Two years later: are we fit to frack?

Two years after the publication of the Fit to Frack report, this blog, produced by RSPB on behalf of the Fit to Frack group, takes a look at progress against our original recommendations.

A sweeping view of Patterdale Valley towards Hartsop from Angle Tarn Pikes, Ullswater, Lake District National Park

Ullswater, Lake District National Park. ©National Trust Images/John Malley

In response to government claims that the controversial practice of fracking would only take place within a ‘world class’ regulatory framework to deliver maximum protection to the environment we, a partnership of wildlife and landscape conservation organizations, came together in 2014 to reach a better understanding of fracking and its risks on our countryside, wildlife and the climate (the ‘Fit to Frack’ coalition consists of RSPB, National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, Salmon and Trout Conservation and Angling Trust (the organisations that published the original report) as well as Campaign to Protect Rural England who were later formally welcomed into the coalition). The result of this was the publication of two significant reports to explore these risks.

These reports analyse the experience of fracking in the USA to assess the risks to the UK’s natural environment, and asked the question ‘are we fit to frack?’  We made it clear that while we do not necessarily oppose hydraulic fracturing as a practice, nor the exploitation of shale gas or oil reserves, we do believe commercial shale gas extraction should only go ahead in the UK if it can be objectively demonstrated that the regulatory framework for the industry is fit for purpose, and offers sufficient protection to the natural and historic environment. Therefore, as part of our assessment, we identified ten necessary improvements to the UK’s regulatory regime.  We also asked Government or industry to produce a compelling case that fracking is compatible with our carbon budgets and other climate change commitments. These regulatory recommendations and our question around climate change served as what we saw as two key tests for governments and the industry.

Since then, hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’) of unconventional onshore gas and oil reserves has risen to even greater public prominence.  Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland all have moratoria in place or strong planning presumptions against the exploitation of unconventional hydrocarbon reserves.  This means that it is only England, right now, that is going full steam ahead on fracking.

This was demonstrated when 159 new onshore oil and gas licenses were issued across England in 2015, and confirmed last May when the first fracking operation license since 2011 was approved.

Are We Fit To Frack? - March 2014 report

Are We Fit To Frack? March 2014 report

This is the perfect moment to come back to our reports and to review progress on our recommendations.  But before doing so we’d like to touch on the other key test we set out – whether fracking can be compatible with the UK’s climate change commitments.

The UK Government recently released the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) report on the compatibility of fracking with the UK’s carbon budgets.  The report says that fracking on a commercial scale will be incompatible with our carbon budgets unless three key tests are met, and that meeting these tests will require new regulations.  In their response to the report, the UK Government said that it is confident that the tests can be met based on existing regulation.  We are sceptical of this, particularly since a large part of meeting the tests relies on meeting the UK’s carbon budgets in other sectors of the economy.  At present, the UK is off track for meeting its 4th carbon budget, so this appears to be a shaky assumption at best.  The UK Energy Research Centre’s (UKERC) recent report also concludes that the prospects for fracking in the UK are very limited for similar reasons. Therefore, with regards to climate change, we are not convinced that the UK is fit to frack.

So back to assessing progress against our recommendations made two years ago.  Overall, some progress has been made by government and industry.  But the real test for current regulations and frameworks will come if industry activity increases from a small to a larger number of test sites, and from testing to full scale extraction.

Our regulatory recommendations have been partially, but not wholly fulfilled, and therefore we still do not consider that the UK is fully fit to frack.

Read on for a more detailed analysis of progress against our two key tests on regulation and climate change…

Our ten recommendations: progress made

In summary, while we welcome many of the voluntary measures that have been implemented by the industry since 2014, in our view such measures are insufficient to ensure that the natural environment is appropriately protected.  Voluntary measures can complement but not replace mandatory regulation and legislation put in place by Government and relevant regulatory agencies.

Evidence from across a broad range of sectors and issues demonstrates that voluntary approaches are rarely if ever an appropriate substitute for well-designed, implemented, and enforced regulations, particularly where the risks associated with even low levels of non-compliance are high.  A report by the RSPB launched in November 2015 assessed more than 150 of such voluntary schemes and found that over 80% performed poorly on at least one key performance indicator, with 75% of UK-based voluntary schemes failing to achieve their stated targets.

1. Avoid sensitive areas for wildlife and water resources by creating shale gas extraction exclusion zones.

Government has announced a ban on fracking at the surface within a full range of protected areas, including Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), National Parks, Natura 2000 sites, World Heritage Sites (WHS), the Broads, Ramsar International wetlands and groundwater Source Protection Zone (SPZ) 1. This is an important step in the right direction providing much needed protection for some of England’s most sensitive wildlife and nature reserves.

We consider it important that appropriate buffer zones be applied to these sites, but this should be done on a case by case basis depending on the site and its conditions.  We also consider it important that, based on appropriate evidence, this exclusion be extended to Local Wildlife Sites, SPZ 2, and SPZ 3 in certain cases.

Because fracking is a new onshore industry in the UK, we consider it important and safest to rule out fracking beneath these sites altogether.  Government has not gone this far, but has set a depth threshold, banning fracking at less than 1200m beneath AONBs, WHS, National Parks the Broads and SPZ 1.  The measures the Government intends to put in place at the surface will provide some important protection for nature. But, they do not go quite as far as we had hoped, therefore leaving risk of direct impacts on these internationally and nationally important places.

2. Make Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) mandatory for shale gas extraction proposals.

The 2015 Infrastructure Act made it obligatory for the Secretary of State to receive an assessment of environmental impact before granting consent to a hydraulic fracturing well.  We welcome these developments, but we do not consider this to be the same as an EIA assessment that complies with the EIA Directive.  This may sound like a technicality, but the scope and terms of the assessments mentioned in the Infrastructure Act are left worryingly undefined.  We consider that a full Environmental Impact Assessment would be required for each fracking well application in order to fully assess the environmental risks.

We do welcome a commitment from UK Onshore Oil and Gas, the industry body, that all fracking proposals will require an EIA, but again this is a voluntary, rather than a mandatory measure.

3. Require shale gas operators to pay for a world-class regulatory regime.

We have received assurances from Government that regulatory bodies have received increases in their budgets and teams to resource their regulation of the industry, despite cuts elsewhere to their budgets from central government.  We have also been assured that this money has come from appropriate costs for permits charged to the industry.  It will be important that these teams are protected from cuts as the industry progresses and should benefit from appropriate increases in resources if the industry grows.

4. Prevent tax payers from bearing the costs of accidental pollution

The fracking industry now has access to insurance schemes that ensure that the tax payer is protected from the cost of environmental impacts while the well is operating, even if an operating company goes bust.  Only after the Environment Agency approve the decommissioning is industry allowed to hand back their environmental permit.

However, research has shown that 30% of existing decommissioned UK onshore conventional wells have (albeit very minor) leaks.  Our concern is that there is no monitoring in place after the lifetime of the well is deemed to have ended, and that leaks of this kind may go unnoticed in future.  If one of them were serious, then it is unclear who would bear the cost if an operator had already been allowed to hand back their environmental permit.

Although not explicitly addressed in our initial recommendations, post-decommissioning activities also potentially directly relate to preventing taxpayers from bearing the cost of pollution.  Therefore we’d like to emphasise that regulations should not only cover the lifetime of the well and its decommissioning, but also post-decommissioning activities.  A regime is needed in order to ensure that a Government agency can undertake long-term monitoring to check for leaks beyond the lifetime of the well.  Additionally, a fund should be available to protect the tax payer from paying for the costs of leaks that could pose a threat to the environment or human health.

5. Make water companies statutory consultees in the planning process.

We welcome the importance of this being recognised and introduced.  We also welcome the ongoing collaboration between UKOOG (the industry body) and Water UK and British Water.  The real test will be if the industry develops and these relationships need to be put into practice across many sites.

6. Require all hydraulic fracturing operations to operate under a Groundwater Permit.

We welcome the introduction of new hydrogeological assessments.  We also welcome the clarification provided in the Environment Agency’s advice to the oil and gas sector that fracking constitutes a groundwater activity wherever there is a risk that injecting fracturing fluids might create indirect pathways for pollutants to enter groundwater, even where that is deep below the ground surface.  We are still concerned that the risk of pollutants entering groundwater through drilling fluids and borehole acidisation might still fall outside permitting requirements.

7. Make sure Best Available Techniques for mine waste management are rigorously defined and regularly reviewed.

The Environment Agency has put some Best Available Technique programmes out to tender and is awaiting the results. We also await these with interest to provide more detail on how operators will be asked to demonstrate that they are ensuring the best possible protection for the natural environment.

8. Ensure full transparency of the industry and its environmental impacts

The Environment Agency has now assured us that all monitoring data will be supplied to them and made publicly available through the public register.

9. Ensure monitoring and testing of shale gas wells is rigorous and independent

We are concerned that while Health and Safety Executive assesses the independence of the ‘independent well examiner’, this examiner can, if approved, be from the same company as that which is operating the well (as long as they are not within the line management of the well operations).  We consider it a minimum requirement that well examiners should not work for the same parent company as the operator and ideally should be required to be employed by the regulator rather than from another company in the same industry.

10. Minimise and monitor methane emissions

Strict control of methane emissions was one of the conditions set out by the Committee on Climate Change in a previous report for ensuring that fracking did not pose a risk to short term carbon budgets.  Therefore, careful monitoring of it and action to address any escapes of methane would be necessary to minimise climate impacts.

We welcome the introduction of baseline monitoring of groundwater methane levels through the Infrastructure Act.  However, we are disappointed that a similar provision has not been introduced for airborne methane levels.

We welcome voluntary commitments from the industry to undertake baseline monitoring for soil, air and water, notwithstanding our concerns about the effectiveness of voluntary schemes noted above.

We also note that the late David McKay, former Chief Scientific Advisor to DECC recommended that Best Available Technique and ‘green completions’ would be required in order to minimise methane emissions from fracking operations.  Given that methane is a far more potent gas than carbon dioxide in terms of climate change, we hope that the Best Available Technique guidance from the Environment Agency will recommend Reduced Emissions or ‘green completions’ and the Environment Agency is expected to produce this BAT at some point this year.

Post written by Matt Williams, Policy Officer at RSPB, on behalf of the Fit to Frack Group.



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