Ideology, Legislation, Local Impacts, Pollution prevention & control, Well integrity

“Dear Aunty, is Tony Bosworth right to criticise UK environmental laws?”

Put simply, dears, no.

If you take a look at Tony’s LinkedIn profile, here, you’ll find precious little evidence that he’s ever worked in the real world and certainly not in industry.

Which leads one to question whether he’s even qualified to pass comment on the UK’s regulations, let alone attempt to do so with such apparent authority.

Let’s take a look at some of his recent comments in this Fiends of the Earth blog post.

Writing about a recent radio programme, Tony says:

“Much of the attention in the programme was on the key issue of well integrity: will fracking wells be properly constructed and who checks this? This is critical because poorly constructed wells increase the risk of leaks of fracking fluid or of methane gas. Analysis for Friends of the Earth reported that between 7 and 9% of newly-drilled shale gas wells in Pennsylvania have problems leading to a risk of leaks.”

Right away, we have to take what he says with a pinch of salt cherubs, because a ‘risk’ is not a certainty by any stretch of the imagination. Whilst it’s true to say that badly constructed wells could pose problems, it’s wholly wrong to conclude or give the Impression that they will be badly built and that they will definitely leak.

Weasel words, you might think…

Speaking of which, sweeties, Tony thinks the US shale industry is playing with words when responding to a recent report on well integrity from America:

“And a couple of months ago, the Pennsylvania Department for Environmental Protection published the details of 243 cases of water contamination as a result of oil and gas drilling between 2008 and 2012. The industry was quick to point out that the problem wasn’t fracking (ie the process of pumping water, sand and chemicals down the well at high pressure) but badly-constructed wells. Weasel words you may think: the wells wouldn’t be drilled if they weren’t going to be fracked.”

This is a particularly fatuous statement, for four main reasons: Firstly, 243 cases as a percentage of the thousands of wells drilled in that period is very low. Secondly, Tony doesn’t mention the fact that many of the private water wells impacted would themselves have been so badly built that they offer little protection to the water they supply, and that this would have been a contributory factor. Thirdly, he leaves the impression the leaks weren’t fixable or fixed. And, lastly, the attempt to conflate drilling and fracking is contemptuous – as Tony would know if he had any real, first hand experience, a badly built well targeting conventional oil reservoirs, or to tap geothermal energy, or even just to abstract groundwater, can all pose a risk to the surrounding environment poppets.

He then switches his attention to monitoring:

“Key to deciding if there are problems with gas leaking from wells is monitoring of methane levels before, during and after drilling. The Royal Society told the Government this should happen, but Francis Egan could only say he expected it would be the case.”

Now then, dears, the first thing we should recognise here is that when giving that interview, Francis Egan may have spent an hour or more answering questions, but the programme producer would have edited this down into just a few soundbites, chosen to suit the intended tenor of the piece and not necessarily with due context. I can’t say for certain, darlings, but my guess is that he was referring to the fact that it’s not clear what monitoring the Environment Agency will undertake – but it matters not; read their Environmental Impact Assessment for their proposed Lancashire sites and you’ll see that Cuadrilla proposes all sorts of methane monitoring in soil and groundwater. As is common in most sectors, careful monitoring is performed because it’s best practice, not just because someone is looking over your shoulder.

And speaking of someone looking over their shoulder, Tony goes on to criticise Energy Minister, Matt Hancock, and the lack of site-based, physical inspection by the Health and Safety Executive.

“Mr Hancock’s mask probably slipped further. Asked if the regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, would inspect every fracking well, he attempted some classic ministerial obfuscation saying “there is a process so that the regulator has the opportunity to inspect every well as required”. Despite the Sir Humphreyism, listeners got the point: the answer is no, the regulators won’t inspect every well.”

What Tony doesn’t tell us is why he thinks the HSE must inspect every well itself.

Does a HSE Inspector check that the lifting chains of a crane are still ‘in date’ after their last inspection under LOLER, before every lift? If the chains fail when a heavy lift is being performed, the load could fall and people and property could be harmed. Does a HSE Inspector stand and watch every delivery of petrol to your local forecourt? If it isn’t done properly, and there’s an ignition source present, the whole thing could explode in a fireball. Does a HSE Inspector sample the discharge from your local sewage works into the river behind your house to make sure it’s safe? There’s a chance that untreated sewage and dangerous chemicals could be released, polluting the river for miles. Does a HSE Inspector stand and watch the farmer next door to where you live storing and applying pesticides? These are toxic chemicals, used in large quantities, that could affect the food you eat, the milk you drink, and the air you breathe. Does a HSE Inspector do this in any industry, dears? No, of course not. And there’s no reason to demand it in shale gas exploration either.

“What actually happens is drillers such as Cuadrilla run tests on their wells and send the data to the Health and Safety Executive. The companies are marking their own homework. As Tom Heap put it, “the experience from America is that without independent inspection, at times the companies have been able to get away with stuff that they shouldn’t have been able to and that’s what people want to see can’t happen here”. There’s no reassurance that won’t happen here too” asserts Tony.

But there’s also nothing to indicate that it will, is there Tony my love? I don’t imagine Tony can point to a single example of an existing onshore oil and gas company deliberately “getting away with stuff they shouldn’t have been able to”. That’s not to say that an unscrupulous operator couldn’t, but then you could say that about any industry: should we ban the production of medicines because of the Thalidomide experience? Of course we shouldn’t, dears.

The simple truth of the matter is that Tony and his colleagues are just opposed to fossil fuels on climate grounds, and I have no problem with that at all sweeties. But he and others in his movement know that climate change is just too abstract for most people, and that in order to get the support of communities in areas where fracking might take place so they oppose it, they can only do so by first of all frightening the people in those communities into thinking that their health and lifestyles will be adversely impacted by shale extraction.

That I do object to and I think it’s a poor show to try and paint the UK regulatory system as an dismal failure when, in fact, it’s truly one of the most robust in the world.

Pulling strings and puppeteering are obviously skills of Tony’s, as seen here.

Until next time xxx

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