FRACKING IN HISTORIC MINING AREAS: A RISKY BUSINESS

Last week saw the final APPG (All Party Parliamentary Group) meeting on shale gas take place in Westminster, before summer recess for members of parliament.

The topic for discussion was seismicity and the underlying effects of historic mining activity – a fundamental subject in a post-industrial UK and one that has been skirted around by both industry and government. It was, therefore, most interesting to note that both the Coal Authority (CA) and the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) declined to attend the session. Although, after the previous meeting, having the Oil and Gas Authority there as a representative would not have added much quality to proceedings – their most often-repeated response to a variety of questions was: “we don’t know”, which was both unbelievable and frustrating in equal measures.

Attendance is always interesting at these gatherings, especially with the oil and gas industry and their lobbyists turning out in varying numbers. MPs who were present at this session were Conservatives Lee Rowley (North East Derbyshire) and Ben Bradley (Mansfield). Labour’s Sir Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) also attended. All three MPs have constituencies within former coal mining areas and now, licensed areas for fracking.

The UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG) representative present was their executive, Steve Thompsett – a former employee of the Environment Agency, DECC and Jacobs. Third Energy’s representative was Rosemary Drummond.

Geologically fractured

Professor Peter Styles, Emeritus Professor of Applied and Environmental Geophysics at Keele University, held the floor for the main presentation, giving a witness statement on England’s fracking license areas and the serious risk of seismicity within former coal mining regions. His prime concern is that these historical mining maps and data have been omitted or even more worryingly, ignored, by fracking companies and government regulators.

Fracking Earthquakes

Professor Styles talked in depth about fault lines, particularly smaller faults that cannot be detected, and fissures (cracks) which could have been left from past coal mining activity or naturally occurring.

There are fissures close to the National Trust’s Clumber Park estate – one of INEOS’s target areas, where they are currently trying to force the National Trust to give them land access for seismic testing, via a legal challenge. Professor Styles stated that neither the Coal Authority nor INEOS was aware of these significant fissures until he told them during a recent meeting.

Professor Styles’s evidence raised concerns on the lack of scrutiny within the government upon granting permission for exploratory fracking works to go ahead with so many unresolved issues, putting communities at risk with no accountability to rely on, other than the sketchy self-regulation that is clearly happening.

He stated:

“To date, it does not appear that any proper industry or government due diligence has taken place with regards to fault lines mapped.”

The main points from Professor Style’s presentation were:

  • Mining mapping has not been taken into account in any of the planning applications.
  • Small faults cannot be detected by current standards of industry seismic testing.
  • Fracking close to these faults and fissures in coal seams could cause the faults to move and trigger an earthquake.
  • Fracking planning applications should include all available data, including historic mining maps.
  • Geology has to be part of the planning process for drilling permission.
  • The Bowland Basin is five times as big offshore than it is onshore, and that fracking could have been tested offshore before alarming the public who are now adversely sensitised to fracking.

Chief Scientist, Professor Mike Stephenson, was representing the British Geological Survey (BGS) gave a short witness statement. The BGS has previously carried out an independent study in four areas. With regards to the north of England, Professor Stephenson stated:

“It looks like it has some prospectivity. That’s really all we’d say. That there’s shale gas down there. We’re not saying you should use it or not, we’re just saying it’s there. And that’s our job as a geological survey. We’re geologists who are there to try and describe what the resources are in the UK. It’s not our job to say whether we should use that gas or not.”

He also admitted that there was indeed a problem with shale gas extraction and historic mining areas.

Engineering geologist, Professor Paul Nathanail from the University of Nottingham and Land Quality Management Ltd gave a witness statement, talking about deep geology, coal mining and shale gas extraction in the present day.

“We’re looking to move away from gas as well, and the question is: not whether or not we are in favour or against shale gas, but whether there is time still for it to be that bridge. Or are we just having to make sure that we swing across it as best we can and get to the other side without its support? Because we’re running out of time for it to contribute that bridging function that we were told about 10-15 years or so ago.”

Retired Labour MP for North East Derbyshire, Harry Barnes, who also spoke at the APPG, stressing the importance of being familiar with the Coal Authority Interactive Map, detailing historic mining operations in the UK. He said that the CA are failing to use the wealth of mining information they have with regards to fracking applications, especially INEOS.

With regards to the links to previous coal mining and future fracking, Mr Barnes stated:

“There’s plenty to look at and there’s plenty to worry about.”

Strong and stable regulations?

During the question and answers section, Third Energy’s Rosemary Drummond got a schooling from Professor Styles, when she responded to a question on geology specifics to each exploration areas. Regarding Third Energy’s approved hydraulic fracturing plan for KM8 at Kirby Misperton, she stated:

“It is gold-standard, it is highly detailed. We had professors working on it and it was a long process with both the EA and the OGA because it was the first time it had been done. Cuadrilla are going through or have been through for Lancashire, the absolute same detailed process and it’s not off-the-shelf and it is bespoke to the area.

“If this process [fracking] were in an area with historic coal mining that added layer of detail would be there on a hydraulic fracture plan. We’ve also worked with the BGS as well – they’ve peer-reviewed the work.”

When pressed on setback distances, Drummond stated:

“The faults are all mapped and are shown on the hydraulic fracture plan.”

Professor Styles replied:

“They cannot be because conventional seismic reflection cannot map the faults at a level that which create a 0.5 earthquake. Categorically.”

He went on to say:

“It does worry me. We cannot know the faults at the level which we have legislated. And I’m not sure how that can be resolved. And as far as I can tell, the OGA’s response is, “Let’s wait and see”, but the waiting and see response will fall on your head [Third Energy].

With regards to drilling, Professor Styles said:

“If you’re more than 20 metres away from mine workings, they’re not obliged to tell you when you drill a borehole. That can not be sensible.”

“To do it somewhere where you may stimulate activity, will be the death of the shale gas industry … Scotland told BGS to assess what the relationship was between mining and fracking: DECC didn’t. Now ask yourself: why not?”

Professor Nathanail highlighted an important factor that it is essential to balance the hazards (0.5 magnitude earthquakes) to the risks (impacting on groundwater etc) and take a risk-based approach. He said that the economics of The Compensation Act should be looked at as a legal solution for any impacts from fracking.

Independent v industry cash

Professor Nathanail also expressed concern over the level of independent geoscientific advice from the government, namely the British Geological Survey. The BGS doesn’t get all of its funding from the government – it has to compete for outside funding sources, which inevitably attracts industry cash.

He said that the only organisation who fully understands the subsurface of the UK is the BGS and if truly independent advice is to be secured then the BGS must “free from the shackles of needing to earn money.”

He went on to say:

“The government ought to be taking an ownership of resource and the long-term impacts. And if the government isn’t willing to do that and step up to the plate, then why on earth should anyone else?”

Joe Corré from Talk Fracking was present at the APPG and commented:

“The clearest indication is that this gas has been down there for millions of years. It’s not going anywhere in a rush. And if there is a case for this industry, I think it should be done properly. All I’ve seen to date are cowboys.”

“I would just like to add for the record, I think it’s ridiculous that 7-8 years into this, we’re sitting here today and Peter [Styles] has done this work. This is eight years. This country knows it was built on the industrial revolution: why have they not looked at this information? What does that mean about our so-called gold-standard regulations? They are a farce.”

The meeting session raised many more questions than it answered, with geological risks and hazards still very much evident in the fracking debate, yet this information is ostensibly being deliberately obscured or omitted from discussion and planning committees. All available scientific information must be available to every involved party: the time for transparency from the oil and gas industry has never been greater.

Professor Styles’ parting words were:

“We have forgotten about mining. Mining has not forgotten about us.”