On 13 December 2012 the Government announced that the process of shale gas extraction (known as exploratory hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’) can resume in the UK. The extraction of shale gas was banned in May 2011 following two small earthquakes in Blackpool, thought to be linked to exploratory fracking operations being undertaken nearby. The resumption of the practice follows a number of investigatory reports and analysis commissioned by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to identify the extent of the associated risks to health, safety and the environment.
The Government’s detailed study and feedback from a public consultation concluded that the risk of seismic tremors can be effectively managed through control measures. An independent report by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering also concluded that any environmental risks posed by fracking can be safely managed via strong regulation. The central conclusion resulting from the analysis is that fracking is safe so long as best practice is consistently followed alongside strong industry regulation.
Lifting the Ban on Fracking
The recommendations contained in these reports have been accepted by the Government in their decision to lift the suspension ban on fracking activities. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Edward Davey, announced the resumption of the practice subject to the introduction of a number of controls to mitigate the risks involved. As part of this mitigation approach the following new measures apply:
- A review must be carried out before the fracking begins to assess seismic risk and the existence of faults;
- A ‘fracking plan’ must be submitted to DECC to demonstrate how seismic risks are to be addressed;
- Ongoing seismic monitoring must take place before, during and after the fracking process;
- Categorisation of seismic activity will apply via a new ‘traffic light system’ in order that appropriate responses can be directed; and
- A trigger mechanism will stop fracking operations in certain conditions.
In his statement Mr. Davey said, ‘We are strengthening the stringent regime already in place with new controls around seismic risks, and as the industry develops we will remain vigilant to all emerging evidence to ensure fracking is safe and the local environment is protected.’
General Regulation of Fracking
The regulation of fracking is undertaken in a collaborative approach between the new Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil, led by DECC, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Environment Agency (EA).
Prior to the commencement of any fracking activities an operator is subject to various levels of regulatory controls including the need to obtain landowner permission, local authority planning permission, environmental permits and other regulatory consents. The proposed operations are also subject to scrutiny from the HSE before DECC consent to the process is granted.
Health and Safety Regulation
The HSE approach to the regulation of fracking activities monitors shale gas from the perspective of well integrity and site safety. This includes ensuring the adoption of safe working practices as is required by the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and supplementary regulations, including the Borehole Site and Operations Regulations 1995 (BSOR) in relation to site management and the Offshore Installations and Wells (Design and Construction etc) Regulations 1996 (DCR) in relation to well integrity, both on and offshore.
The HSE and EA are committed to collaboration on the regulation of shale gas extraction. A publication of their joint undertaking in relation to unconventional oil and gas developments was made available in November 2012. It can be accessed from http://www.hse.gov.uk/aboutus/howwework/framework/aa/hse-ea-oil-gas-nov12.pdfCurrent
To date no commercial shale gas production has taken place in the UK. When the suspension was implemented in 2011 the activities being undertaken were simply at exploratory stages. Shale gas is, however, seen as ‘a promising new potential energy resource’ in the UK according to the Energy Minister. The full Ministerial statement on the development in shale gas extraction can be read at www.decc.gov.uk/en/content/cms/news/wms_shale/wms_shale.aspx