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Mind the gap: inquiry exposes loophole in fracking waste regulations

Ruth Hayhurst photo
Ruth HayhurstUK
In this week's newsletter on fracking: the Cuadrilla public inquiry hears how waste could fall through the regulatory gap. Plus residents describe their fears of fracking and experts discuss the health, noise, traffic and landscape implications of Cuadrilla's plans in Lancashire.

The inquiry into Cuadrilla’s fracking plans in Lancashire has exposed a gap in the regulation of shale gas operations in the UK.

The government has frequently described the UK’s regulations as “gold standard” and, in almost weekly statements, it has said the regulatory regime is robust. Equally frequently, opponents of fracking disagree.

This week a loophole revealed at the fracking inquiry in Blackpool suggests that shale gas sites could be approved without any regulator investigating whether there was available capacity to treat liquid waste.

From the first day of the inquiry, Cuadrilla has said there’s been no need to talk about the treatment of waste, known as flowback. It argued that the Environment Agency had already issued waste permits for the proposed fracking sites at Preston New Road and Roseacre Wood.

Cuadrilla’s QC, Nathalie Lieven, said the inspector should assume the Environment Agency (EA) would do did its job properly. In her opening statement she said:

“Where there is another regulatory regime that deals with a matter then the planning decision maker should rely on that regime and assume that it will operate appropriately.”

Environment Agency has “washed its hands” of availability

But planning consultant Richard Bate, giving evidence for Friends of the Earth, questioned whether the EA had done its job properly.

He said the EA was satisfied with Cuadrilla’s proposals for dealing with the waste and it was aware that there were facilities where the waste could be treated.

But he said:

“The EA has left open that capacity might not be available in the real world. It has specified a process but not an availability.”

He quoted from the EA’s decision document for the waste permit, where the organisation said: “We have assessed the Application and we are satisfied that the waste can be safely dealt with. Capacity is primarily an issue for the Applicant and if an appropriately permitted outlet for the waste cannot be found, the operations will have to stop.”

Mr Bate said:

“The issue is then what is to be done about the issue of the availability of the processing capacity. The EA has washed its hands of that matter.”

He also referred to concerns, raised at the inquiry last week, that two treatment sites, selected by Cuadrilla for its waste, may not have enough capacity, available or not, to deal with flowback from Lancashire. He said:

“What happens if substantially more waste becomes available and the day-to-day operations couldn’t be carried out as intended?" 
"That is something that the EA has not addressed, something it has washed its hands of and something the planning authority needs to consider so that the Secretary of State can be satisfied it can be carried out.”

“Operations will stop if no capacity available”

Ms Lieven, for Cuadrilla, said operations would stop if capacity was not available. But the inquiry heard this had risks. The longer flowback remained in a well, the more contaminated it could become and the more treatment it might need. Preventing the release of flowback could increase the risk of seismic activity. It could prolong operations on the site beyond the proposed six years of the project.

Flowback that could not be treated could be stored onsite if there was enough space. But the inquiry heard this could increase the risk of spillage and leaks, with a great potential for pollution. It could also increase the impact of a drilling site on the local landscapes.

At Preston New Road and Roseacre Wood, Cuadrilla had said it would co-ordinate operations but problems with available waste treatment would make this more difficult, the inquiry heard.

“The market will respond”

Nathalie Lieven, for Cuadrilla, said the market would respond to a shortage of waste treatment capacity. Operators of treatment facilities would apply to create new centres or seek to expand them, she said.

But Mr Bate told the inquiry: “Gosh we are running away with things a bit here.”

He quoted from the Government’s Strategy for the Management of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material waste in the UK, July 2014, which said:

“The development and permitting of alternative facilities would not be an easy thing to achieve quickly”.

Ms Lieven said shale gas would not be achieved quickly either.

Mr Bate replied: “It strikes me as extraordinary that the shale gas industry has not addressed this issue”

Implications and policy

The waste argument played out at the inquiry overlooking the pitch at Blackpool Football Club may have implications for future onshore oil and gas developments.

The inquiry inspector, Wendy McKay, will make a recommendation on whether Cuadrilla’s plans should be approved. The final decision will be made by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Greg Clark. How he treats the waste issue is likely to affect other fracking applications across the UK.

Nathalie Lieven, for Cuadrilla, told the inspector:

“These matters have been dealt with in great detail through the environmental permitting regime, and will be subject to intensive monitoring and regulation as part of that regime, if and when the proposals are implemented. There is no basis for you or the Secretary of State to go behind those regimes, and do anything other than assume that they will operate effectively.”

Mr Bate said:

“In my view the Secretary of State, under the planning policy guidance, has to be satisfied that the waste can be disposed. It is up to him to decide that there is an adequate availability of appropriate capacity.”

“Because of the way the EA’s role is constructed and expressed, the planning authority should be taking account of the practical availability of waste treatment capacity because that is not something the EA is set up to do”.

Link to policy arguments used by the two sides

More detail on waste and planning arguments

Other headlines from the inquiry

Cuadrilla’s Roseacre fracking plans a “personal tragedy

The chair of a group of residents opposed to fracking at Roseacre Wood told the public inquiry this week about their fears if Cuadrilla’s plans went ahead.

Elizabeth Warner, representing Roseacre Awareness Group, said it would be a “personal tragedy” for local people. She predicted:

“Homes will be less appealing, lives less comfortable because of the scale and nature of traffic or their days and nights disturbed by light or noise.”

She said residents faced the “inescapable burden” of drilling noise 24-hours a day, seven days a week and the “alien presence” of lighting and security fences.

The property market would stagnate, she said, with collateral damage to the thriving school and church. She added:

“The urbanising and industrialising aspects will impact on both the value and the attraction of this rural and relatively undeveloped area”.

“High personal cost to appear at inquiry”

Mrs Warner said RAG’s decision to appear at the inquiry had “come at a high personal cost to those most heavily involved”. She said:

“The considerable resources required to meet the expectations of the process have been raised, organised and steered by people whose first interest and expertise is neither campaigning nor planning.”

“This effort represents the accumulated will of communities so moved we are here now.”

She said: “Thousands of individuals have taken the time and the trouble and the care to have their say”

“Receptors [people affected] are not everything but they are not nothing either.”

“Scarce community infrastructure”

Cuadrilla had claimed “community infrastructure is scarce” in the Roseacre Wood area and “this decreases the sensitivity in terms of any potential impact on community infrastructure”. 

But Barbara Richardson, a former chair of RAG, said there were more than 50 sports and social clubs, with thousands of members that used the lanes on the proposed lorry route. The roads were also used by 27 cycle clubs and 60 livery yards and stables accounting for 500 horses. She said:

"[Cuadrilla] has failed to take account of this amenity value and that the impacts on social, recreational and amenity value may be long term and irreversible”.

More details of residents’ concerns and community impacts

“Convincing health case against fracking”

The health risks of shale gas exploration are too great to justify it going ahead, the inquiry also heard this week.

Public health expert, Dr David McCoy (left), said some professionals advised against shale gas production because the hazards were too significant. But he said this warning could also apply to exploration. Giving evidence for Friends of the Earth, he said:

“When you add in climate change and global warming, for me, the case becomes much stronger. When you add up all the arguments, the direct, indirect and long-term potential impacts, the case is very convincing that we should not be undertaking shale gas exploration or production.”

He said the health effects of exploration included:

· Stress and anxiety and lack of trust in fracking

· Impacts of noise

· Management and safe treatment of waste water

He called for an assessment of the health impacts of industrial scale production and a baseline study of health in the area around the fracking sites. More details on health impacts

“Major accident likely at 18 points on Cuadrilla traffic route”

Former transport operations manager, Tom Hastey, told the inquiry heavy lorries travelling to Cuadrilla’s fracking site at Roseacre Wood would have an unacceptable impact on road safety.

Giving evidence for opponents of Cuadrilla’s plans, he said there were 18 points on the proposed lorry route where major accidents were likely.

He told the inquiry:

“I would have been unable to sanction these routes for the traffic proposed". 

"The use of the proposed routes by large articulated vehicles travelling to and from the appeal site is likely to result in unacceptable risks of accident at a number of points.”

Mr Hastey also said the proposed routing of articulated lorries along a narrow lane was an accident waiting to happen because it was used regularly by horses.

He said lorries slowing down for a horse would emit large amounts of exhaust from a vent as big as a drainpipe. He said:

“The exhaust emissions will be powerful and hot. That hitting the horse’s legs will cause a disaster.”

He said the horse would veer sharply away from the vehicle and the rider would struggle to control it. He said:

“The only place that rider can drop is under the wheels. It is an accident waiting to happen.”

More details on traffic concerns

"Stables could use other routes"

Nathalie Lieven, barrister for Cuadrilla, said stables and livery yards could use different lanes to avoid the Roseacre Wood lorry route. But Barbara Richardson, for Roseacre Awareness Group asked:

“Why should they change their route because you want to put bring vehicles down these lanes. These are people who have lived here and rode on these lanes for years.”

Roseacre Wood fracking site would “fundamentally change” landscape

A landscape architect working for opponents of Cuadrilla’s proposed site at Roseacre Wood site told the inquiry the scheme would industrialise the undeveloped rural landscape.

Kenneth Halliday said one of the reasons people lived around Roseacre was for the enjoyment of open local views. But if fracking went ahead, he said:

“The open undeveloped character of the site would change from pasture farmland to an area influenced by shale gas exploration, industrial development.”

He said the development was too close to homes to be acceptable. For the nearest property, Old Orchard Farm, the fracking site would be “an unpleasant, oppressive and unavoidable presence”.

Nathalie Lieven, for Cuadrilla, said the owners of Old Orchard Farm had not objected to the plans. Mr Halliday said this wasn’t material. “It is either acceptable or it is not”. More details on landscape impacts

"Fracking site likely to break noise conditions"

A noise expert working for opponents of fracking told the public inquiry that Cuadrilla was likely to break planning conditions on noise limits at the proposed Roseacre Wood site.

The company has said night time noise from Roseacre Wood would be up to 42 decibels. But Ed Clarke, speaking for Roseacre Awareness Group, said Cuadrilla’s predictions had a margin of error of plus or minus three decibels. He said the uncertainty in the way the company had assessed the noise levels and what he called its “untested” noise-reduction methods meant there was “a significant risk of non-compliance.” More details

Other fracking news

Energy policy U-turn may cost households £120 a year. A report by the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee says changes in government energy policy since the last election have chased off investors and may have added £120 a year to household bills. More details

Fear of fracking hits house prices. A report from Bristol University concluded that minor earthquakes linked to fracking at Preese Hall, near Blackpool, in 2011 led to a 3-4% fall in house prices nearby. More details

US fracking pioneer killed. Aubrey McClendon, former head of Chesapeake Energy and an evangelist for fracking, died in a single car crash the day after the was indicted for rigging bids of oil and gas leases.

Chester shale gas site could be fracked. Tom Pickering, operations director of INEOS Shale told the Chester Chronicle that the Duttons Lane site at Upton on the edge of Chester could be explored for shale gas. INEOS has an interest in the site, which the operator, IGas, said last month was not suitable for coal bed methane. More details

IGas accused of disregarding planning system in Nottingham. Bassetlaw District Council is taking legal advice after IGas put cabins and lighting onto a prospective shale gas site without planning permission. More details

Former UK civil servants now lobbying government. DeSmogUK reports that 15 employees currently working in government relations for oil and gas companies used to work for the British government. More details

Oil drilling can go ahead near Belfast reservoir. The Telegraph reports that Northern Ireland Water has agreed to lease land to Infrastrata to explore for oil near a reservoir that supplies 130,000 people in and around Belfast. There have been public protests about drinking water contamination and damage to the nearby Woodburn Forest.

“Taking the stress” out of fracking. Research by The British Geological Survey claims it will reduce the risk of earthquakes from fracking. It is calling for all shale gas wells to be logged by borehole imaging tools to give a better understanding of in-situ stress.

Ruth Hayhurst is the only journalist reporting from the fracking front lines across the UK

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