Just days after Theresa May’s government relaxed the rules over fracking, a former government adviser has warned that the industry could cause earthquakes at up to half of all licensed sites in the UK. But he goes further, calling for a pause on hydraulic fracturing for shale gas until the “full extent of the risk can be properly assessed”.
Leading geologist and emeritus professor in applied and environmental geophysics Peter Styles was a nuclear adviser [pdf] to David Cameron’s government. On Tuesday 22 May, he will present a report to parliament on the earthquake risks posed by the industry. The Canary has been given access to the report’s conclusions, and they make for damning reading.
The report is called Fracking and Historic Coal Mining: their relationship and should they coincide? Styles has assessed the risks when fracking sites are located on, or near to, former coal mining sites. These sites are particularly abundant in Yorkshire. But Styles says that there are multiple failures in the assessments the government and shale gas companies have carried out.
His report notes that, when fracking companies have submitted planning applications, they have often “failed to use all available geological data, as they are required to do”. Also, these companies and the government have “overlooked” or “ignored” historical data on coal mining. Styles says that this data shows “accurate locations of fault lines capable of triggering earthquakes over a 0.5 magnitude”, and that sites which the government has already granted licences for are “riddled” with them. He believes that these risks would “shut down fracking operations under current regulations”.
Also, his report notes that the seismic surveying equipment companies use cannot spot these faults. Styles says they need equipment with “five times greater magnification capabilities”.
Overall, he notes the “serious earthquake risk” posed by hydraulic fracturing in former coal mining areas. This is because “induced seismicity” is “dramatically enhanced” at these sites; that is, the rock formation has already been subjected to disruption and movement, making it unstable. But the government has already given the go-ahead for companies to frack at many of these sites.
We have forgotten about mining. Mining has not forgotten about us.
The physics of fracking
In the report, he goes even further. He questions the entire shale gas industry’s ability to accurately map potential earthquake-causing fault lines on every site in the UK, whether they are near to a former coal mine or not. He says:
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.
The report gives the example of a potentially dangerous fault line within ten metres of a proposed fracking site at Harthill, south Yorkshire. Petrochemical company INEOS applied to Rotherham Council for planning permission to explore the site. But the council rejected its application.
But Styles also throws into question the viability of the entire UK shale gas industry. Styles believes that if the coal mining data was properly analysed, the “majority” of licences for fracking over the North of England would be rendered “useless”. So, Styles says:
It would be prudent of the government to reduce the estimates of exploitable onshore frackable gas by half. We are risking our energy security if we proceed without assessing all the data.
Earthquakes, though, are not the only concerns people have over the fracking industry.
Aside from the obvious air pollution generated from burning fossil fuels, fracking (or the extraction of shale gas) is also controversial. Along with its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, it has been linked to polluted drinking water. Studies have also shown links to low birth weights, premature births and a possible increased risk of breast cancer. All this has made fracking in the UK highly controversial.
As The Canary has documented, there are ongoing protests in the UK against fracking. At one site in north Yorkshire, campaigners have been prosecuted. At another, campaigners and local councillors have accused police and private security at the site of “disproportionate force” and trying to “provoke violence” – something both groups deny. Police at one point “dragged” Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley away from the site.
The government says…
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) told The Canary:
The development of our domestic energy sources is governed by one of the safest, most environmentally sound and well-regulated systems in the world. These strong controls and laws will ensure shale gas can be explored safely and sustainably.
Our regulations ensure that the risk of seismic activity during hydraulic fracturing is assessed and that operations are monitored to allow action to be taken where necessary, as set out in an agreed Hydraulic Fracture Plan. Waste water injection in the US has been linked to seismic activity, but this technique has not been proposed in the UK.
Operators must stop if a tremor of magnitude 0.5 or greater is detected and the pressure of fluid in the well will be reduced immediately
But the Lib Dem spokesperson for energy and climate change, Baroness Lynne Featherstone, said:
This report asks some serious questions of the government and the fracking industry. Ministers must take heed and listen to the growing weight of evidence on fracking and, at the bare minimum, implement a moratorium on fracking in coal mining areas and review fracking across the UK.
No fracking way
It’s easy to see why former coal mining sites would be attractive to shale gas companies. Many are probably brownfield sites, potentially making development easier. Former coal mining sites would already have basic infrastructure in place. And also, because there would have been heavy industry at these sites previously, local communities may be more used to the disruption that comes with fracking.
Unfortunately for the fracking companies, not only has local opposition to their plans been robust, but Styles is not the first former government adviser to break ranks over the dangers of the industry, either. As The Canary previously reported, John Ashton CBE accused the government and fracking companies of peddling “lies” about the industry and its affect on the environment.
The government is clearly hell-bent on pushing fracking through, regardless of public opposition. But now, with two former government advisers speaking out on the risks it poses, cracks are seriously beginning to show in this controversial industry.
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