1 September 2019
Cuadrilla, Godzilla: you’ve got to admit, they do sound rather similar. Is there any connection? Well, one’s an evil monster rampaging across the land, trembling the earth, shaking buildings and terrorising whole communities, whilst the other is … an overgrown Japanese lizard featured in horror movies.
And speaking of horror movies … the August Bank Holiday turned into a living nightmare for hundreds of families living in the Fylde area of Lancashire, just inland from Blackpool, as earthquakes struck, shaking buildings, causing central heating radiators and pipework to rock and rattle, and objects to fall from shelves. Residents complained of loud banging noises waking them at the dead of night, tremors felt throughout their houses and cracks appearing in plastered walls; and expressed deep worries that more severe structural damage might follow. And what was the cause of it all? Had Godzilla migrated from Japan to come stomping across Lancashire? After all, to local residents it would have seemed just like a scene from one of those scary movies. But no, the answer was much closer to home: shale gas company Cuadrilla had been carrying out fracking for just a few days at their site at Preston New Road.
No surprise then.
This is the same Cuadrilla who tried to frack the Bowland Shale deposits lying about 2km below the surface at Preston New Road in October and November last year (2018) but repeatedly had to stop work because it was causing earth tremors in excess of the Richter Scale 0.5 magnitude limit (known as the “Traffic Light System”) agreed between the Government, the Oil & Gas Authority and members of the oil and gas industry in 2012. And why was this limit imposed? Because at another site in the Fylde, Preese Hall, just a few miles away fracking operations had caused frequent quakes, culminating in a significant tremor measured at 2.3 magnitude. There had been reports of traffic lights toppling over and cracks appearing in a railway bridge, and Police on duty in Blackpool said they felt their Station building shake. Furthermore, the seismic activity had caused damage to the actual well casings, raising fears of possible leakage of fracking fluids and toxic chemicals. And who had been carrying out these fracking operations? Why, none other than Cuadrilla.
The Government consequently imposed a moratorium on fracking in England and commissioned a report based on all available data. As a result of that report, the Government in December 2012 adopted the recommended limit of 0.5 magnitude (expressed as 0.5ML within the scientific community) of fracking-induced seismic activity as the point at which fracking operations must be paused for at least 18 hours, and the well integrity checked. The moratorium was lifted on the basis that the fracking companies must be able to prove that fracking could be carried out safely and within those limits, and also with “social licence”.
Those last two words are very significant: it’s the Government saying that fracking cannot be carried out anywhere unless the nearby local communities agree to it and are happy to welcome fracking companies into their midst. They left it up to the fracking companies themselves to persuade communities that it would be a good thing to have dozens, scores, even hundreds of gas wells on their doorstep, and arrogantly assumed it would be a done deal.
Except it wasn’t.
Wherever and whenever fracking was proposed, wherever and whenever Planning Permission was sought, people and communities came together to object, to say a resounding “NO!” to the companies’ plans. The Government reneged on their insistence on “social licence” and started over-ruling Local Authorities who refused Planning Permission. Consequently, Cuadrilla started fracking at Preston New Road on 15 October 2018, after lengthy legal battles over planning permission ended with the then Communities and Local Government Secretary, Sajid Javid, overturning the Lancashire County Council’s decision to refuse permission; but within days they had to pause operations due to induced tremors exceeding the 0.5ML (local magnitude) limit. From the commencement of fracking on 15 October up to 11 December 2018, a total of 36 tremors were recorded, with the largest being registered at 1.5ML. Six of them exceeded the 0.5ML point at which operations had to be paused.
So, what was Cuadrilla’s response? Admit they’d been wrong about fracking “not causing earthquakes”, apologise profusely to all concerned and pack up and go home?
Far from it.
They blamed the Government for their failures, saying that the 0.5ML limit was unrealistic, the Traffic Light System was unworkable, and the whole regulatory system needed urgent revision in order to make their operations commercially viable. Not a hint of concern for local residents living quite literally on top of their proposed fracking activities.
Instead, they ramped up their campaign to change the conditions under which they were allowed permission to frack. Since permission was initially granted in January 2015, Cuadrilla have applied for – and been granted – 13 separate variations to their operational conditions at Preston New Road, with little if any opportunity for the local community to object. And these are no minor little tweaks.
Check out this list:
- Hydraulically fracture more than once along a lateral well
- Use open-topped tanks [for waste water] where there is an “insignificant” risk of natural gas emissions (guess who decides what is “insignificant”?)
- Stop using diffusion tubes and gauges to monitor for a range of air pollutants
- Use methanol, glutaraldehyde and a higher viscosity gelled water in fracturing fluid (ie, adding more chemicals)
Plus earlier changes to:
- Seismic monitoring (WHAT???!!!)
- Flaring of methane
- Ground and surface water monitoring
- Air quality monitoring
- Fracking fluid additives
- Volume of hydraulic fracturing fluid
- Multiple fracture stages per day.
In spite of all this, Cuadrilla were still unable to get a substantial flowback of natural gas and had to resort to using other gases as propellants to force the methane out of the rocks: firstly propane, and then nitrogen. Propane at least had the slight advantage of enabling the gas flow to be flared (burned) as it was vented at the top of the drill rig. Nitrogen, however, is an inert gas and as such is not flammable; so the nitrogen/methane mix could only be cold-vented straight into the atmosphere, which is strictly speaking illegal. Didn’t stop them doing it though.
On 10 August 2019 Cuadrilla announced that due to unresolved and continuing technical problems, they would not resume fracking at PNR-1z.
And so to PNR-2.
It’s another drilling, another borehole that Cuadrilla have permission to drill and frack at the same Preston New Road site. On 30 July the Environment Agency announced that it had approved Cuadrilla’s frack plan for PNR-2 and fracking operations commenced on Thursday 15 August. Almost immediately the tremors began again, forcing Cuadrilla to issue a press statement on Wednesday 21 August admitting that a 1.55ML trailing event had occurred, rather flippantly likening it to “a large bag of shopping dropping to the floor” and claimed that most people would not have felt this tremor. They said that this had occurred after fracking had been paused due to earlier, smaller tremors. Nevertheless, Cuadrilla resumed operations once the mandatory 18-hour pause had been completed, but at 11:22pm on Friday 23 August, there was another significant trailing event of 1.05ML. Drill or Drop reported on 24 August that there had been no fewer than 80 seismic events recorded in the nine days since fracking began on 15 August, including 3 in the previous 4 days registering at more than 1.0ML. But things were about to get even worse …
Even though all operations had been paused for the weekend, at 11:01pm on Saturday night, 24 August, an earthquake registering 2.1ML was recorded. And then, the following morning at 8:31am, yet another quake, this time registering 2.9ML. Local residents were now really worried. They reported hearing loud bangs, feeling their houses shaking, articles being thrown off shelves, and cracks appearing in plasterwork on their walls. More than one resident expressed fears that their houses might actually start to collapse. And large numbers gathered at the drill site itself; an estimate of around 400 local people turned out to demand that Cuadrilla be stopped from fracking altogether. Some of these were residents who had previously been critical of anti-fracking protesters, but who had now changed their minds.
The Oil & Gas Authority issued a statement later that morning which said “Operations will remain suspended while the OGA gathers data from this and other recent seismic events and then considers carefully whether or not the hydraulic fracturing operations, mitigations and assumptions set out in the operator’s Hydraulic Fracture Plan continue to be appropriate to manage the risk of induced seismicity at the Preston New Road site.”
PUTTING THE MEASUREMENTS INTO PERSPECTIVE
Comparisons on the Richter magnitude scale can be a bit tricky to understand since it is not a linear scale, but a logarithmic scale in which each step is a tenfold increase: ie 2.0ML is ten times stronger than 1.0ML.
So, with reference to the 2.9ML quake felt on 25 August:
2.9ML is 3.98 times greater and 7.94 times stronger than the 2.3ML recorded at Preese Hall in 2011.
2.9ML is 6.31 times greater and 15.85 times stronger than the 2.1ML recorded on Friday 23 August.
2.9ML is 251.2 times greater and 3,981.1 times stronger than the 0.5ML limit under the “Traffic Light System”.
To further confuse matters, there is another scale, the European Microseismic Scale, which uses a different set of measurements on a scale of 1 to 12, corresponding to how strongly and widely an earthquake or tremor is felt at the surface. The 2.1ML event of Friday 23 August was rated at 4 “Largely observed”, whilst the 2.9ML was rated at 6 “Slightly damaging”.
Cuadrilla, however, see things slightly differently. Before they started fracking Preese Hall they assured us that fracking did not cause earthquakes. Not at all. One of the reasons why they were happy to accept the introduction of the Traffic Light System. Then when tremors happened as a result of their fracking operations, they tried to tell us they were nothing to do with them, tremors happened all the time all over the UK, it’s just that they were so small we didn’t notice them. And when the quakes got bigger? They still told us that these things happen. It was only when the quakes and tremors increased and grew in intensity in 2011 at Preese Hall that they started to acknowledge that there might be some kind of connection; they started saying that it was only to be expected. But even then, they were reassuring us that there was nothing to worry about, the tremors were minor, they couldn’t even be felt at the surface. Until one happened that was felt at the surface and actually damaged their drilling equipment.
Undeterred, they rode out the moratorium and after it was lifted ploughed straight into fracking again as soon as they possibly could at Preston New Road in October 2018. Francis Egan, Cuadrilla’s CEO, told the media that he could “absolutely guarantee” that fracking at PNR would not cause earthquakes and that “there is no data to support the assertion that there are difficulties with living near the site.”
And then, when the quakes began, Cuadrilla and the then Shale Gas Commissioner Natascha Engel were telling protesters that they were making a mountain out of a molehill, that all the tremors were “minor”, they could not possibly be felt at the surface and that they were comparable to “a bag of sugar/bag of flour/a melon being dropped on the floor”. Or a bus passing by. Or a tube train passing below you as you were standing in a London street. Choose your source, they were all mentioned.
And then again, when that 1.05ML hit on 23 August, it was likened to “a large bag of shopping hitting the floor”. You see what they’re doing here, how it’s gradually going up? From a bag of sugar, a bag of flour or a melon we’ve now reached a “large bag of shopping”. But it’s still OK, say Cuadrilla, because it can’t really be felt at the surface. Then, less than 72 hours later it can. It can be felt at the surface. Not just once but twice, within a few hours of each other. And all of a sudden the trite and complacent comparisons stopped. All of a sudden Cuadrilla are no longer comparing their fracking-induced earthquakes to passing traffic events or items of grocery. All of a sudden they’ve gone quiet about all that. They appear to have swallowed their weasel words.
According to a Drill or Drop article published on 31 August, Cuadrilla have been gracious enough to reassure us that “fracking would not restart at the site until ‘the risk of a repeat occurrence has been properly mitigated’”. Very kind of them. Except that they omit to mention that it is not their choice. Cuadrilla CANNOT restart fracking at Preston New Road or anywhere else unless and until the OGA says so and lifts the suspension they have imposed on Cuadrilla.
CADAF says that, whereas we ultimately want to see a total ban on fracking in the UK, the Government at the very least should and indeed MUST impose another moratorium on fracking and on exploratory drilling for shale gas throughout the UK with immediate effect as soon as Parliament reconvenes after the current summer recess. We believe that, in the words of Boris Johnson, there is “ample time” for them to do this alongside all the Brexit debates. All it would take is a few minutes of Parliamentary time to make that announcement, and it’s not as if they’d be breaking new ground. The Coalition Government imposed a moratorium following the 2.3ML event in 2011; the current Government should follow that precedent and impose a further moratorium following the 2.9ML event of 25 August.