The Fraxit Dilemma

Francis Egan finds himself in the same bind as Theresa May – whichever way he jumps he may lose

In the same way that Brexit-ridden Theresa May cannot find a way out of her Chequers plan omnishambles, Francis Egan too seems to find himself facing a similar intractable problem.

After the fiasco that surrounded Cuadrilla’s first attempt to get fracking started two weeks ago, he must have been breathing a huge sigh of relief last Monday when his project looked to be getting off the ground again. Given the fact that fracking was stopped for 7 years by the seismicity which occurred at Preese Hall in 2011,  Mr Egan was understandably cautious  about starting up again. The Financial Times told us on September 26th that

Mr Egan is aware that Cuadrilla will not have many chances to get it right and prove fracking is not only commercially viable in the UK, but also safe.

He said that Little Plumpton was the most monitored energy site in the UK, with a number of regulations including the requirement to truck rainwater, a near constant liability in the north-west of England, away from the location.

“The key for us is to demonstrate that [fracking] can be done safely and sensibly,” Mr Egan added.

He emphasised a cautious approach to development, with Cuadrilla first doing what he called a “mini-fracture” to make sure there were no more headline-grabbing earth tremors.

This cautious approach is echoed in the Hydraulic Fracture Plan for the well which states:

The HFP applies an evolutionary approach to risk assessment and mitigation (operational mitigation) (10). This stepped progressive approach to hydraulic fracturing will consist of an initial mini-fracture stage and modest initial pumped volumes, building up to a maximum pump volume of 765 m3 per stage.

However, by the end of the first week he found himself staring at reports from his own monitoring stations which showed that his tentative footsteps towards a new fracking revolution may have been  stumbling as soon as they started. The British Geological Survey reported the tremors with a short delay and observers watched incredulously as the count increased from 3 on Thursday to 4 on Friday and 5 by the time we woke up on Saturday morning. All 5 were located very close to the toe of well PNR1z

You can see them mapped here

The much vaunted “traffic light system” makes it clear that “Before and during operations, the operator must carry out seismic monitoring as agreed in HFP

and that if the magnitude of the tremors is between 0.0Ml and 0.5Ml then they are in the amber zone where “Injection proceeds with caution, possibly at reduced rates. Monitoring is intensified“. The last 2 of the tremors recorded clearly fall within that range.

Cuadrilla’s reaction was rather surprising. Instead of trying to reassure local people that the traffic lights system is functioning as expected and that they are proceeding “with caution” they reacted to the first 3 tremors by saying

“Three microseismic events were detected yesterday by the highly sensitive Traffic Light System Cuadrilla has installed around the Preston New Road site and were very far below levels that could be felt at surface. The recordings from these seismometers are shared with the British Geological Survey to help them reassure the public that operations are continuing safely as planned.

“We take the monitoring and regulation of seismicity seriously, with daily reports sent to the regulators. The microseismic events recorded were extremely low and well within the Green Light threshold and confirm that the monitoring system is working to the highest standard.”

which seems to accept the fact that tremors that occur when they are not fracking are still subject to the traffic light regime, presumably under the “before” part of “Before and during operations, the operator must carry out seismic monitoring as agreed in HFP“.

However, once the two next events, which were in the amber range, took place they changed their tune and told journalist Ruth Hayhurst that  “today’s 0.3ML event would also not be shown on the display. It was classed as a “trailing event” because fracking was not actually taking place” and

“If we had been pumping at that time it would have indeed been an amber event we would have confirmed it.”

If we look at their Hydraulic Fracture Plan we can see that indeed it does continually specify “while pumping” and “during pumping operations“. It is not instantly evident from their HFP how they have complied or will comply with the condition to monitor “Before and during operations”.  This is important because the “before” period  before any treatments tomorrow would presumably include the period when the tremors did occur. If we look at the HFP submitted by Third Energy for their well at Kirby Misperton we can see that they planned to assess events which occur not only during fracturing but post fracturing too, which seems a more logical position to adopt.

It is impossible to find a specification on the internet for this traffic light system apart from the infographic on the BEIS website shown earlier in this article, but UKOOG does clearly state on its web site ”

This would seem to suggest that events occuring before a frack should be taken into account and not just those which occur during a treatment.

It seems fruitless to speculate on why Cuadrilla might be so keen to question the wisdom of taking these events into account. We do , however note that the 2 significant (2,3 Ml and 1.5 l) quakes at Preese Hall were preceded by clusters of smaller quakes.

it is also worthy of note that the only seismic activity recorded in the BGS database from the year 2000 within a rectangle of latitude 53.587 – 53.944, longitude -3.088 –  -2.572  (which corresponds approximately to Cuadrilla’s PEDL 165) are the 51 events at Preese Hall and the 5 events which occurred at Little Plumpton last week.

However, to return to our muttons,  we are pretty sure that whether they feel constrained by the somewhat ambiguous restrictions of the traffic light system or not, Cuadrilla will indeed be proceeding with caution, and herein lies their problem.

If we are to believe Mr Egan that they started out with extreme caution, then the fact that they would already seem to have triggered some induced seismicity  is at the root of  the dilemma he faces. (Caveat – I am basing this assumption on the proximity in space and time of the events to the toe of the well and the times of fracturing treatments. There is as yet no casual link established. While you might think that if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it is a duck, the link is not extablished as yet).

If he does not wish to risk triggering further seismic events in an area that has just exerienced 5 of them, then  logically he has to keep his injection pressures and volumes low. However, in order to demonstrate a flow rate that will be attractive to investors and convince the government that the flak they are taking for promoting shale gas is worth the candle then they presumably have to get to a point where they can frack at full throttle.

If these 5 tremors were caused by cautious fracking for a day or two, then it would seem entirely possible that going all out to prove the best flow rate might cause the earthquake which would kill the entire fracking industry in the UK before it takes flight.

It seems that Mr Egan may be damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Whatever he does the result may well be Fraxit.

I bet he knows exactly how Mrs May feels today!

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