An independent report commissioned by drilling firm Cuadrilla has concluded it was ‘highly probable’ that their fracking operations caused earthquakes in Lancashire.
Cuadrilla began drilling at the end of March 2011, but just days later on 1st April a tremor of magnitude 2.3 on the Richter scale hit the area. This was followed by a second of magnitude 1.4 on 27th May. Locals and environmental campaigners quickly pointed the finger at the hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’ being conducted by oil and gas firm Cuadrilla.
Cuadrilla bowed to the inevitable and temporarily stopped drilling so that an independent assessment could be carried out, their press release saying:
“We take our responsibilities very seriously and that is why we have stopped fracing operations to share information and consult with the relevant authorities and other experts. We expect that this analysis and subsequent consultation will take a number of weeks to conclude and we will decide on appropriate actions after that”
The British Geological Survey (BGS) have since completed their survey, and have said that the correlations between the earthquakes and the time of fracking operations and the proximity of the quakes to the site, all pointed towards the earthquakes being a result of the fracking process.
Fracking involves drilling down into the ground and then pumping in at very high pressure vast quantities of water mixed with sand and chemicals. This opens up tiny fissures in the rock, through which trapped natural gas can then escape. It bubbles out and is captured in a well that brings it to the surface, where it can be piped off.
Concern has mounted around the world at the environmental impacts of the process, which (aside from earth tremors) include possible pollution of groundwater as a result of chemicals being pumped into the ground.
The BGS report about the earthquakes concludes by saying:
This was due to an unusual combination of factors including the specific geology of the well site, coupled with the pressure exerted by water injection. This combination of geological factors was rare and would be unlikely to occur together again at future well sites. If these factors were to combine again in the future, local geology limits seismic events to around magnitude 3 on the Richter scale as a worst-case scenario.”
So yes, the earthquakes were small, absolutely. But that’s not really the point, is it? Most of us don’t understand the logarithmic nature of the Richter Scale, but an earthquake is an earthquake, and none of us are likely to happily accept them as an occupational hazard. It doesn’t matter how small or insignificant an earth tremor is perceived to be. If the earth moves, it’s significant.
According to a Guardian article in April this year, the villagers of nearby Singleton were woken up during the night by remarkably localised tremors, coupled with a loud bang.
The article goes on to say that Cuadrilla head honcho, Mark Miller, subsequently spent time in the village 'reassuring people that the minor degree of drilling at the site - where fracking has not started yet - could not have caused the quake'. That’s not a direct quotation from Mr Miller himself but if it’s an accurate representation of what he was doing and saying, then how on earth can Cuadrilla expect anyone to believe anything else they say in relation to the mitigation procedures they will now need to enact?
In light of the BGS report, Cuadrilla will now need to prove they can mitigate against such tremors repeating themselves, not least because they risk being completely shut down if it happens again. Toni Harvey, a senior geoscientist at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) said:
“If we allow fracking to continue and their mitigation didn’t work, then we would shut them down again, without a doubt”
It will be interesting to see whether this changes the UK Government’s stance on fracking. Currently they seem disinterested in conducting detailed environmental impact studies, and despite the obvious risks are intent on pushing ahead with the industry rather than announcing a moratorium like France has done. It beggars belief, really.
In the meantime, environmental campaign groups like Frack Off will continue to try and raise awareness of the dangers and pressure the Government to change its mind. Only this morning in fact, Wednesday 2nd November, they have climbed up the drilling tower at another Cuadrilla site at Banks, near Southport and unfurled banners for their cause.
Drilling has been suspended as a result, on a day when others from the group remain on the ground to try and interrupt an industry summit on the future of shale gas at the Copthorne Tara hotel in London.
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