Following the approval of the Onshore Hydraulic Fracturing (Protected Areas) Regulations in the House of Commons in December I can now provide an update of what these regulations involve.

The regulations will strengthen the sub-surface protections in place for protected areas ensuring that fracturing cannot take place at depths above 1,200 metres in National Parks, the Broads, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, World Heritage Sites and areas that are most vulnerable to groundwater pollution.

Furthermore, fracturing cannot be conducted from wells that are drilled at the surface of our most sensitive areas – National Parks, the Broads, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, World Heritage Sites, Sites of Special Scientific Interests, Ramsar (Wetlands of International Importance), Natura 2000 sites, and areas that are most vulnerable to groundwater pollution. The Government is currently consulting on how these restrictions can best be applied.

In relation to the hydraulic fracturing process itself, the regulations provide various safeguards:

 

Pre-Operations

  • Before any shale operation can begin in the UK, a company looking to develop shale will need to pass rigorous health and safety, environmental and planning permission processes. For instance, operators must gain an environmental permit from the relevant environmental regulator (the Environment Agency), submitting detailed plans. These plans would include information on, for example, groundwater, surface water, fracking fluid and monitoring. The regulator will then publish details on their website for public consultation. If the risk to the environment is unacceptable, a permit will not be granted.

  • Furthermore, operators must comply with a comprehensive set of regulations on well design and operation, monitored by the Health and Safety Executive. The well design will be scrutinised and its progress monitored to ensure that the operator manages risks effectively throughout the life cycle of the well. The Health and Safety Executive monitor the well construction using weekly reports and inspection of the well site. Inspectors can visit any site at any time if there is a matter of concern and the Health and Safety Executive, jointly with the Environment Agency, has committed to inspecting all shale gas sites during the current exploratory phase of shale gas development.

 

During production

  • Water Usage – it is too early to know how much water will be required for development of a shale gas industry. However, operators will have to apply either to the water company for mains water supply, or to the Environment Agency for an abstraction licence, which will specify the maximum amount of water that can be used. Whichever of these sources is used, a thorough assessment will be made considering the existing water user’s needs and environmental impact before permission is granted. The Secretary of State will only issue hydraulic fracturing consent if satisfied that planning authorities have consulted the relevant water company.

  • Potential Induced Seismicity – the British Geological Survey has published regional data on tectonic history and faulting in many prospective areas and the Department for Energy and Climate Change set out new requirements for operators to control seismic risks. Operators have to use all available geological information to assess the location of faults before wells are drilled to avoid hydraulically fracturing near faults and old wells. They must then monitor seismic activity in real time – before, during and after operations – and halt if seismic activity exceeds a predefined level. Operations stop if a tremor of magnitude 0.5 or greater is detected and the pressure of fluid in the well is reduced immediately. The threshold of 0.5 has been adopted as an initial precautionary level set on the basis of a report by a group of independent experts and can only be detected at the ground’s surface by sensitive equipment.

 

Evidence shows that the shale gas industry can be taken forward in a safe way that protects local environments and communities. Reports by the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and Public Health England all conclude that risks can be well managed if the industry follows best practice, enforced through regulation.