There is an ongoing debate about whether the economic potential of fracking outweighs its dangers. England can teach the US a great deal about this, as it is one of the countries that both leads the industry of shale gas exploitation and upholds strict rules to enforce safety standards.
Since 2014, the UK government has applied a so-called “traffic-light system”, where the colors green, amber, and red symbolize whether fracking operations are safe or not. Any tremor over 0.5 Local Magnitude (“LM”) on the Richter scale initiates the red light procedure, which effectively means that fracking has to stop and a series of testing and monitoring operations has to begin immediately.
The 0.5 LM parameter is significant because of the movement of faults and induced earthquakes, which tend to increase in magnitude, start occurring above that threshold. The key element in this geological scenario is to understand that any seismic activity above 0,5 LM could mean that fracking is impacting existing faults, weakening the earth’s structure and posing a risk for well integrity and people.
The work towards upholding these standards was initiated in 2011, after what is known as the Preese Hall report was released. The Preese Hall report was an exhaustive research study resulting from an alarming series of seismic events which occurred in Lancashire where 58 earthquakes were linked to the exploration of a shale gas reservoir at the Preese Hall well. The largest had a magnitude of 2.3 LM and was perceptible to local residents. Cuadrilla, the British exploration and production company founded in 2007, was the company responsible for the fracking operation.
The Preese Hall report demonstrated the direct correlation between earthquakes and fracking. After all, roughly 100 earthquakes above the 0.5 LM were accounted for in the UK in the last 100 days, proving that what happened in Preese Hall well in 2011 is not a singular or unique event.
One of the reasons why the report is relevant for the entire world today is because it has proven that larger earthquakes are preceded by a series of smaller events, suggesting that seismic activity is cumulative and should be monitored closely. Moreover, through the Preese Hall report, England has established that dangerous induced earthquakes are often a response to long-term fracking, urging the need for strong governmental regulations for industries and mining corporations.
However, the debate over man-made or induced earthquakes comes as industry opposition to the currently upheld seismic standards is rising. For example, Cuadrilla is one of the many irresponsible big and powerful drilling firms which calls for the regulatory standards of induced tremors to be relaxed, claiming economic reasons.
The company has been fracking in Preston New Road (Lancashire) for weeks. Since then, there have been 34 tremors in the area, according to data from the British Geological Survey. Since Cuadrilla started fracking in the area their operations were made to stop twice. Fifteen days ago there was a 0.8 LM quake, and another 1.1 LM happened last week. Although these recent seismic events are sometimes imperceptible on the surface, it is undoubted that their consequences are severe.
The impact on local people is serious not only for the short term consequences but also for long-term ones. Some of the immediate perceptible implications of fracking are people experiencing cracks in walls, broken crockery, unnecessary stress and hazards encountered when driving or walking, and worries about the future integrity of their properties.
People are also uncertain regarding long-term damage both regarding health and safety, and politically speaking. For example, local resident Dianne Westgarth, who lives less than a kilometer away from Preston New Road, has reported that she and group of residents have written several letters to the government asking their help to stop fracking in the area, but they have fallen on deaf ears.
Reportedly, the local community has lost all faith and trust in the industry and the government alike. Elderly residents of Carr Bridge, who had moved to the area looking for peace and quiet, have also expressed their distress.
Even if the UK government were to disregard people’s anxiety and concerns regarding fracking, one major worry stems from the existing faults on the coast and the speculative science of what will happen when the fracking fluid reaches these faults, as the fracks move along the horizontal well.
In fact, the Preese Hall report acknowledged that casing damage was found at Cuadrilla’s fracking site after the quakes and the wellbore was found to deform. Damaged wellbores mean a loss of well integrity and this is a major red flag signaling plausible contamination of rock layers. This could very well happen again in Preston New Road or anywhere else affected by these fracking-related quakes.
Cuadrilla CEO, Francis Egan, has made several media appearances recently lobbying the general public and governmental agencies to try to loosen what he claims are “conservative regulations”, and speaking in favor of commerce and the wellbeing of the mining industry.
Nonetheless, England has taught us that corporations should be held accountable and that industry and regulators should collaborate and gather enough information to understand the underground effects of fracking before the impact of this industry becomes irreparable.
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