by Charlotte Doerr

The practice of fracing (referred to as “fracking” in the UK) in the United Kingdom has once again come under scrutiny.  The UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) commissioned an independent panel to examine a possible relationship between the practice and certain earthquakes which took place in April and May 2011.  The earthquakes occured near the site of the UK’s only fracing operation in Preese Hall, near Blackpool.  On April 17, 2012, the panel published its findings in a report

Fracing is the practice of pumping water, sand and chemicals into shale rock at a high pressure in order to extract reserves of natural gas stored within the shale rock, known as "shale gas."  The report considered the impact such a process may have on seismic activity.  The report concluded that the fracing operation (which was suspended following the earthquakes) had caused the earthquakes, thus providing some of the first evidence of this connection.  However, the report also found that the risk that fracing could cause an earthquake resulting in significant damage was "very low." 

The report recommended that fracing be allowed in the UK but, given that there is evidence of a connection between fracing and seismic activity, a number of safety provisions should be put in place to mitigate against seismic risks arising from fracing.  The safety provisions include:

  • conducting a detailed assessment of the relevant area prior to fracing taking place, including: performing baseline seismic monitoring so that seismic risk of the area can be determined; using both geological and geophysical data to determine the existence of any active faults in the area; and using ground motion prediction models to consider and assess the possible impact of any earthquakes; and
  • implementing a "traffic light" system with real-time monitoring of seismic activity during the fracking process.  A "red light" would be triggered by any seismic tremor meauring 0.5 local magnitude (a level lower than the size of the 2011 earthquakes) or higher.  The triggering of a red light would require the cessation of fracing and the taking of certain safety procedures including, allowing fluid to flow back to the surface.

In conjunction with the publishing of the panel’s report, the DECC is inviting public comment on the recommendations made by the report until May 25, 2012.

The DECC has stated that no decision will be made as to whether fracing operations for shale gas can be resumed until all comments in response to the report have been received and considered.

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