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Shale Gas Panel

Shale Gas Panel

As promised in 'Shale Gas: The Meeting' we bring readers our take on the 'Question Time' style meeting of Wednesday 25 July 2012.

The meeting was called to allow local people to hear and understand more about the process and plans regarding shale gas exploration (and possible future extraction) from those involved in its implementation and regulation.

We had expected before the meeting that there might be someone from Cuadrilla, someone from 'government' with expert knowledge, and someone from the local anti-fracking group RAFF, and that each would present their views, then answer questions form the audience. However, that was not how it worked out.

There seemed to be two problems.

Firstly, the 'local anti-fracking group' is no longer a single group. There are now several separate groups: (NB. In response to requests to remove the personal names of the website domain registrants from this article we have done so and replaced them with links to the official website domain detail records)

Secondly, causing much the same problem with numbers, the regulators are not a single organisation. Regulation is provided by The Department of Energy and Climate Change; the Health and Safety Executive; the Environment Agency, and Lancashire County Council, and although these are all websites registered by HM Government there is no one organisation that has overall control from Government's point of view.

Clearly with those sort of numbers of groups and organisations, getting the right balance to be able to address everyone's concerns was never going to be an easy matter.

The meeting was called and arranged by Fylde's MP Mark Menzies and, as he said, in order to give as many local people as possible the chance to ask questions, he wasn't going to have presentations first, he would go straight into questions and answers for people's concerns.

He had assembled a panel consisting of:
Steve Walker Health and Safety Executive   Steve Walker.
Head of Offshore Safety Division.
Health and Safety Executive.
 
Stuart Perigo Lancashire County Council   Stuart Perigo.
Group Head of the Development Management Group.
Environment Directorate.
Lancashire County Council.
 
Steve Molyneaux Environment Agency   Steve Molineaux.
Area Environment Manager Lancashire.
Environment Agency.
 
Simon Toole Department of Energy and Climate Change   Simon Toole.
Director: Licensing, Exploration and Development.
Oil and Gas Division
Department of Energy and Climate Change.
 
Tony Bosworth Friends of the Earth   Tony Bosworth.
Senior Campaigner - UK Climate.
Friends of the Earth.
 
Mike Hill Gemini Control and Automation Ltd   Mike Hill.
(Details removed at Mr Hill's request)
(Advisor to FBC Task & Finish Group)
Mark Miller Cuadrilla Resources   Mark Miller.
Development Director.
Cuadrilla Resources Ltd.
 

And as readers can see, it was a formidable assembly of all the key players involved.

You could tell it was going to be a packed meeting because we arrived just after quarter past six (for a 7pm start) and there was already a queue outside the doors. By a quarter to seven we were in the hall and it was about three quarters full. By ten to seven it was standing room only. Those who came late couldn't get in.

There were quite a lot of faces we didn't recognise and a few we did. We saw a dozen or so Borough Councillors (Julie Brickles, David Eaves, Richard Redcliffe, Tommy Threlfall, 'St' . Paul Hayhurst, David Chedd, Elaine Silverwood, 'Brigadier' Ed Nash, Tim Ashton, Charlie Duffy, Ken Hopwood, Brenda Ackers, Kath Harper, Frank Andrews, and there were probably more we didn't see).

The meeting started sharp on 7pm and Mr Menzies introduced the evening. He said the issue of Shale Gas was very important, and he was determined the right process would be followed. He said all aspects needed proper scrutiny and public consultation. He said his own position was that he still had questions about the process and unless he received satisfactory answers to them he would not support it.

He then asked the panel to introduce themselves before launching into the first question which was "Why are there no local pressure groups on the panel?" Mr Menzies said this was his meeting and he wanted to put up experts on the panel to answer the questions of local people.

The next question asked noted the date by which the UK is supposed to be carbon free in its fuel emissions and asked how DECC saw shale gas from Fylde fitting into the UK energy mix, and how the precautionary principle would be applied. The answer was broadly that carbon capture technology could extract the carbon from burnt gas emissions, so it would play its part within the UK's agreed carbon reduction targets up to 2030 or so. As for the precautionary principle, that broadly said you should know what you're doing before you did it, and that was the case here. There did not seem to be universal support for that view from the audience.

The next questioner said he'd heard there had been a well at Elswick for many years, had there been any problems with that? The answer from each of the experts was 'No'.  LCC said it has planning permission and had operated without incidents. Environment Agency said it had been no problem either. Mike Hill (who was asked to provide technical advice to FBC's Task and Finish group) noted it was only a vertical well and went down only 4,000 feet. Cuadrilla said it didn't extend as far as the shale gas rock but went into the sandstone that lay directly on top of the shale rock. It was fracked in 1992 and had produced no problems.

In response to a follow up question the Environment Agency said they assess each well individually. Any chemicals used in the fracking fluid have to be reported to them and are published on their website. It was said that the results were peer reviewed, and flowback water was treated as any other industrial waste. Up to last October it went to the Davyhulme treatment works in Manchester.

St. Paul Hayhurst, Councillor for Elswick said when the plans were first mooted to have a well there, local people were up in arms, and they had public meetings like the one tonight, and that was 20 years ago. He said the village fought like mad to prevent it but failed, and in all that time since, there had not been one complaint.

The next lady to ask a question was concerned about her house which, she said, shook last year. The answers from all the regulators were less than satisfactory. There were gasps of disbelief that those in authority could be so dissociated from such threats. We didn't get the actual wording because the meeting became a bit agitated, but in essence the impression we gleaned was that the scale of the tremors was nothing to worry about, they now had better monitoring in place to warn of the prospect of tremors arising during fracturing (and thus allow adjustments to be made to the fracturing process that would prevent more serious tremors), and in any case, activity like coal mining resulted in the same sort of thing.

One person wanted to know from DECC who was responsible if there was structural damage from an earthquake caused by the fracking or drilling? DECC's answer was probably typical of their apparent evasiveness on this matter. It was "The person responsible is the person who caused the damage" It was accurate, but totally detached from the reality that is everyday life, and it earned him no friends amongst the audience.

We couldn't help wondering why, if DECC are the body that approve the process, the Government (on their behalf), should not bear the responsibility. After all it is the same Government that directs ALL the regulatory agencies. So as far as natural justice is concerned, one can easily argue that because Government controls what happens, they should shoulder the rectification in the first instance, albeit that they might want to recover the cost either from a body that produced a regulatory failure if that was the cause, or from the drilling company if they were the cause.

FoE read out a letter suggesting that one of the major insurance companies had said they would exclude damage from shale gas drilling from policies, and it fell to Cuadrilla to say that they had substantial insurance to try to ease public concern. It didn't, really. We believe this is a matter that needs addressing by Government. There was great deal of public distrust evident from the audience.

Someone from Wrea Green asked the regulators how the programme was managed and whether there was a risk register. Mike Hill said no-one managed the programme because no-one was in overall charge. He said the Environment Agency report to DEFRA, not DECC, and DECC say there are no gaps in the regulation. His comments obviously caused irritation amongst the regulators.

Stephen Walker for the Health and Safety Executive said as with most other things, there was different legislation for different purposes. Policy was dealt with by DECC, Planning by LCC, the Environment by the Environment Agency and safety by HSE. He said they were all regulators and use their own way of regulating. That brought some sharp offstage comments from the floor which got even worse when he said they were recognised a leading authority in Europe and the US was not as good as the UK. We suspect he might be right, but it didn't go down well at all, and clearly there was great distrust from the audience.

Responding to one of the shouts from the floor he said there was little point in HSE visiting the site because the drilling was thousands of feet underground and there was nothing to see. Visiting would be a waste of time. That didn't go down well either.   Most folk seemed to think that HSE is (or ought to be) like the Spanish Inquisition in the Monty Python sketches - arriving unannounced ("No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition") - and torturing or burning any suspected miscreants.

Again Mr Walker was probably right, but by now it was clear that the anti-fracking groups had been successful in mobilising their supporters to the meeting and most of those present had already made up their minds it shouldn't go ahead and, in some cases, they did not seem to be prepared to accept what was being said by the experts. We were put in mind of an elder of our acquaintance who was known to say "My mind is made up, don't try and confuse me with facts"

It was shortly after this point that things got a bit out of hand. One chap from the sidewall, supposedly asking a question, turned it into a thinly veiled political attack on Mr Menzies, accusing him of not representing the wishes of his electorate. He carried on in this vein for several minutes saying that Mr Menzies had been parachuted into Fylde and suchlike. Another member of the audience was angered by the attack and sought to intervene to quell the diatribe. He was then orally attacked by another person in the audience who told him "You shut up" and we entered briefly into a pantomime exchange of "No, you shut up" until we saw the police moving forward. Fortunately they were not needed.

We've said for some time that public opinion is moving against the drilling, and it is. But in our opinion, that shift is still quite small for what we would call the ordinary residents of Fylde. However, they are now successfully being driven by zealots with many and varied agenda, some of whom seem to want to use the issue for ends that are entirely unrelated to drilling for gas.

We are told by someone who was at the Lytham Green assembly (we couldn't be there ourselves), that local residents were informed by anti-fracking groups that a field development of 500+ wells will go ahead, wells would be drilled underneath properties, house insurances will become invalid and property prices will plummet as potential buyers are already being discouraged from moving to the area. Rumours are rife.

This seems to us to be taking on shades of the awful foxhunting debate, where all manner of prejudice was evident.  The shale gas issue is now ticking boxes on many unseen agendas.

This is a worrying sign. It risks those who have genuine concerns being tarred with the same extremist brush, (for all we know it might have contributed to the absence of RAFF - the original, local, anti-fracking group - on the platform) and it could well bring about a general hardening of attitude by Government.

Some (probably several) people, (including some on the platform), clearly saw the meeting as an opportunity to attack rather than to question. Some sought vindication of their predetermined opposition by trying to 'catch out' or show shortcomings in the regulatory experts or Cuadrilla. Sadly, this denied access to the panel of speakers for what we would call ordinary members of the public who were unable to get their questions in within the time available. And for the most part, the attempts to 'catch-out' the regulators achieved little except to vent the anger of those asking the 'question', and to wind up others in the audience to join the fray.

But there was one telling question when Mr Miller from Cuadrilla was challenged about his openness and whether one of the drilling pipes was damaged underground. There was clear hesitation in his answer before a "Yes" was forthcoming, and the follow-up question of "Does that mean that all the fracking fluid is still down there and may not be able to be recovered". Again a hesitant "Yes" coupled with the statement that about 50% of the fluid that was thought to be irrecoverable concluded the exchange.

That sounded to be an important and ongoing issue. We can understand why Cuadrilla (and anyone in their position) might want to keep such an embarrassing situation quiet, but it is wrong that neither Cuadrilla nor the regulators have been upfront about it before now. It fosters the lack of transparency and the sense of conspiracy that surrounds the process.

So what were our overall impressions?

Well we thought there were a lot of 'opposition' people in the audience - there was a lot of applause when someone spoke against the idea of exploration / extraction.

We thought our MP had been very brave to hold the meeting. He must have known the anti fracking groups would be there in force, but he nevertheless provided the opportunity for ordinary people to hear from, and to see who was responsible for, the regulation of the process. For that he is to be commended.

We think the meeting might have been better with an independent chairman. Not that he did a bad job, but his position as our MP, and his willingness to be open to personal criticism evidently damaged his ability to shorten the irrelevant invective directed toward him. Had we been chairing the meeting for example, those asking pseudo-questions that were really statements of opposition, and using the opportunity for a personal attack, would have been given shorter shrift.

We know at least one person at the meeting (someone who has industrial experience of drilling and exploration) who had a number of very technical and searching questions they wanted to ask. We think everyone present would have benefited from hearing the answers, (especially those opposed to the scheme) but there was never going to be time to discuss any of the pertinent technical questions he had with such a large group and so many waving hands from those seeking to score points rather than ask questions.

We thought the best question of the night came from Cllr Ken Hopwood who wanted to know the intended lifespan of the cement bonding that encloses the drilling hole. He got an answer that talked about internationally agreed standards, but failed to provide the answer to the actual question.

Another councillor gave us their impression. They said the meeting "Was a no-score draw. We didn't get what we wanted from the regulators and the anti fracking lot were a nuisance"

Another reader emailed to say that despite their best efforts, RAFF (Residents Action on Fylde Fracking) had been denied permission to sit on Mark Menzies panel.

Yet another reader said they thought Mark Menzies managed the meeting quite well in the circumstances, and with +/- 200 people (of the mostly anti brigade) in the Hall it was always going to be difficult, also hats of to the people of Fylde for coping with the heat. (it got very warm in the room)

He also thought the panel of experts handled themselves very well, particularly Steve Walker (HSE) and Stuart Perigro (LCC), whilst he thought Simon Toole (DECC) appeared less convincing and looked like he would rather be elsewhere.

On the other side he thought Mr Miller (Cuadrilla) performed poorly, and Mr Hill (the FBC Advisor) was like a dog with a bone with his regulatory crusade.

But he did hope that the words of the regulatory panel would manage to convince the uninformed, but rightly concerned majority of local people, that full scale development is a long way away and in the circumstances highly unlikely to be approved.

Yet another reader wrote "I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to  find yesterday evening's meeting about fracking loaded with the anti-fracking fraternity - meetings of this sort always seem to attract the protestors.
 
They appeared to assume that everybody there supported them - they made no allowance for those of us who had attended in the hope of getting some straight-forward unbiased information to help us make up our minds.   All the scare stories they produced about fracking in the U.S.A. didn't help at all.
 
Even towards the end of the evening when the M.P. stressed that time was running out and asked that questions should be kept short and addressed to the regulators, those called still insisted on making their prepared speeches.
 
Frankly, their behaviour almost made up my mind for me - and it wouldn't have been in their favour."

 

Shale gas meeting 25 July 2012 chaired by Mark Menzies MP

click to enlarge

So there we have it. On the positive side, the meeting was a 'good thing' in that, it allowed some of those who have already decided it has to be stopped to vent their anger and let off steam. It showed those responsible for regulation that local people are very concerned and that as regulators they need to do more - or at least they need to convey information about what they are doing better than at present. It will have shown Mr Menzies the strength of feeling more clearly than he might have seen to date, it showed that the insurance risk is something that needs more consideration, and it did give some local people the opportunity to ask questions and for us all to hear what the regulators had to say.

On the negative side, we sense the opposition hardening with the input of some who are running a vastly different agenda than shale gas. Not all the pertinent questions were able to be addressed in the time available, and some folk had to be turned away because of capacity.

Whilst Mr Menzies came in for some (we thought inappropriate) criticism from one or two people in the hall, it was he who decided to hold the meeting; he brought the key regulators together in one place (something which no-one - not even FBC - has been able to do before), and the meeting identified or exposed several non-geophysical 'fault lines' that will need to be addressed by those in authority. So for his right and courageous decision to hold the meeting we should be grateful to him. after all, he didn't have to hold the meeting, he could have simply had a quiet night in.

So where now?

Well, Cuadrilla still have a lot of problems to sort out, not least what to do with the waste water they are presently storing on site and which, we understand, is not likely to be treated at the Davyhulme works. The whole process of disposal of the 'industrial waste' arising on the site, together with a proper estimate of quantity and the disposal arrangements needs to be addressed and published transparently.

We also need to know the scale of the gas reserves that exist and how they relate to our energy needs, and from that we need much clearer information about the likely number of wells and spacing and so on.

Furthermore, as yet, Cuadrilla have not attempted any lateral hydraulic fracturing, so with no comprehensive fracturing program or well testing yet accomplished, it is difficult to see how they have sufficient technical data, and we think a lot more information is going to be needed to be able to deliver an acceptable plan to approval stage. The technicalities of lateral drilling and well-bore integrity are much more complex and challenging than for vertical drilling.

And whilst Cuadrilla are keen to big-up the scale of their business (they talk of 70+ UK staff, but that is likely include contracted personnel. We suspect their permanent staff is probably only just in double figures), they have no demonstrable track record of managing a major gas field development. They are no Shell or  BP. Neither are the major companies interested at this stage - for fairly obvious reasons. (The estimated time frame to get full approvals for a full scale field development plan in the order of 500 wells is about 3 years for all planning & submissions through to approval, with an overall total project cost that is probably more than 5 billion).

So we think the probability must be that Cuadrilla will seek to implement a shorter term fast-track, more organic process to develop production wells that they can initially fund themselves in order to generate revenue to maintain developmental momentum. Superficially that will be attractive to many, but we'd rather a bigger, more experienced company was involved in the production phase (if that happens at all).

There is yet much more to come on this topic.

Dated:  27 July 2012


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