UK Frackers Call for Change to Rules

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Efforts to determine the commercial value of the UK's shale gas resources have hit a regulatory roadblock. Flow tests from the country's first horizontal shale well at Cuadrilla's site in Lancashire yielded positive results in January, providing an early indication of the gas potential in the Bowland Shale of northern England (WGI Oct.24'18). But after fracking operations triggered tremors above the regulatory threshold, work had to stop several times and Cuadrilla couldn't complete the well. Shale developers complain that the rules are "unworkable," and some observers believe they could be rethought. The next steps will be key to determining whether UK shale has a future. Fracking has attracted opposition since Cuadrilla opened its first site, Preese Hall in Lancashire. The process, which involves pumping high-pressure fluid into a well bore to break up the shale and release gas, caused two earthquakes in 2011 that were felt locally. With magnitudes of 2.3 and 1.5 on the Richter Scale, they were linked to the reactivation of a previously unknown natural geological fault. Fracking was temporarily banned, but after a seven-year halt Cuadrilla resumed work last October at its new Preston New Road site, albeit with stricter monitoring. The British Geological Survey (BGS) began to detect tremors three days later, with the strongest on Dec. 11 reaching magnitude 1.5. Fracking is monitored by the Oil and Gas Authority, which uses a regulatory traffic light system that requires fluid injection to be temporarily halted if an earthquake above 0.5 occurs. Cuadrilla wants the government to review the seismicity threshold, complaining that it is "strangling" the industry and making it difficult to determine whether fracking is economically viable. UK explorer Ineos, which has yet to frack a well, has also weighed in, claiming the "unworkable" rules have no basis in science. But a spokesperson for the UK's Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy told Energy Intelligence that it has no plans to review the regulations. Some academics agree that further work is needed to understand fracking-induced seismicity. Compared with North America, the UK's geology is more complex and the formations being targeted are highly naturally faulted. According to the BGS, micro-earthquakes of less than magnitude 3 are typically not felt at the surface and don't cause damage, while anything above 4 is significant. "The 0.5 seismicity level indicates faults are slipping but even if the fault intersected the well, it's probably not an environmental risk," Professor Richard Davies from Newcastle University says. He calls it an "early warning signal, like measuring your blood cholesterol levels. It's the fracker's 'miner's canary.'" He believes "there could be a higher level at which fracking operations need to stop. ... For me, with the low levels of seismicity the risk is not one of damage to property -- one should focus on well integrity. At what level does seismicity need to be to threaten well integrity?" Rob Westaway from the University of Glasgow's School of Engineering says extensive research points to induced seismicity being dependent on the pressure used for fluid injection. "One should aim to use pressures that are as low as possible," he says, blaming Cuadrilla's problems in 2011 on the pressure being too high. Westaway believes the regulatory framework should be on a par with other forms of industrial vibration such as quarry blasting, with a threshold equal to a magnitude 3 earthquake at a depth of 2.5 kilometers. The fracking process has reactivated faults and triggered earthquakes almost everywhere it has been used. That includes the US, the world's biggest shale gas producer, and No. 2 Canada, as well as China and Argentina, the two countries with the biggest resource potential. Before the US shale revolution, Oklahoma rarely experienced earthquakes, recording about two a year from 1978-99. Between 2014-16, it recorded 2,100, most too small to be felt (NGW Nov.19'18). Oklahoma has now reduced the minimum seismicity level at which operators must take action from magnitude 2.5 to 2.0, and at which they must pause operations from magnitude 3.0 to 2.5. Canadian regulators in British Columbia and Alberta require continuous seismic monitoring during fracking. Alberta has a traffic light system whereby operators must report seismic events of magnitudes 2 or more, and both provinces require operations to be suspended after a magnitude 4 event. Argentina, which has no regulatory framework for fracking, was hit by a swarm of 37 earthquakes in late January in Neuquen province, home to the Vaca Muerta Shale formation, ranging from magnitude 1.4 to 3.6, according to local reports. Following the swarm, which caused structural damage to buildings and water infrastructure, local residents blocked trucks from delivering fracking supplies. China has a light-touch approach on the basis that fracking takes place at depths of up to 4 km, and major quakes typically occur over 10 km down. But reports last week that two people were killed in a magnitude 4.9 quake in Zigong, Sichuan province, prompted the local government to temporarily halt shale gas production (related). Deb Kelly, London

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