Drilling set back, regulator caught out, as fracking opponents draw first blood
It looks very much like first blood to the protesters in the battle over fracking in the home counties. For plans to drill an exploratory well near Balcombe in West Sussex have been delayed, with the firm abruptly applying to the Environment Agency for two new permits to operate on the site – after Friends of the Earth drew the regulator's attention to the need for them.
Cuadrilla, the fracking firm – which last week received a £100 million investment from Centrica – has had planning permission since 2010 to drill a 3,000 foot deep borehole about half a mile from the village and to extend it horizontally by 2000 feet if it so desires. But though it has said that it will not carry out any fracking at this stage, Friends of the Earth wrote to the Environment Agency at the beginning of the month, pointing out that – under existing regulations – it would still need a mining waste permit for handling muds, cuttings and chemicals arising from the process, plus another one for dealing with water likely to contaminated by natural radioactivity in the ground. And it expressed its concern about the regulators “failure” to issue them.
The group seems to have forced a capitulation. This week the Agency wrote back saying that it “understood” its concerns and had now “addressed them”. At the same time, Cuadrilla announced that “following discussion with the Environment Agency” it had “decided” to apply for a mining waste permit. The Agency added that the company also intended to apply for one to “manage waste water which may contain naturally-occurring radioactive substances”. Both will be subject to public consultation – in the first case, at least, running for a month until mid July.
It may all seem small beer, and in a sense it is. Neither the waste from the exploratory drilling nor any radioactivity in the water is likely to amount to anything much. But the episode does have three important consequences.
The first is to make it very much more difficult for the company to complete the four month operation by the end of September, as it has undertaken to do, even though it has sought to dismiss the setback as causing only “a short delay to our planned drilling activity”. The second is to enormously boost the morale and standing of the protesters in what is a pioneering case: they, and others preparing to fight similar battles around the country, now know they can take on both the industry and the regulator and force them humiliatingly to back down.
But the third is the most important, since the episode calls into question the competence, alertness and impartiality of the Environment Agency itself. This is crucial since an enormous amount is riding on these very qualities. When protesters have raised fears that the incidents of serious pollution that have occurred in the United States might be repeated here, the official response has been to insist that the industry would be much better regulated in Britain. And – since the Agency has enjoyed a good reputation – this assurance has carried weight and reassured many who might otherwise have been doubtful.
Now the Agency – as one Friends of the Earth expert puts it – has been found to be “asleep on the job” at the very outset, to have fallen – to mix metaphors – virtually at the first fence. Suddenly all those reassurances look much more shaky. No doubt it is under pressure from ministers to smooth the path of shale gas and oil, but the whole point of a regulator is that it should impartially and conscientiously apply the rules – and if it fails to do so it will, rightly, lose public confidence.
The Environment Agency urgently needs to get its act together, not just to regulate shale oil and gas better, but to be seen to do so. It is in the interests of the industry, as well as the environment, that it does so. – not to speak of being vital for its own credibility.