Environmental controls, Legislation, Pollution prevention & control, Raw materials

“Dear Aunty, is the West Virginia chemical spill a parable for UK shale gas extraction?”

My, my, no it’s not dears.

But how quickly the UK’s ardent anti-fracking groups and individuals distastefully seized on this overseas misfortune, using it to underpin their narrative.

In doing so, they say that it’s a demonstration of how a poorly regulated industry can wreak havoc – claiming that fracking for shale gas is equally badly regulated in the UK and, so, by default, we can expect nothing less here sweeties if shale gas exploitation takes off.

Except that none of these arguments are valid.

If anything, the West Virginia experience shows, yet again, that our uniformly applied goal-setting regulatory approach really is the most effective, and that the more prescriptive state-by-state regime in the US is by far the weaker. Because, pumpkins, giving people a prescriptive list of things to do or precautions to take breeds complacency: why would you strive to exceed the minimum standards insisted upon by lawmakers and regulators? Our goal-setting approach encourages businesses to continually review and improve their practices. The regulation of safety in the North Sea oil industry was moved from prescription to goal-setting in the wake of the Piper Alpha disaster for exactly this reason.

We’re also very thorough in Europe and the UK when it comes to health, safety and environmental legislation – both in developing and applying it. And we’re exceptionally good at learning from the mistakes of others poppets.

That’s why we have the Control of Major Accident Hazard Regulations 1999 or COMAH for short: because we’ve studied major spills, fires and explosions in hazardous industries around the world and have developed robust rules to prevent them happening here, dears. A storage facility like the Freedom Industries site in West Virginia, if located here, would almost certainly be registered as COMAH installation, jointly regulated by the Environment Agency and Health and Safety Executive. COMAH installations have to ‘take all measures necessary to prevent major accidents and to limit their consequences to people and the environment’ and they have to produce a Major Accident Prevention Policy that’s shared with the regulators to pumpkins. Top-tier operators must also prepare a Safety Report and prepare (and, crucially) test an onsite emergency plan, whilst also sharing information (including the Material Safety Datasheets for all the materials being stored) with local authorities in order to inform offsite emergency plans. It’s all very detailed.

There’s a sizeable bulk liquid storage facility located right next to the River Tees in Middlesbrough that’s a COMAH installation – but you’ve never heard of them having a major spill, have you cherubs?

In point of fact, if I hadn’t mentioned it, you’d never even know it existed.

Yet there it is, safely storing thousands of tonnes of hazardous chemicals used daily in many industries to make the products you and I have come to depend on sweeties.

Shale gas extraction, contrary to the more outrageous exhortations of those with no real understanding or experience of our regulations and how they’re applied (really – zero, zilch), will be just as well regulated, by regulators with the necessary experience and competences to do so, and run by operators that will be expected to continuously improve their performance.

So, no, the Freedom Industries spill in West Virginia is by no means a vision of what fracking will look like at all.

Until next time xxx

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