Hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) for natural gas is not just fracturing the geological landscape – its emergence and development has also amplified political divisions. This article examines the key regulatory hurdles the industry will need to overcome when fracking for natural gas.
Fracking is meeting wide public opposition in the UK. This is largely due to concerns about, for example, water contamination, fires, explosions, and accidental fuel spillages resulting from the uncontrolled release of hydrocarbon gas. Additionally there are fears of earth tremors after minor earthquakes in Blackpool in 2011 were attributed to test wells being drilled by Cuadrilla.
The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering endorsed fracking activities, but their findings were caveated by their recommendation for stringent regulation of the industry. We will now examine what the key health and safety regulations are and how to comply with them.
Regulation before fracking commences
For the purposes of this article, we are focussing primarily on legislation concerning health and safety. The overriding objective of health and safety regulation surrounding fracking is to ensure public safety within and near fracking activities, as well as to protect the health and safety of those working on such activities. Well integrity is therefore paramount to achieving these objectives. This involves ensuring that wells are designed, constructed, operated, maintained, and abandoned so that the flow of fluids in the well is controlled and stays within the well.
But before fracking activities even commence, a number of measures must be followed:
- Operators must obtain a licence from the DECC to secure exclusivity to operate in a particular area. The DECC grant, on behalf of Her Majesty, such licences for hydrocarbon extraction because The Crown retains all sub-surface rights to hydrocarbons. Operators must also negotiate access with landowners for the drilling pad area
- They will also need permits from the bodies, such as the Environment Agency (EA) in England, which regulate and monitor the environmental impacts of shale gas operations. At least 21 days before drilling is planned, operators must notify the HSE of the well design and operation plans, which must incorporate safety features. Well notifications to the HSE aim to ensure that major accident hazard risks to people from well and well-related activities are properly controlled. They are key to the project as they identify any likely risks relating to the integrity of operating wells
- Operators must also submit to the DECC a fracturing plan which addresses the risk of induced seismicity.
Before consent is given, the DECC will also check with the relevant environmental regulator and the HSE as to whether they have any objections to fracking commencing.
Regulation during the operational phase
Once the HSE, the DECC and local authorities are satisfied with and assured by the operator’s plans as to the integrity and quality of the proposed wells, the integrity of those wells must be maintained and reviewed regularly by way of adhering to measures such as the following:
- Operators should submit weekly operations reports to the HSE to assure the HSE that the operator is constructing and operating the well as described in the notification, and if not the HSE can then take appropriate action
- Operators should hold meetings with the HSE, including site inspections, to assess the integrity of fracking wells. The HSE and EA will then have the opportunity to meet and advise operators of their duties, before conducting a joint inspection of their key operations to manage risks effectively throughout the life cycle of the well
- An independent well examiner (such as an employee of the operator company or contractor) should review the proposed and actual well operations, to ensure that they meet the operator’s policies and procedures, comply with the Offshore Installations and Wells (Design and Construction etc.) Regulations and follow good industry practice. Regular testing of cemented well casings by way of conducting pressure tests, ‘leak-off’ tests (testing for drilling fluid leaking into the rock), and quality tests of cement casing (such as cement bond logging), are just some of the methods by which well examiners can check that well operations are compliant.
Fracking legal advice
Fracking will be regulated, just like all major industrial activities in Britain. It has the potential to provide a boost to the UK economy, if carried out in consideration of all possible risks and in accordance with the UK regulations. Meeting the key health and safety regulatory issues can be achieved with the help of well-informed legal advice from sector focussed experts. Legal advisors can assist those in the fracking industry make a success of their business, right from the inception of operational planning through to reviewing operational procedures, and can help with responding to regulatory challenges in order to benefit both the industry and the public at large.
To find out and sign up to DWF’s LinkedIn Fracking Group.This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.