrilla – YouTube