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Government-commissioned report gives cautious go-ahead to shale gas 'fracking'

The Government is seeking comments on an independent report which recommends allowing energy companies to proceed with a controversial shale gas extraction method if steps are taken to limit the risk of earthquakes.17 Apr 2012

The report (26-page / 990KB PDF) confirms that two minor earthquakes, which occurred at a site near Blackpool in April and May last year, were the result of hydraulic fracturing or 'fracking' carried out by energy company Cuadrilla. The company suspended drilling in May 2011 pending the investigation.

After reviewing a series of studies commissioned by the energy company after the events, the experts recommend measures including an effective monitoring system and 'traffic light' control regime, specifying the point at which remedial action should be taken.

The Government said that any comments received would be taken into account before it makes a final decision on the future of the drilling method.

Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping water at high pressure into shale rock to create narrow fractures which allow natural gas contained there to flow out and be captured. Although the technology is still at an early stage, the Government estimates that potentially recoverable shale gas in the UK amounts to almost two years' worth of national gas consumption.

David MacKay, chief scientific advisor to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), said that a "good understanding" of the potential environmental impacts of fracking was necessary if shale gas was to be considered as a UK energy source.

"This comprehensive independent expert review of Cuadrilla's evidence suggests a set of robust measures to make sure future seismic risks are minimised - not just at this location but any other potential sites across the UK," he said.

The report said that companies carrying out future fracking operations should install a monitoring system able to provide near real-time locations and magnitudes of any seismic activity. Fracking should be stopped and unspecified remedial action taken where a 'red light' activity level of 0.5 or above is detected.

Earthquakes with a magnitude of 1 can be detected without instruments if their epicentre occurs near the surface of the earth, but do not cause any damage to property.

The experts also recommend assessing further potential fracking sites elsewhere in the UK for seismic risk before any operations can take place.

Energy law expert Paul Rice of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the invitation to comment was a welcome addition to a "series of regulatory procedures" planned shale gas exploration projects would be screened through in the future.

"As well as dealing with overall approaches to seismic risk as per this report, future projects will also have to be considered against a range of regulatory regimes leading to the ultimate consent to drill over and above any DECC licence," he explained. "These will include consent from landowners including mineral rights owners, the local planning authority and an environmental permit from the Environmental Agencies. The Health and Safety Executive must also be consulted and together all these individuals and agencies will consider a much wider set of risks and be able to influence their management."

These processes would give the public "multiple opportunities" to put forward their views on site-specific development applications, he said. However, he urged members of the public to respond to the current consultation on any concerns about seismic risks "as a matter of national strategy".

"We are pleased that the experts have come to a clear conclusion that it is safe to allow us to resume hydraulic fracturing, following the procedures outlined in the review," said Cuadrilla chief executive Mark Miller. "We have already started to implement a number of the experts' recommendations in the pursuit of best practice and look forward to the final decision by DECC ministers concerning the resumption of hydraulic fracking."

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