Is the Environment Agency fit for purpose?
The very first UK high volume hydraulic fracking well was drilled by Cuadrilla in 2011 at Preese Hall (PH-1) in Lancashire. It caused two earthquakes and more than 50 seismic events near Blackpool (confirmed by the British Geological Survey) before they were forced to suspend drilling after two months.
An independent report highlighted the need for detailed analysis of any well-casing deformation, as the implications for potential contamination of water aquifers and further seismic triggering are deadly serious in the event of breach. At PH-1, the well casing had actually been compromised by the first tremor but Cuadrilla just kept on drilling.
A ministerial statement by Edward Davey (DECC) in December 2012, hurriedly promised new controls and monitoring regimes, but apart from proposing some initial independent observers, there is still much reliance on the operators to monitor themselves.
The very least the public needs is a completely independent regulator, paid for by a levy on the industry, with capacity for frequent random inspections; but regulation, and more importantly, compliance, is left to several unconnected authorities, one of which is the Environment Agency. Last year it was revealed that, far from ‘maintaining regulatory capacity’, they face a 25% staffing cut.
On top of that, the EA’s impartiality is being questioned. Their previous Chairman was Chris Smith, who last year jumped over to a lucrative industry-funded post at the Shale Gas Task Force. His successor, Sir Phillip Dilley, comes from Arup, a firm previously contracted to Cuadrilla – where he is still listed as a trustee.
It has also emerged that the EA faces serious conflicts of interest due to its own pension pot holding significant investments in Centrica (with a £60m stake in Cuadrilla’s Lancashire operation), and in Riverstone Energy (owning a 44% stake in Cuadrilla). It has numerous additional investments with banks and oil companies connected to currently live fracking bids.
Even pro-frackers agree the industry should have strong regulation backed by adequate independent scrutiny, but instead, this Government is cutting funds to a deeply industry-entangled agency while fast-tracking legal changes to trespass laws to make it even easier to frack.
Last week, the EA issued new permits for Cuadrilla to resume operations in Lancashire. Does this come as any surprise? The Environment Agency is so clearly linked to support for the shale gas industry, it’s difficult to see where the agency ends and Cuadrilla begin.