Questions and answers from the Regulators’ Drop-In session at Christ Church, Aughton: 12th October 2016
An informal drop-in event hosted by the regulators and agencies involved in assessing the impacts of the oil and gas industry was held at Christ Church Aughton, Ormskirk. Representatives from the Environment Agency (EA), Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Oil and Gas Authority (OGA), Public Health England (PHE) and Lancashire County Council (LCC) were present. These agencies have a statutory duty to ensure that any exploration and development, including fracking operations, is done in a way that protects people and the environment. In addition, the National Planning Policy Framework guidance directive to the planning authorities makes an assumption that the regimes will operate effectively. The purpose of the meeting was for the regulators to explain their role to people living in possible shale gas exploration areas and for staff to explain who does what. This report was compiled from written feedback received from 8 people in attendance at the event. The content of the report is by no means comprehensive but is hoped to provide pointers for further questions and discussion.
The event was seen as an opportunity to engage in respectful dialogue, to discuss risks with representatives of public bodies having no commercial interest in fracking and to learn about the realities beyond the industry hype. It was unfortunate the event was poorly advertised and held at an out of town location. Concerns raised included: pollution, increased traffic, waste products, earth tremors, inspection and monitoring processes, safety of wells, erosion of democracy and impact on climate change. The hall comprised a number of separated clusters of tables where representatives from different agencies took questions and were generally keen to help; at no point was there any coordinated general discussion. This layout reinforced the overall impression of a fragmented approach to regulation, highlighted by the mixed response to the question whether drilling would be allowed in or near a geological fault line: HSE said probably not; EA said definitely not and OGA said it probably would – providing safeguards were met. However, a significant point of unity between the agencies occurred in response to questions referring to Cuadrilla’s assertion of ‘gold standard regulation’: none of the regulators were able to define this term, it was not in their regulatory vocabulary and was therefore meaningless (as was also the government’s own term “robust regulation”).
The Environment Agency
- Concerns were raised about how few UK licensed sites capable of dealing with toxic wastewater are in operation; only a tiny percentage of those required. The EA response was “…the availability of disposal sites will be market-driven” and it will be the responsibility of drilling companies to ensure adequate disposal facilities are in place. There will however be a budgetary incentive for EA to issue disposal licenses and permits. It remains unclear how the vast quantities of salinated liquid will be “dealt with” then disposed of; it seems unlikely that they will be able to pump it into rivers; coastal sites might be granted permits for dumping into the sea.
- One representative from EA suggested waste fracking fluid, comprising 99% water, would be safe. Another had little or no local knowledge and seemed surprised that PEDL 164 was prime agricultural land.
- In the event of waste spillage during transportation, EA asserted Highways England (yet another agency) would take responsibility. There are currently no nationally agreed guidelines for fire and rescue services.
- Concerns were expressed that EA were not properly considering BPEO (Best Practicable Environmental Option) i.e. was fracking the BPEO for recovery of shale gas and if the EA generic Risk Assessment or specific site RA’s were adequate.
- It seems a specialist central team within the national permitting service deals with fracking sites while links to regional staff, with detailed local knowledge, is inadequate.
- The EA seemed unaware of specifics problems relating to airborne toxins resulting from venting and flaring. Nor were they aware of what these processes were and why they were necessary. There were inconsistencies in explanations of differences between conventional gas extraction and the processes involved with fracking.
- Assurances were given that should industrial scale fracking develop in the UK, necessary inspection and monitoring staff would be in place; this in spite of acknowledged austerity policy and cuts to front line services, timescale issues relating to recruitment and training and scant comprehension of the scale of the proposed industry.
Health and Safety Executive
- On being challenged about not being open to public scrutiny (i.e. they do not issue permits and the management of the site remains the responsibility of the operator with knowledge of the process) HSE accept that the only scrutiny is periodic government performance monitoring.
- HSE acknowledged their primary consideration is for on-site workers and concern for the public is secondary. The implications of this could be that if for example the operator needed to vent gas to avoid an explosion, the impact on surrounding population would be a justifiable risk. HSE responded that this would be a matter for the operator’s procedures. Also they accepted that once operations moved off site they would have no ongoing role.
- HSE confirmed their regulatory framework is unchanged from 1996. i.e. unchanged since the Preese Hall event where an ovulated (squashed) well casing occurred; HSE had visited before the incident and were involved in the investigation. This differs from Cuadrilla’s assertion of how much safer things are now. Most of HSE’s regulatory work is scrutinising data provided by the operator at the design stage and weekly reports at the operational stage. There would only be one site visit during the fracturing process and one at decommissioning.
- HSE suggested that methane leakage from wells would be no more than from a field of cows with no concern of implications for climate change.
- Concerns were raised about the application of similar inspection regime to fracking as used in the North Sea in spite of fundamental structural and operational differences between the wells, with associated implications for inspection procedures.
- HSE confirmed all of the current well inspectors are based in Aberdeen.
- HSE acknowledged that there can be no guarantee fracking will be safe: their policy is based on the risks being known and reduced to “…as low as reasonably practicable”; in direct contradiction to Caudrilla’s assurances.
Public Health England
- When asked about the Medact (and other) reports on clusters of illnesses in other countries, PHE response was that they have “…a different perspective on the problem” and although there were some associations of ill health with fracking, none of them were robust enough to consider evidentially, as there was no conclusive causative proof. When challenged to take a precautionary principle in considering ‘associated’ instances into account to protect the public, PHE asserted the “regulation” in UK is much better and there are no plans to accept the findings of either the original or the updated Medact report.
- PHE seemed unaware the Faculty of Public Health had called on the UK government to reverse the decision to overturn LCC, and gave assurances to review the Faculty’s reasoning.
- PHE confirmed they are not regulators, but evaluate evidence and give advice based on ‘acceptable limits’ at the planning stage and for the permitting process
- PHE apply air quality standards for substances that have them. There is currently no standard for methane as it is considered non-toxic. PHE have no facilities for chemical analysis; it appears that their work is largely desk-based.
- PHE were reluctant to discuss specifics about the chemicals used in the fracking process and their potential effects on human or other life form.
- A representative from PHE referred to the contaminants in flowback waste as “co-extractive minerals”, which might include small quantities of mercury, lead, zinc and NOMS and considered the main heath issues to arise from the transport of the large volumes of waste and the drilling (with diesel exhaust being a known carcinogen).
Lancashire County Council
Several attendees were surprised to see Lancashire County Council in attendance as it was billed as a “Regulators’” drop-in event.
A question was raised about LCC’s attitude to any planning application by Aurora in PEDL 164 for an exploratory well close to the Sefton boundary. Would the County Council refuse permission again and run the risk of incurring further costs? The response was that it depends upon issues raised and volume of objections. The representative speculated that 10,000 objections would be impossible to ignore, a figure that was mentioned several times.
Oil and Gas Agency
- Concerns were raised about drilling close to fault lines. OGA were adamant that this would be unlikely, as any such faults would be evident from seismic surveys. OGA repeatedly referred to the use of the ‘traffic light monitoring system’, whereby the assessment of fault lines and monitoring of seismic activity is the responsibility of the industry, thus determining when injection of fracking fluid should proceed as planned, with caution or be suspended. When questioned about this apparent self-regulation by the industry, OGA gave assurances that the monitoring would be “adequately regulated”.
- OGA asserted that well casings would be designed to prevent leakage. When asked about damage due to seismic activity, OGA declined to comment.
- With reference to recent undermining of the democratic process, OGA were requested to remove the statement “this industry is subject to local planning permission” from their poster.
The regulatory agencies will attempt to carry out their individual statutory duties of monitoring and regulating the fracking industry with limited budgets, resources and staffing levels; this has significant implications for the implementation of operational best practices as recommended by The Royal Society. Regulation is likely to be reactive, ‘light-touch’ and dependent on a self-regulatory tick box approach from the industry. A fragmented and uncoordinated approach to regulation was a reoccurring theme throughout responses to questions; this remains cause for great concern, especially considering the scale of proposed operations, the bureaucratic monitoring process, the inexperience of regulators and the likely occurrence of ‘unexpected’ events. All of the agencies accepted in the longer term, they cannot protect people, health and the environment without addressing climate change and the need to move away from fossil fuels. A number of ‘off-record’ references to the undermining of local democracy and lack of absolute safety standards were noted. None of the contributors to this report were reassured that regulation of the fracking industry would be fit for purpose; all came away from the event with unresolved concerns.
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