Fracking in the UK: FOI Documents reveal confusion over shale regulation

Dr Fran Boait & Damian Kahya
Fran Boait studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge University, specialising in Earth Sciences. She stayed on at Cambridge for a PhD in Carbon Dioxide Storage. Follow her @franboait.
License: All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace

Image: Regulators have been learning from experiences in the US.

As chancellor George Osborne prepares to announce new tax breaks for shale a series of document obtained by Energydesk FOI requests reveal the inside story on how regulators started to get to grips with fracking in the UK.

The emails and briefing documents, largely from the UK’s Environment Agency (EA) but also from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and Department for Rural Affairs (DEFRA) relate to discussions in the spring about how to regulate shale gas in the UK.

See also:

Who owns the rights to drill in the UK?

Will fracking lower bills? And Bishop Hill's take here

Where are drilling licenses issued? and which seats are included?

Fracking and Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM)

The documents highlight the scale of potential fracking operations and raise questions over whether regulators have been overly enthusiastic to provide a positive environment for shale extraction and reveal how they turned to the oil industry itself - including Exxon - for advise on how to frame the regulations. 

For reference we've shared a selection of the documents below via documentcloud. 

Drinking water in West Sussex

In April this year concerns were raised in the Sussex Village of Balcome over proposals by US firm Cuadrilla to drill for shale in the area.

Cuadrilla has planning permission for exploratory drilling at Balcombe but residents became alarmed after a study by Durham University suggested that fractures from drilling for shale gas could reach the water supply.

The emails we've obtained show how the concerns reached the then energy minister Charles Hendry who was initially sent guidance given by the Environment Agency to the Prime Minister, David Cameron at a high level briefing on shale in the spring.

The guidance was unequivocal, and potentially limiting to shale gas extraction.

‘The Environment Agency would not allow hydraulic fracking to take place in an area where there are aquifers used to supply drinking water. If there were sensitive groundwaters present in an area where a company wanted to carry out hydraulic fracturing, we would object during the company’s planning application and refuse to grant an environmental permit.’

But the correspondence suggest that not be released to the public.

Instead the EA’s head of climate change, Martin Diaper, suggested the wording be changed in order not to provide “too stark” a view of their position. 

“I am a bit concerned that the two sentences we provided to.....provided a too stark view of our position of where we would or would not be happy with shale gas developments in relation to potable ground water aquifers. We take a risk based approach to permitting.... Can I ask that you do not use the two sentences from …..... while we finesse them.”

Whilst the new position is probably simply a nuance the change is embarrassing given the previous statement was reportedly that given to the Prime Minister just weeks earlier.

Scale of fracking

West Sussex isn’t the only part of the country where fracking is likely. A briefing for ministers at DEFRA lays out the areas where the government expects new drilling with operations spreading far beyond the current North East trials.

In the South West and Somerset the document says “Eden Energy Ltd are developing an application for planning permission for exploratory boreholes to Mendips District Council for the test drilling to begin. To date, Eden Energy Ltd has not approached the Environment Agency to discuss their prospecting activities or future plans for the licensed area across Somerset. DECC advise that they have 3 sites in mind for exploratory boreholes.”

And “In the South East at Balcombe (nr Hayward Heath) Cuadrilla have planning permission to sink and fracture a borehole but have not started work. At Woodnesborough in Kent Coastal Oil and Gas have permission to sink an exploratory borehole.”

Pressure on EA

The documents also reveal how the EA’s risk assessment on shale may have been driven as much by PR as by scientific concerns.

A briefing on a proposed environmental risk assessment of fracking by the EA notes that the project must be completed quickly to allow the industry to develop noting “development of the bowland shale gas field could start in 2013” and suggests the project is designed mainly to ‘clarify’ the agencies existing, evidence based, views.

In his conclusion to the briefing document the EA’s advisor on climate change, Martin Diaper writes “Government policy is clear, it wants the industry to develop. However the main barrier to the development of the industry is the public perception of the risk it poses to the environment.”

“Our current understanding is that these risks can be controlled through effective regulation and the project aims to clarify that we have the controls necessary to protect the environment. It will show the Environment Agency as responsive to government policy and public perceptions whilst ensuring effective regulation of the new industry”

Fugitive emissions & Exxon’s involvement

Because methane gas, when unburnt, is 21 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide any leakage from fracking could significantly increase its impact on the climate.

The argument was given further weight by the publication of atmospheric data in the respected journal, Nature but has been disputed by the oil and gas industry - especially Exxon. Most recently an MIT study has suggested emissions may be lower than some suggest.

The Environmental Protection Agency in the US is putting new regulations in place, so that wells will have to capture or burn much of the methane methane through so-called 'Green completions'.

But the documents suggest UK regulators remain undecided on how to deal with the problem and they are turning to industry for advice.

In one email an official at the Department of Energy and Climate change notes:

“I did raise this question [of green completions] at the UKOOG (Onshore Operators Group)”, said one email “they had not planned to integrate [them] into their guidance (which is a big challenge already with fracking and well integrity issues). But they will consider adding it to the guidelines if we insist.”

Officials then turned to Exxon itself for guidance. 

In an email noting the Nature study a DECC official wrote to the oil giant’s executives “it would be very helpful if there were any sources of good data available of actual emissions from operators, is anyone working on this?” 

Through a series of further emails to arrange a meeting DECC officials also asked for help drafting fracking guidelines.

“I’d also be interested in any views on what industry can do to develop best practice codes etc to help reassure the public.” 

The documents also show that Exxon’s meeting with DECC in May followed an earlier meeting with the Environment Agency’s chief executive, Tony Grayling  and its climate advisor Martin Diaper also on the topic of shale in April.

The meeting allowed Exxon to present it’s case on the merits of fracking to the regulators - readers can find out more about that here

The FOI's were provided in advance to The Independent newspaper.

An Environment Agency spokesperson told The Independent  “We take the potential environmental risks arising from fracking very seriously, and have undertaken a thorough assessment of those risks. As a result, we believe that existing regulations are sufficient to protect the environment during its exploratory phase.”

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