– Fracking firms should be allowed to cause bigger earth tremors, academics claim (Telegraph, Nov 11, 2014):
Investment in shale gas industry hindered by “ridiculous” rules outlawing tremors akin to those caused by slamming a door, study finds
Fracking firms must be allowed to cause far more significant earth tremors if the Government wants the shale gas industry to succeed, leading academics have warned.
Current regulations, imposed two years ago, are equivalent to banning buses from driving past houses or prohibiting the slamming of wooden doors, according to Dr Rob Westaway and Professor Paul Younger, of the University of Glasgow’s School of Engineering.
The academics claimed that the overly-stringent rules, which force fracking operations to be stopped if tremors above 0.5 on the Richter scale are detected, were acting as a deterrent to would-be investors in Britain’s hoped-for shale gas boom.
Fracking involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to hydraulically fracture rocks, releasing gas trapped within them.
Ministers drew up the current restrictions following a moratorium on fracking, imposed after Cuadrilla caused two earth tremors while fracking near Blackpool in 2011. The tremors measured 1.5 and 2.3 on the Richter scale.
Earthquakes below 3 on the Richter scale are not generally felt on the surface and only those above magnitude 4 are regarded as “significant” by the British Geological Survey, according to fracking trade body the UK Onshore Operators Group (UKOOG).
A report commissioned by Cuadrilla had originally suggested a much higher limit of 1.7 on the Richter scale before fracking operations should cease.
Dr Westaway said the current rules were “ridiculous”.
“The present regulation is a deterrent to investment and will need to be changed before energy companies are willing to invest the large sums that will need to be spent to develop shale gas in the UK,” he said.
“If regulations for other vibration-causing activities were similarly restrictive you’d have to prevent buses from driving in built-up areas or outlaw slamming wooden doors.”
In a paper published in the Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology, the academics said they had concluded that the maximum possible tremor that could be caused by fracking would be 3.6 on the Richter scale – and this was “very unlikely”.
Professor Younger said: “That might be sufficient to cause minor damage on the surface such as cracked plaster.”
But he said there was “already regulation in place for compensation for similar incidents caused by RAF fly-bys or mining operations”.
He suggested it would “make sense for similar schemes to be put into place for fracking”.
“For example, induced earthquakes of magnitude 3 from fracking activities 1.6 miles below the earth’s surface will create surface vibrations similar to the limits allowable from quarry blasting,” he said.
These surface vibrations caused by a magnitude 3 earthquake would be roughly 25 times those that would be likely to be caused by the current limit of a 0.5 magnitude quake.
A spokesman for Cuadrilla said: “Whilst Professor Young and Dr Westaway are correct that the current seismic restrictions in place for hydraulic fracturing are low compared with other industries we support the Government’s undertaking that for the exploration phase of shale gas, seismic levels will be stringent with a view to further review once it can be confirmed that levels can be adjusted upwards without compromising safety.”
A spokesman for UKOOG said the industry was “committed to working within” the existing regulations set by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).
“The system was designed by DECC in consultation with the industry to control the effects of induced seismicity during the shale exploration phase,” he said.
“It is recognised by both DECC and industry that the current [threshold] is subject to review as more is known about local geology, faulting systems and well performance. Only time will tell how restrictive or not the current threshold is, but it is important that the industry is aligned on managing induced seismicity in a pro-active manner.”
A DECC spokesman said: “The threshold was set on the basis of a report by a group of independent experts. Our robust regulatory regime will allow shale exploration to take place while keeping the public safe.”
A spokesman for IGas said it was happy with the current regulations.