Why Cuadrilla acting responsibly is cause for concern

On 16th November Cuadrilla announced that they had made a decision to re-spud their well on Anna’s Road, Westby.

[DECC defines a well to be a borehole drilled into the earth from a single surface or subsurface location to a single subsurface location. If the surface location changes but target location stays the same, a new well is regarded as a “respud” of the first well.]

They explain the decision on their web site at http://www.cuadrillaresources.com/news/cuadrilla-news/article/anna%E2%80%99s-road-re-spud-to-delay-well-completion-by-four-weeks/ by saying:

We drilled without incident to about 2000 ft., a little more than 1/3 of our journey to the top of the shale formations we are exploring. These shale formations (the Bowland and the Hodder) start at roughly 5000 ft. and end at 11,500 ft. During drilling we confirmed the presence of salt water in the shallow aquifer (the aquifer in this part of the Bowland formation is entirely salty).

At 2000 ft. we stopped to cement the top casing, the first of four in this well. The casing was cemented into place satisfactorily. Once the cement hardened, we ran a Cement Bond Log, (an acoustic probe that assesses the integrity of the cement work) between the casing and the rock wall of the well.

This showed the possibility of channelling (e.g. the cement had not adhered evenly to the casing) near the bottom, well below the aquifer. To be absolutely certain of our cementing, we perforated the casing at that point and attempted to pump drilling fluid through. This test indicated that no fluid could pass through.

However, a packer (a tool which is used during testing for well integrity) temporarily installed at the bottom of the well became trapped by the pressure of the testing. It is not possible to drill through the packer, and drilling around it at this relatively shallow depth would create operational challenges in the event that we are permitted to commence horizontal exploration at a later date. After further work in consultation with our drilling advisors, we have concluded that starting a new well is preferable to ensure long-term success.

What does this mean? Well it means that Cuadrilla acted quite responsibly here.

Mike Hill (Chartered Engineer) has been calling for Cement Bond Logs (CBLs) to be run on upper casing strings since May 2011. Mike met with Mark Miller and he agreed to voluntarily run the logs following Mike’s request. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) do not request or inspect CBLs. It forms no part of the regulatory framework, though it is a crucial part of the overall assessment of cement boding. It is this bonding that ensures that there is no contamination of the aquifer and no methane migration.

Following the CBL, Cuadrilla interpreted the log in such a manner that indicated there may be a problem with the integrity of the cement. As a result they decided to put a small hole into their casing and then lower a device called a packer into the borehole to isolate the area. They then increased the pressure in that area, through the hole and onto the cement to test it.

None of this they needed to do by regulation, but all of this has been recommended by Mike Hill, who insists, quite reasonably, that it should be included in regulations, and that it should be subject to independent inspection.

Cuadrilla did all this voluntarily. That’s great this time round. We should applaud and encourage this responsible behavior. However, it does not mean they will do the same in future, and it certainly does not mean any other operators coming in to the area will either. From Aug 2013 Cuadrilla must, by law, give up half of PEDL165 allowing other operators to bid and move in.

The results of the test appear to have shown that the suspected problem did not in fact exist and that they could carry on drilling. Cuadrilla carried out these tests without any independent verifications, so we do not have any word to go on other than theirs. Whilst we hope they are telling us accurately what happened it is simply not good enough that we must rely on what a private exploration company says. As this same company stand to profit hugely from the activities there is clearly a massive potential conflict of interest here.

We must have an independent third party (such as ORIS – Office for Regulation in Shale Gas) inspecting and verifying what Cuadrilla and all the operators are doing.

Unfortunately for Cuadrilla, they damaged a packer used in the process and had no choice but to abandon the well and take the expensive decision to respud it.

Cuadrilla have previously said that drilling costs them about £60,000 per day. As they have already spent a month drilling at Anna’s Road this mistake is likely to have cost them something in the region of £2 million. If you ever wonder at the scale of the sums involved in this project, imagine being able to swallow that and carry on – there must be a big prize waiting at the end for the investors to accept that.

Now, we would like to emphasise that we have nothing but respect for what Cuadrilla did here. Unbelievably, as we have explained already, current regulations mean that they do not have to run cement bond logs so they could have just carried on drilling without checking things were OK. They didn’t. They acted responsibly, ran a precautionary test and found a potential issue with well integrity. To make sure they perforated and pressure tested and then found things were in fact OK, but suffered a heavy financial and time penalty as a result of misplacing the packer.

What concerns us is the huge regulatory hole that this has exposed. Ask yourself, if you don’t have to run tests on the integrity of the cement, and doing so voluntarily has just cost you £2 million that your investors are not happy about, would you be so keen to run them the next time or might you carry on regardless? They, and we know that a failure of the integrity of the well is the single most likely cause of contamination of the aquifer and of methane migration. Either or both of these could cause grave damage to the environment and present a serious public health risk.

This episode throws the inadequacy of the regulatory provisions and execution into stark relief.

If there were an accident caused by cement failure at any fracking site then there are two serious issues that we will look back on and wonder why those elected to safeguard our interests both locally and nationally did not act.

Firstly there is no baseline environmental assessment, which would allow us to measure the impact of any accident and hold the perpetrators directly accountable. Secondly there is no regulatory framework which forces the industry into running checks like this to ensure our safety.

It is not good enough that we must hope that Cuadrilla, at least in this stage of their operations, continue to act responsibly and effectively regulating themselves. There is no way we can expect with any reasonable degree of certainty that this will continue and that any of the other operators moving into the UK and our area will spend millions of pounds on executing tests that none of the regulatory bodies expect or inspect!

This is the about ensuring that fracking does not adversely affect the health of people on the Fylde cost and damage the environment. It is a situation that needs to be resolved before any further decisions on allowing fracking locally or nationally are granted. If it is not then those granting those permissions will be clearly in dereliction of their duty to the people who elected them.

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