Condition of UK fracking wells questioned

17th February 2015

Well integrity – it sounds like a philosophical question, right? Does the well have integrity? But in the strange world of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, it’s regarded as key to ensuring that some of the environmental and health and safety impacts of this new technology are limited.

So you can imagine our surprise earlier this summer when we learnt that two unconventional oil and gas wells drilled in this country in the last couple of years have developed seemingly rather similar well integrity problems. When you place this alongside the evidence of well failure from abroad, you start to wonder whether the companies doing the drilling and fracking are competent to do so and whether the regulatory system to which they are subject is adequate and being properly enforced.

Well integrity – why it matters

The importance of well integrity to preventing pollution from shale gas wells was made strongly in a report published in June 2012, by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. It stated that:

“Ensuring well integrity must remain the highest priority to prevent contamination.”

It continued:

“The probability of well failure is low for a single well if it is designed, constructed and abandoned according to best practice.”

The Government has relied heavily on this report in order to green light fracking in this country and on the surface, this argument sounds like common sense. The likelihood of water, chemicals and any of the other pollutants which arise in connection with fracking seeping into groundwater seems lower if the well remains intact, because the well casing should help to prevent this from happening. There are obviously other risks to fracking that still exist (eg. contributing to climate change, flaring, truck movements the risk of spills of chemicals and waste – not forgetting the risk of the fractures in the rock or natural faults creating pathways to groundwater), but they don’t preclude the need for the wells to be designed and constructed in a way that minimises other potential problems.

Well failure – it happens a lot

Strange then, that there is actually rather a lot of evidence that well integrity is not routine in practice and that wells do fail. Recent research in a number of countries (including the UK) concluded that between 2% and 75% of wells fail in different areas. This includes 6.3% of wells in one of the major US shale areas. This range of experience suggests real uncertainty about how likely it is that shale gas wells here will remain robust and help to prevent pollution. There is also evidence of oil and gas activities damaging water supplies in Pennsylvania, increased incidence of natural gas in drinking water closer to shale gas wells and a number of confirmed cases of water contamination. So what does Government say?

UK Government position

UK ministers argue that these problems will not be replicated here thanks to our “gold standard” regulation (also described by the Energy Secretary as “the world’s toughest”, presumably following exhaustive study). We’ve looked closely at regulation in this country and have highlighted numerous shortcomings but recent events are now starting to call government’s claims into question too – suggesting we have shale gas well problems all of our own.

Preese Hall (Lancashire)

The well drilled and fracked by Cuadrilla at Preese Hall in Lancashire is the only one to have been subject to high volume fracking in the UK and is also the most notorious because of the earthquakes it triggered in April and May 2011 (that subsequently led to fracking being suspended for over a year by government).

It is no surprise that the quakes caused the well to deform. What is less well known is that when Cuadrilla went back to the well in March this year with the intention of closing the well (or ‘abandoning’ it, to use industry jargon) they noticed that a build-up in pressure had occurred between the well casings, suggesting that the well was leaking and might have failed.

Documents released by the Health and Safety Executive to local people in Lancashire earlier this year suggest a number of further problems at the well, including ‘poor’ cement in the lower section and that certain crucial checks had not been carried out on the section of the well which was having problems.

It raises real questions about operators’ ability to construct and operate wells properly and the effectiveness of regulation if the only well to have been fracked in this country continues to have problems. Cuadrilla has still not been able to finally ‘abandon’ it, despite being given more time to do so by Lancashire County Council last year, and again this year.

While the industry and the regulators will argue whether the well in this case, ‘failed’ and whether there was ‘significant risk’ to individuals or the wider environment, it remains unclear as to why Cuadrilla was allowed to frack a well with ‘poor’ cement, which increases the risk of well failure, in the first place; why it failed to carry out crucial checks to establish well integrity; or how gas leaked into the well from the surrounding rock after it had been fracked.

Cuadrilla’s experts maintained that the well had been constructed in accordance with industry standards. But if this is what standard practice looks like then it’ll do nothing to inspire confidence in the people living close to potential fracking sites to accept this industry on their doorsteps. And what will Cuadrilla do differently next time to ensure the well remains sound?

West Newton (East Yorkshire)

Just when we thought Preese Hall was a one off (and were being assured by the Department of Energy & Climate Change that everything was under control), local residents got in touch to tell us about another well with problems, this time at West Newton in East Yorkshire.

Rathlin Energy has drilled an exploratory well for shale gas at this site, but locals tell us that the Health and Safety Executive has indicated that an increase in pressure has occurred between the casings here too. Deja vu? We understand that work at the site ceased for a while and that the pressure may have been ‘bled off’. But what of the quality of the cement? Were the necessary steps taken to test the cement. Was this well constructed in accordance with ‘best practice’? How has this problem occurred again when the well was drilled more recently and has not even been fracked? And what is the chance of recurrence?

We have asked the company these questions and look forward to receiving their answers. In the meantime, locals tell of a gas leak from the well which left them feeling sick in September this year as well as surface ponds at the site becoming cloudy and discoloured. We understand that the Environment Agency are investigating some of these concerns.

We don’t yet have answers to these and other questions – and until we do, Friends of the Earth would say that no further drilling or fracking should take place. What we do know is that even at this stage of drilling and fracking for shale gas, there are real questions about business’ and government’s ability to drill and frack safely and to protect our people and our environment to the standard and in a manner which we are all entitled to expect.

The saying goes that ‘all’s well that ends well’. It’s clear that all has not gone well for fracking in the UK. The only way it will end well is if we call a halt to all fracking and related activities until we’ve properly analysed the risks and potential impacts in the round.

Help us stop fracking in the UK. Next month Lancashire County Council will decide on two fracking applications from Cuadrilla. Stopping these applications will put the brakes on fracking in the UK.  Sign the petition today

Blog written by Jake White, 8t December 2014