Comment: Tighter regulations are key with fracking

Strict rules cut contamination in the US, writes Sandy Telfer

Tighter regulations could make fracking a far more viable option in the future. Picture: Ian Georgeson

DLA Piper has recently completed its analysis of 252 reports by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in the US which show a marked improvement in the environmental performance of shale oil and gas wells following the imposition of new strict state regulation. The study clearly shows the incidence of water supply contamination from shale gas development fell to 0.17 per cent in 2013 – a 92 per cent improvement on preceding years.

This improvement followed a tightening of the state’s Oil and Gas Act 2012 that revised regulations governing oil and gas well casing and cementing. The regulatory changes resulted in many of the recognised best practices for unconventional shale gas development becoming legal requirements in Pennsylvania, including material specification and performance testing to ensure proper casing and cementing of all shale oil and gas wells.

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DLA Piper partner Bob Alessi said: “The strong correlation between the improvements to the regulatory regime and the significant reduction in the rate of water supply contamination events resulting from unconventional gas development demonstrated by the data, together with the absence of any other obvious causative factors, suggests that the reduction can be traced directly to the regulatory improvements.”

The data should be judged against a UK regulatory regime equal to or stricter than that now in place in Pennsylvania.

According to a recent research study on fracking in Europe carried out by ReFine (an independent research consortium on fracking led jointly by Newcastle and Durham universities), the lack of publicly available data about onshore unconventional gas operations means there are “unknowns” concerning the extent of well failures in the UK. Under the circumstances, the authors examined the published data from the US.

ReFine highlighted the fact that one of the datasets revealed that of the 8,030 fracking wells inspected by regulators in Pennsylvania between 2005 and 2013, some 6.3 per cent (506 wells) had been reported for internal or external well barrier failures. An analysis of another dataset from the same state showed 3,533 wells had been inspected between 2008-11 and almost one-third had been issued with environmental violation notices.

While it was acknowledged most of those notices related to surface water contamination incidents arising from land spills or from problems associated with site restoration, the analysis confirmed 2.6 per cent (91 wells) of those inspected wells exhibited internal or external well barrier failures. The researchers at ReFine also highlighted the fact that “measurable concentrations of gas were present at the surface” for most of the wells where casing or cementing violations had been identified.

These findings were seized upon by anti-fracking campaigners in the UK. According to a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth, the study demonstrated that “oil and gas well failure is widespread” and consequently, “the best way to avoid the risk this brings is not to frack or go after other hard to reach and polluting fossil fuels”.

But the UK industry’s trade body, UK Onshore Oil & Gas (UKOOG), said it was important for people to understand the datasets which the ReFine study had focused on related to historical records and studies. UKOOG’s position is that, provided best practices are applied on the ground as part of a robust regulatory framework, the risk of groundwater and air contamination would be reduced to an acceptable level. It is not alone. Having reviewed the available evidence, the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering have also concluded shale gas can be extracted safely, with appropriate regulation.

Unlike in the US, where the rapid expansion of the shale gas industry initially outpaced the regulatory regime, UK operators would be obliged from the outset to ensure every single well is designed, constructed, operated and de-commissioned in accordance with best practice.

The DLA Piper study shows a strong correlation between the improvements to the regulatory regime and the significant reduction in the rate of water supply contamination events; suggesting the reduction can be traced directly to regulatory improvements.

• Sandy Telfer is a partner with DLA Piper Scotland LLP The research will be released at an event in Edinburgh