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Special Digest

Regulation and the report of the The Royal Society and The Royal Academy of Engineering, June 2012, part two


I am continuing with further extracts from Fracking the UK, chapter 26

" Since I considered my own layman’s reaction to the Royals Report and the government’s treatment of it, Mike Hill has given me a wealth of information on his own submissions to the study and his reaction. Frankly, I am now more concerned than I was before, if that is possible. I am now convinced that no amount of regulation will make fracking safe.

Mike Hill is a Chartered Engineer, and has worked in the oil and gas industry. He has been working on fracking regulation for the last two years. He has spoken at a number of gas conferences, including IGEM at Durham. He was technical advisor to the Fylde Borough Council for their shale gas Task and Finish group. He has since advised groups concerned about fracking in the Fylde, where he lives, particularly RAFF (Residents Action on Fylde Fracking) and REAF (Ribble Estuary Against Fracking), on technical matters.

Hill has met Cuadrilla representatives, particularly Mark Miller, on numerous occasions. Hill has given evidence to DECC, the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineers, and to Lancashire Council elected members. The Royal Society published Hill’s evidence on their web site and included a number of his recommendations in their own report they presented to parliament.

Hill was disillusioned when he first started investigating the regulators’ approach to onshore fracking. At first he expected the agencies to be clued up. But he was soon disabused. He says he found them breathtakingly complacent and/or incompetent, having never had to deal with onshore gas - a serious charge which is worth examining in more depth.

Hill has liaised frequently with members of the regulatory bodies. He has met DECC’s head of Shale Gas on four occasions in Whitehall. Naturally Simon Toole disagreed with him regarding the need for onshore regulations. However Hill claims Toole did agree that the inspection regime was ”non-existent”. Hill also claims that HSE, although they visited Cuadrilla’s well site in March 2011, have performed no well integrity testing. Hill says as an oil and gas engineer he knows that such testing is absolutely vital to ensure no contamination of the aquifers and groundwater by methane contamination or fracking chemicals, and to minimise fugitive emissions.

When the government gave permission for the resumption of fracking, they announced that they would set up a new body, the Office for Unconventional Gas. Its purpose would be to ensure a “simplified and streamlined regulatory process“. This has been perceived, however, as nothing more than a one-stop shop for investors in the industry. Mike Hill says that he has spoken to the new head of the Office. Hill reports a heated discussion on the fact (as Hill sees it) that apart from the new regulations on seismicity, there are no specific regulations on shale gas, and no inspection regime. Hill spoke on two occasions to John Hayes and describes the minister as having extremely poor knowledge of what regulations there were in existence, what were needed, and indeed about fracking itself and how it is executed onshore. After educating Hayes, Hill says he was disappointed to find that both Hayes and DECC failed to take the opportunity to regulate the industry properly before allowing it to continue. In a letter to Hill, the minister quoted from Cuadrilla’s website to try and inform Hill of what was happening. Hill finds this astonishing. Many readers who have stuck to the story so far will be less surprised. Yet another instance of decision makers or regulators taking all their facts as gospel from the fracking companies themselves.

Mike Hill’s response to the RS&RAE report compares the report’s recommendations with the evidence he gave to the working party at the request of chairman Professor Robert Mair. Hill was encouraged by the way the RS&RAE had taken up many of his points. His conclusion reads as follows:

“I feel that the RS and RAE have taken on aboard a lot of the points I have raised with them in my evidence. This is excellent and I am delighted that after eighteen months of studying this industry and its regulation the other “authorities” and professional bodies are now adopting a lot of what I have been calling for over that time period.

“I trust now my argument, which was initially rejected by the authorities (DECC, HSE and EA), for additional onshore regulations and a significant tightening up of the U.K. procedures is now accepted by all. I have made it clear what those regs should be and the RS are very much in agreement. The key issue now is implementation. We urgently need a vehicle for delivering this regulation and ensuring it is implemented on the ground. This will require a considerable increase in resources and personnel. I have discussed this with the industry and it can be achieved with no cost to the taxpayer.

“I feel that it is important to have such measures in place not just before development but prior to the industry being give the go ahead to continue the exploratory phase. Three more wells will be fracked in 10 -12 multi-stage fracks in Lancashire. These are very close to urban conurbations and we need protection now not later. I urge the DECC to discuss this matter with myself and other stake holders so that we can get this structure fully in place prior to any development phase and underway prior to the commencement of fracking in the U.K.”

Naturally Hill was disappointed that fracking was allowed the go-ahead with no extra regulation beyond the seismic traffic light system, and no extra resources funding the possibility of adequate monitoring of what regulations there are. I am sure also that the Royals started wondering why they went to all the trouble of conducting an investigation when their advice fell largely on deaf ears.

Mike Hill has recently (February 2013) lodged his further objections to Cuadrilla’s applications to the EA for waste disposal. The applications were held until the outcome of the government’s consideration of whether to allow shale gas exploration to continue, and the six applications covering Cuadrilla’s three sites (one for fracking waste and one for radioactive waste at each site) were given an extended consultation period. Hill states that the EA feels the public have not been given sufficient information in order to inform objections. This puts them at a disadvantage, especially as the EA holds information that they have withheld from the public by request of Remsol Limited (a company now employed by Cuadrilla as consultants for their waste disposal plans). I am not, of course, sure what this information consists of, but it is a disturbing allegation, particularly in the light of all we have heard about how fracking companies have withheld information in the US, claiming company confidentiality.

Equally disturbing is what Hill says about the disposal of another type of waste, not the fracking flowback, but the cuttings and other materials that come up with the mud used in drilling. Hill says the EA simply describe it as saline. Maybe it is. But Hill has been on rigs where nobody would go near the mud without a full protective mask and suit. The mud is returned with added components from the drilling. It should require checking before dumping. But the EA told Hill that they weren’t responsible for checking, Cuadrilla were. The mud could contain mercury, chromium and a host of other waste elements. But nobody knows. Despite this, Cuadrilla are allowed to dump their mud in municipal waste centres, which in the Fylde means Lytham. Hill says he personally is glad he does not live near Saltcoates Road. And it is extremely unlikely that anyone at Fylde Borough Council’s tips knows about fracking waste.

More is known about the composition of the returned fracking fluid. Hill states in his objections to Cuadrilla’s disposal plans that on certain dates it contained according to the EA (in comparison with mains water) -
90 times the permissible level of NORM (Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material)
1438 times the level of lead
150 times the level of cadmium
2,297 times the level of bromide
636 times the level of chromium
197 times the level of aluminium
20 times the level of arsenic

Hill states this is a fair comparison because that is a published result by the EA itself. He asserts that well integrity is not checked by the EA or the HSE. And that the EA does not therefore have the knowledge of whether integrity has been compromised or not. It follows that it is wrong for fracking waste, which comes from perhaps a mile or two underground, to be compared with and classified as a standard industrial waste from a fixed plant. It is a potentially hazardous waste and should be treated as such.

Hill has asked the EA the following questions regarding Cuadrilla’s application -
How will it be treated?
Where will it be treated ?
Who is treating it?
Where is it being disposed?

He has received no answers to any of these questions. The answer he got back was that this was “commercially sensitive information”. Hill asks how on earth can anyone object to an application or make representations when we do not have access to such information. The system is “ridiculous” in Hill’s view. I would go further. I would say it is verging on the criminal.

A current issue that Hill is pursuing is the concern about well integrity failure. This is an important issue. Even the industry can not claim that wells do not have the ability to pollute water. They can argue that “fracking” has not been scientifically proven to pollute groundwater, but they have been unable to deny there is anecdotal evidence that taken together, the whole operation has the ability to pollute. In the UK we have the lack of regulation and law covering well construction, inadequate test methods for well failure, the lack of any regulatory body procedure, staff or funding to test, and the loss of any interest by regulatory bodies when a well has been abandoned and “signed off”.

Hill says that the purpose of the visit by HSE to inspect Cuadrilla’s well sites was only to look at worker H&S issues. Checking whether workers are wearing hard hats and safety goggles (as reportedly was the onsite check HSE made in March 2011) is not the same as checking other issues like well integrity. HSE have carried out other visits, but only to Cuadrilla’s offices to look at paperwork.

HSE don’t trust Cement Bond Logs and have no interest in inspecting them, and certainly not in carrying them out. Since Hill publicly criticised them for this they changed their stance a little, but Hill maintains that their approach and view is fundamentally flawed. CBLs may not be needed on multiple casing wells as long as CBLs are run for each cement job. Relying on annular pressure tests, as HSE insist is adequate, is simply not enough. Leakage up outside the casings due to progressive channelling will not be detected by AP, therefore the methane can migrate upwards. HSE in any event rely entirely on what Cuadrilla feeds them. In practice HSE did not even ask for a CBL for their surface casing. Mike Hill did. HSE continues to avoid taking responsibility and shifts it to the operator, by suggesting receipt of a weekly fax at 3.15 on a Friday afternoon is the same as proper review and monitoring of drilling activity and well construction.

As we can see for ourselves from their website, HSE’s guidance for well casings refers to regulations included in the Offshore Installation and Wells (Design and Construction etc) Regulations 1996. With its talk about offshore wells and underwater issues, clearly this needs revision.

In fact HSE say themselves: “Health and safety law in Great Britain is goal setting and not prescriptive, there is no law stating how wells are cased and cemented. However the law states that employers, well operators, borehole operators must reduce risks to the health and safety of people from their operations to “as low as is reasonably practicable” (ALARP). This means they must follow good industry practice so that they can robustly demonstrate to HSE via the well notification that risks are ALARP.” So there are no legal standards, and it is left to operators to draw the line between what is technically feasible and what is economically acceptable to themselves. This is no way to control a high-risk industry, particularly onshore where the reduction of environmental risk and health protection are paramount. Frankly, those who still believe fracking is possible without risk are whistling in the wind.

As the state of regulation stands now, Mike Hill sums it up in one short sentence. “We are not protected.”

Continued in The Royals Report Part Three

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