Widening The Goalposts

In the circumstances that Cuadrilla find themselves unable to proceed without continually triggering seismic red lights the only sensible course of action is a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in the Fylde and indeed in the entire country.



Go on! Tell me it came as a big surprise to you to learn that there is an article in the Times today, allowing Francis Egan free rein to whine about how unfair the current seismic traffic light system is and how the limit needs to be increased.

The truth is that Mr Egan has spent the last fortnight giving us a bravura display of the fact his company are unable to control the seismic impact of their operations within the levels set by the regulators to ensure that there is no repeat of the damage to the well bore as happened at Preese Hall in 2011.

Let’s just look at what happened and where we are today then.

In April 2011 Cuadrilla were High Volume Fracking for the first time in the UK at Preese Hall when they set off a series of earthquakes including one with magnitude 2.3 Ml on 1st April and another one of magnitude 1.5  Ml on 27th May

Both were preceded by a number of smaller tremors and succeeded by a number of aftershocks. The total number of associated events recorded by the British Geological Survey was 51.

The fracking at Preese Hall was in a vertical well and only 5 stages were fully completed on 28th & 30th March and 9th, 26th & 27th May.

As a result of these 2 larger quakes a report by Professor Peter Styles and Dr Brian Baptie concluded that future operations should be subject to a seismic traffic light system. They explicitly rejected calls for a trigger level of 1.7Ml which had been proposed in a Cuadrilla report authored by Dr. C.J. de Pater and Dr. S. Baisch stating:

Nevertheless, we consider that the maximum magnitude threshold of 1.7 ML, initially proposed for the traffic light system, is undesirably high from the viewpoint of prudent conduct of future operations. Based on this limit, no action would have been taken before the magnitude 2.3 ML event on 1 April 2011. Instead, we recommend a lower limit of 0.5 ML.

For a detailed description of the decision process relating to this traffic light trigger level please see Drill or Drop’s article here.

So we entered a lengthy period (7 years) with no fracking and a proposal that when it started again the population would be protected by such a traffic light system.

The 2012 Royal Society and Royal  Academy of Engineering Report : “Shale gas extraction in the UK: a review of hydraulic fracturing” concluded that

A traffic light monitoring systems should be implemented and data fed back to well injection operations so that action can be taken to mitigate any induced seismicity.

Local MP Mark Menzies has been keen to praise what he calls  our “gold standard” regulations for on shore shale gas extraction. As recently as September 2018 he spoke in a Westminster hall debate and reminded Energy Minister Claire Perry that:

“The honourable lady is quite right to highlight some of the progress that has been made such as the traffic light warning system.”

Even Claire Perry herself wrote in her famous  mythbusting sheet that:

Myth #7: Shale Gas causes earthquakes

Fact: The risk of an earthquake from shale gas extraction is very low. The Oil and Gas Authority regulates for seismicity and requires operators to stop activity if any seismicity in (sic) measured, even if it is lower than tremors caused by a rollercoaster.

Everyone, it seemed, was satisfied that the seismic traffic light system was workable and would protect people, property and the environment.

And then they started fracking.

And the tremors began again.

To date there have been 30 seismic events according to the BGS database.

Of these:

10 have been in the Amber range of 0.0 Ml to 0.5Ml
5 have been in the Red range of >=0.5 Ml
15 have been in the green range of < 0.0 Ml

You can see the progression of the magnitudes as Cuadrilla have presumably increased pumping volume in this graphic. NB the Richter scale is logarithmic which means that for every increase in magnitude the size of the quake increases by a factor of 10, so a 2.0 Ml quake would be 10 times bigger than a 1.0 Ml .

If you are wondering how an earthquake can have magnitude < 0 it is explained very well here.

“Amber” events during pumping mean Cuadrilla have to proceed with caution, reducing the well pressure, verifying the well integrity and reporting the event to the OGA.

“Red” events during pumping trigger a potentially very expensive 18 hour pause for Cuadrilla with additional checks required.

It is hardly surprising therefore that Cuadrilla are clearly very unhappy with the current situation. Their CEO Francis Egan has been doing the round of the TV and Radio studios and his favourite print journalists spinning like a demented top.

According to Mr Egan this is is all terribly unfair. In other countries they don’t impose such namby pamby limits. Never mind that in Canada, for example, the  average population density is 4 people per square Km compared to almost 400 per square Km in the UK. They have manly “I’m a lumberjack” level limits of 2.0 Ml for Amber and 4.0 Ml for Red.

Those of you who have been following fracking for some time will be aware that the largest fracking induced earthquake on record took place at Fox Creek, Alberta measuring 4.8 Ml on the Richter scale in January 2016. That is a serious earthquake.

These two things are perhaps not unrelated.

However, Mr Egan, with a disingenuousness which is frankly amazing is reported by the Times today to be asking for our Red limit to be raised to 2.0 Ml

“We appreciate the requirement for a conservative approach and will follow the traffic light system. That said, we consider that a red light limit of circa 2.0ML [local magnitude] would provide more than adequate assurance that no harm or damage could arise from fracking.”

It is rather decent of Francis to tell us that he will follow the regulations isn’t it? Well no actually, Mr Egan. If you don’t follow the system then you will be kicked out of here and sent back to explain to your hedge fund backers and their henchmen why you messed up so badly and cost them so many tens of millions of dollars.

We must bear in mind that the democratic decisions relating to fracking at Preston New Road  were all taken on the assumption that this traffic light system would exist with a level of 0.5 Ml as a trigger. A quake of 2.0 Ml is 32 times larger than one at the existing limit of 0.5Ml and 178 times larger in terms of energy release. Such a change would be completely unacceptable to communities and should be rejected out of hand by our regulators, who should also be aware of the advice given by geology expert, Professor Stuart Hazeldine, who stated:

“The practical significance is not whether these tremors are felt at the surface or not, but in the potential to damage the borehole, and the potential to create gas pathways from the shale towards larger faults, towards shallower aquifers, and to the surface.”

So who should we believe here? Mr Egan? Or two independent academics who set the limit to 0.5 Ml a level ” from the viewpoint of prudent conduct of future operations” and another one who nails Egan’s obfuscations about felt seismicity at the surface? It’s not hard to see which side is trying to protect communities and which one is simply trying to maximise profitability is it?

It is shameful that we learned from a leaked letter published in the Guardian that Energy Minister Claire Perry MP, who it seems has had private off the record meetings with the industry, had suggested that “the trigger levels [of the traffic light system] can be adjusted upwards”. This would effectively give carte blanche to the fracking industry to provoke larger, stronger earthquakes, putting communities and even their own fracking equipment in danger.

In the circumstances that Cuadrilla find themselves unable to proceed without continually triggering seismic red lights the only sensible course of action is a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in the Fylde and indeed in the entire country.

In the meantime Ms Perry has kindly amended her mythbuster to be more useful to her friends in the fracking industry.

Myth #7: Shale gas extraction causes earthquakes

Fact: Seismic events below magnitude 2.0 on the Richter scale are usually not felt. The Oil & Gas Authority uses a Traffic Light System to monitor seismicity caused by shale operations and at their Preston New Road site, Cuadrilla must pause activity for a minimum of 18 hours if an event of magnitude 0.5 or above is detected. This is lower than the readings caused by a rollercoaster. According to the British Geological Survey, we have on average 166 events of magnitude 2.9 or below each year in the UK. The Traffic light System thresholds are set at a very low, precautionary level and we have no plans to review these

However her statement that “we have no plans to review these” may be giving sleepless night to Mr Egan who must be hoping that  the Times is right when they report:

ministers are expected to consider changes next year after Cuadrilla has finished fracking two wells at the Preston site

For all our sakes we have to hope that Claire Perry isn’t as easily influenced as her abysmal performance defending shale gas suggests she might be.

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