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Should fracking quake limits be reviewed?

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According to the government’s “traffic light” regulations, all fracking activity must stop for 18 hours if any seismic activity registering a magnitude of 0.5 or higher is detected around the site.

However, scientists from the British Geological Survey (BGS) have called for these restrictions to be reviewed - arguing that increasing the limit to magnitude 1.5 would pose little risk.

Currently seismic activity above 0.5 magnitude means fracking activity must be put on hold for 18 hours
(Image via Getty)

This echoes similar calls made last week by the shale firm Cuadrilla for the threshold to be raised. Cuadrilla have been operating at the Preston New Road site in Lancashire since October last year. 

In that time the company has had to cease fracking activity on four occasions due to small tremors - with the largest registering 1.1 magnitude.

However, Energy and Clean Growth minister Claire Perry informed the firm that ministers have no intention of altering the regulations:

“While I hope the industry can thrive in the years ahead, I have always been clear that any shale developments must be safe and environmentally sound...The government believes the current system is fit for purpose and has no intention of altering it.”

Cuadrilla have paused operations four times since October due to seismic activity, though the largest measured just 1.1 magnitude
(Image via BBC)

In other countries, the limit is more relaxed. In California, fracking companies can continue operating until seismic activity of magnitude 2.7 is reached, while Canadian frackers don’t have to halt until a magnitude 4 event is measured.

Dr Brian Baptie, head of seismology at BGS - who have been monitoring activity levels at Cuadrilla’s site since operations began - said:

“The existing regulations are really quite conservative, they are set at a level of earthquake that is really very unlikely to be felt."

He explained that the UK experiences between 20 and 30 earthquakes of 2.0 magnitude caused by natural tectonic shifting, which does no damage to homes or businesses.

“So something like 1.5 is a level of earthquake that is not going to be felt widely by people - I think it is something we ought to look at.”

Other experts have agreed with the BGS’ calls to review the regulations. Dr Ben Edwards, reader in seismology at the University of Liverpool explained to BBC reporters that the vibrations felt in a magnitude 1.5 earthquake are “similar to a bin lorry travelling on an uneven road, or dropping large items of shopping off the kitchen counter.”

“If you want to mitigate any chance of felt activity, similar in vibration magnitude to a building site, we have the correct traffic light system.

“But if you want to go to a risk-based approach, where you allow events that do not pose any risk to humans or structures, then there is scope to review the current system, that could be raised to 1.5 and that would still arguably be conservative.”

Experts have called for the seismic limit for fracking to be raised to 1.5 magnitude - claiming this feels similar to a bin lorry on an uneven road
(Image by Cuadrilla)

Fracking opponents have disagreed, with John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK saying:

“The main concern over tremors caused by fracking is not damage caused at the surface but damage caused to the well. This is likely to be near the epicentre of the quake.”

However, Dr Baptie responded:

“When earthquakes occur they cause shaking, so could that shaking damage the wells? I think the risk of that is vanishingly small - it is negligible for such small events.”

For the meantime, Cuadrilla will continue to drill while adhering to the 0.5 magnitude restriction imposed by the government. Their spokesman said:

“We have worked within the system during recent hydraulic fracturing at Preston New Road and as a result have a unique data set of information and operating experience.

We are now flow-testing the well that has been fractured and are continuing operations as planned.”

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