Sabres rattling over fracking

Jeremy Cresswell
Jeremy Cresswell

Cuadrilla and Ineos decided last month that it was time to ramp up the pressure on the UK Government to relax the seismic shocks threshold for their shale gas (and oil) exploration effort onshore.

Jim Ratcliffe, the mega-rich founder of Ineos and ardent Brexiteer, waded in, accusing the authorities of operating a regulatory regime that was both “absurd”
and “unworkable”.

Mr Ratcliffe wants Westminster to consider limits closer to those in North America, where the induced quake limit is higher than here – up to magnitude 4.0 on the

Richter scale in some locations, though it’s not universal. This compares with 0.5 in the UK at present.

What Cuadrilla and Ineos and anyone else with shale gas and oil extraction ambitions in these islands want is a relaxation to 1.5 magnitude.

An aside to help with understanding the Richter scale is logarithmic, meaning a 1.0 increase equates to a tremor 10 times as big.

So far, there have been several tens of seismic events associated with “fracking” here in the UK and, for example, in 2011, Cuadrilla suspended its test fracking operations near Blackpool when after-shocks of 1.5 and 2.2 magnitude were recorded.

Today, this company is hacked off, claiming that it has only been able to frack 5% of its first well because of the current rules and that the recent planning appeal for a second drilling site was locally rejected.

In essence, the companies are threatening to pull the plug on the hydrocarbon riches that they believe are trapped within shales, notably those in Lancashire. Though sabres have been rattled, none have walked away, at least not yet.

But while the government and the Oil & Gas Authority have not given way to corporate pressure, there are apparently signs of precisely that starting to happen.

Trade body UK Onshore Oil and Gas has been ratcheting up the pressure, claiming that the industry has pumped £400-500million into exploration for what turned out to be a massive prize. And of course it has played the ‘investor confidence would be damaged’ card.

It has been reported that Natascha Engel, the government’s supposedly independent commissioner for shale gas, said the industry “was on the cusp of finding out how much of the gas was trapped underground, but seismicity rules were holding it back”.

She has claimed that the 0.5 magnitude threshold was plucked out of thin air without research to back it up and without a thought as to how other extractive industries are treated. More leniently, apparently.

It would appear that there is a lack of commonality across extractive industries regarding the seismicity and ground vibration rules applied in the UK. So I can understand why Cuadrilla’s chief executive, Francis Egan, is so frustrated. He has a point, perhaps.

Of course, it is easy to imagine how communities potentially impacted by a raising of the quake limit for the likes of Cuadrilla would feel, and that is betrayal.

However, there is a dimension to shale gas and oil extraction that no one seems to talk about and where there is clearly widespread ignorance about.

It is that well fracking operations are in reality only a part of the story and that by far the largest issue associated with shale is the pumping of waste-water into hydrocarbon-bearing formations.

The US Geological Survey said “waste-water disposal wells typically operate for longer durations and inject much more fluid than hydraulic fracturing, making them more likely to induce earthquakes. In Oklahoma, which has the most induced earthquakes in US, only 1-2% of the earthquakes can be linked to hydraulic fracturing operations. The remaining earthquakes are induced by waste-water disposal.”

So, for example, if residents in the Blackpool area are already up in arms about the fracking of what are at this stage classed as exploration wells, all hell could break loose once commercial operations begin, assuming they ever do.

Of course, smart protesters and NGOs like Greenpeace have latched on to the problems in The Netherlands where the government has felt obliged to shut down the massive onshore Groningen gas field after several decades of production.

And the reason is the cumulative and now enormous legacy of property damage inflicted by more than 1,000 quakes induced by production from what is a classic, conventional gas field.

They figure that, if property can be wrecked on the other side of the North Sea then surely it will happen here, too despite the different approach to extraction, and different geology too.

Like the Brits, the Dutch were assured earthquakes caused by gas extraction couldn’t damage their homes. But as early as 1991 houses started to collapse.

Now thousands of properties in the Groningen area are wrecked, with 400,000 people affected. At least 8 billion euros worth of damage has been inflicted.

It was following a quake in January 2018 that measured 3.4 on the Richter scale – the second-strongest recorded above the gasfield and the biggest in five years – that led to the Dutch minister for economic affairs putting producer NAM on notice, as well as 200 of the Netherlands’ biggest corporate users of Groningen gas.

He said the “phasing out” of Groningen was unavoidable and that they needed to make a transition to alternative energy sources by 2022.

Back in the UK, the OGA claims that it is “very rare for damages, even cosmetic ones, to occur at magnitudes less than 4.”

None of the 1,000 or so Dutch quakes of magnitude 1.5 or more recorded have exceeded that level.

And yet many thousands of traditional and often very old mostly brick structures have been wrecked. In short, they have been progressively tested to destruction through periodic yet relentless shaking in three planes

Guess what? The UK is absolutely stuffed with elderly and ticky-tacky modern brick buildings, plus a huge number of similarly vulnerable stone-built houses, barns and factories.

Let’s assume that Cuadrilla and Ineos lobby successfully and get to drill their wells and produce their fields, generating billions of pounds in tax revenues and pumping increasingly enormous quantities of wastewater below ground.

Then what happens if, little by little, properties start to fall apart?

Just think of Groningen and of lawyers sharpening knives.

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