Earth tremor report casts doubt over future of fracking

Anti-fracking protesters say that the return of the industry in England is in doubt after a report into the crucial issue of tremors shows they may be impossible to predict.



Studies commissioned by the Oil and Gas Authority and carried out by the British geological Survey on the Preston New Road fracking site in March 2020 were an attempt understand the subsurface and surface impacts of the induced seismicity experienced during the operations. They concluded that “it is not yet possible to accurately predict the seismic response to hydraulic fracturing” and that “Where induced seismicity has occurred, mitigation measures have shown only limited success, and there can only be low confidence in their effectiveness.”

The Government put a moratorium on fracking in November 2019 following the swarm of tremors caused by the two wells drilled and fracked at Preston New Road site near Little Plumpton, and has said this will not be lifted until “compelling scientific evidence” can be produced to show that fracking tremors can be better predicted and controlled.

One tremor, on the August bank holiday measured 2.9 on the local magnitude scale and was felt across the Fylde. Campaigners who believe fracking damages the environment and is a risk to neighbouring property, said this report by the regulator shows that no such science exists and that tremors will always be unpredictable and potentially damaging.

But Cuadrilla the firm which has drilled at several sites between Blackpool and Preston in a bid to explore and then commercially harvest natural gas trapped thousands of feet below ground in the Bowland Shale rocks, says the report offers hope in that the induced tremors were relatively weak and in line with those allowed in other industries such as quarrying or geothermal energy sites. The report also stated that fracking from the second well interacted with a previously undiscovered vertical fault line underground which sparked the largest seismic events. 

A spokesperson for Frack Free Lancashire said: “It is clear from this report that the fracking industry is struggling to provide any kind of scientific evidence base to justify the resumption of fracking”. The report shows that not only are they struggling to predict seismicity, but also that they have no way of acting on those attempts at prediction in time to stop damage to property. “To make matters worse it now transpires that, in spite of the much-vaunted “detailed” 3D seismological survey undertaken by Cuadrilla, they still managed to frack into an unexpected fault at Preston New Road, triggering the 2.9Ml quake that led to the current moratorium. “This report confirms our opinion that this industry must not be allowed to put the safety and well-being of our local community at risk.”

Long time fracking commentator Mike Hill, and oil and gas engineer from Lytham said that he believes that fracking is not going to be commercially viable in the UK.

He said: “In Lancashire, my personal view is there is little chance of fracking. I started meeting Mark Miller in 2010 to discuss how Cuadrilla work. Now 10 years later, as we both predicted in his office then, with no public consent, no proper regulations and transparent monitoring, it is finished. And so I think it will remain. They have given up because the regulations put in by Whitehall back in 2011/12 put the 0.5 seismic safety limit in place. That’s stopped the industry literally in its tracks. What is important now is that the Environment Agency monitors those wells for 30 years. It’s not over in that sense – in fact just begun. Millions of litres of fracking fluid injected into that rock can migrate over long periods.”

A spokesman for Cuadrilla said: “The studies were commissioned in March 2020 some four months after a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in England was announced by the UK Govt citing disturbance caused to residents local to the PNR site. Their release today, 13 months after that moratorium announcement, will, we believe, allow that decision to be considered and reviewed in a new light. We note in particular the finding that the maximum induced seismic event at PNR2 of 2.9ML “may cause sparse cases of low superficial damage”. This is consistent with our own data of the low level impact of the 2.9ML event. The data also confirms that the levels of ground vibration generated during hydraulic fracturing at PNR were typically below levels frequently encountered and safely managed in other UK onshore industry such as quarrying, construction and geothermal (ref ongoing Cornwall geothermal well).”

It said it would now look at the detailed reports and discuss with the Government and regulators “how shale can be put on a level regulatory playing field with comparable industries already managing the risk of induced ground vibrations.”