Why the seismic traffic light system must not be relaxed for UK fracking

The TLS is needed, but it is not fit for purpose and needs to be tightened up not relaxed!

We last addressed this issue back in February 2019 when the fracking industry was desperately lobbying government to allow them to carry on regardless of the induced seismic activity that everyone knows that they caused. Everything we wrote then still applies now.

However, last night is was made explicit on NewsNight by two industry representatives that unless the government weakens the regulation designed by the industry itself a decade ago to protect communities, then fracking is simply not viable in the UK. The Traffic Light System as it stands is clearly a major obstacle to the industry’s development.

Chris Hopkinson, CEO of Igas complained

If the government doesn’t change it, it makes it very difficult for us to do anything. … without these changes there is no future for the shale development in the UK

BBC NewsNight 20 September 2022

Charles McCallister, Policy Manager, UK Onshore Oil and Gas told the same programme

We’ve been totally clear, publicly and with government on this. If the government were to just lift the moratorium and leave everything else the same, investment would not come.

BBC NewsNight 20 September 2022

It is easy to see why. Put simply the industry has trapped itself by designing a system that actually works to protect local communities. Unfortunately for them they now find that they are unable to work within this system and are lobbying desperately to have it changed. It is easy to see why as Cuadrilla told the High Court in 2018 that every day’s delay cost it £94,000.

However, they are being quite dishonest in the way they pitch their demand. We are constantly hearing that the 0.5 Ml limit is too low and that they are being stopped from operating for provoking tremors that equate to dropping a bag of shopping on the kitchen floor.

This however, ignores the reasoning behind the way the TLS operates, and the events at Preston New Road in August 2019, which demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that the TLS is needed, but it is not fit for purpose and needs to be tightened up not relaxed!

The TLS is designed to act as an early warning system to reduce the possibility of damaging seismic events from occurring. It is based on the theory that a relatively minor seismic event may be a precursor to a more powerful and more damaging “trailing event”. So a 0.5 ml tremor may be an indication of a quake that is much stronger. (A 2.9Ml quake releases nearly 4,000 times the energy of a 0.5 Ml one.)

In theory when a seismic event occurs of sufficient magnitude to trigger the system, the operator alters operations to mitigate the the possibility of inducing further, stronger events. In practice because of deficiencies in the TLS and the frackers’ inability to predict or mitigate the seismicity, the protection the TLS seemed to offer does not really exist. This is why we ended up with a moratorium on fracking in 2019, and nothing has changed since, as the suppressed, but leaked, BGS report has made clear. This reports admits that forecasting fracking-induced earthquakes and their magnitude “remains a scientific challenge” and says there are still “significant existing knowledge gaps”.

Do we have any evidence to support our contentions here? We do indeed!

According to the BGS records and their own logs, Cuadrilla fracked their PNR 2 well on Wednesday 21st August without inducing a seismic event which triggered the amber or red warning levels of the TLS during pumping.

There were 2 red level trailing events induced that night at 19:46 (1.6 Ml) and at 21:42 (0.9 Ml).
There were two amber level trailing events on the early morning of Thursday 22nd at 02:52 (0.1 Ml) and 06:46 (0.3 Ml)

However, because the TLS only mandates that fracking must be halted if the induced activity is greater than 0.5 Ml “during pumping” Cuadrilla were not required to stop fracking as a result.

There was a further red level trailing event of 1 Ml on Thursday 22nd August at 15:23 and an amber level 0.4 Ml and 04:33 on Friday 23rd.

As the trailing events did not trigger a pause under the TLS regulations, they were allowed to frack again on Friday 23rd August, whish they did without breaching the red level 0.5 limit during pumping.

At 22:22 on Friday 23rd a 1.1 Ml trailing event occurred. Then at 04:01 in the morning on Saturday 24th a 0.5 ml happened. At 10:01 on Saturday 24th there was a 2.1 Ml. Then at 07:30 on Monday 26th there was a 2.9Ml trailing event which damaged property over a considerable distance from the site.

Remember no fracking had taken place after close of operations on Friday afternoon.

The logical conclusion here would seem to be that, even without breaching the existing red 0.5ml limit (that they helped set ) on the last day they fracked, Cuadrilla were totally unable to control the induced seismicity over the next 3 days. The TLS had been proven not to be fit for purpose and the Government had little choice but to impose the moratorium that has ben in place for the last 3 years.

Given the fact that the 2.9ml happened 2 1/2 days AFTER the last fracking on a day when the 0.5Ml limit was not breached, it is clear that relaxing the limit to make the industry’s life easier would have the inevitable result of provoking still more and possibly stronger tremors, which they rather evidently don’t have the technology to control.

We await the suppressed BGS report that will tell us, in detail, where we all stand with relation to the ability to predict and control seismicity, but we can be pretty sure that if they had found anything that gives them greater control than they had in 2019 we’d know about it already.

So we can see that relaxing the TLS limit so they can keep on fracking even when they generate significant tremors is a recipe for disaster.

If anything the condition that the TLS limits only apply during pumping should be removed so that a significant trailing event also means they have to stop fracking until the induced seismicity has quietened down. This may need to be for a number of days. The evidence from PNR2 clearly demonstrates the need for this as can be see here.

It is totally unreasonable for Liz Truss’s government to expect communities to have to live with this risk on a daily basis for a couple of decades.

Fracking is the wrong technology, in the wrong place at the wrong time.


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