In a paper published in the Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology, researchers from Glasgow University’s School of Engineering have argued that currently adopted limits on vibration generated by fracking are so low that they are comparable to tremors caused by passing buses or slamming doors.
Dr Westaway, who along with Prof. Paul Younger authored the paper, called the current regulations ‘ridiculous’, explaining that the level of vibration at which – according to the Department of Energy and Climate Change – any fracking operation should be closed immediately is so low that “if regulations for other vibration-causing activities were similarly restrictive you’d have to prevent buses from driving in built-up areas or outlaw slamming wooden doors.”
Dr Westaway further pointed out that the current allowable limits on vibrations from quarry blasting – at the magnitude of 3 on the Richter scale – are much higher than those imposed on fracking.
The researchers also noted that the largest possible fracture which current drilling processes are capable of creating would be 600m long, and – as Professor Younger explained – a fracture of that length created in a single rupture, which is very unlikely, would likely correspond to a maximum quake of magnitude 3.6.
“That might be sufficient to cause minor damage on the surface such as cracked plaster.” he said.
The issue of such tremors occurring, however, has already been dealt with in the UK since “there is already regulation in place for compensation for similar incidents caused by RAF fly-bys or mining operations and we’d suggest it would make sense for similar schemes to be put into place for fracking.”
Professor Younger then went on to explain that the real threat of earthquakes is associated not with the procedure of hydraulic fracturing but rather by the so-called deep-well injections. during which produced water – the water that flows back from the well after fracking is completed – is injected back underground. This process may induce seismic activity as it “washes away particles of sand holding open the fractures created during the process, which can cause earthquakes.”
There was no threat of this happening in this country, however, since “in Britain, we’ve adopted longstanding EU groundwater regulations which bar subsurface disposal of wastewater completely, meaning there is no danger of this sort of event happening here. Instead, the water would be treated and disposed of safely elsewhere,” he explained.
Not everybody is convinced by the researchers arguments, though. Tony Bosworth, an energy campaigner from Friends of the Earth, told the BBC that these regulations have been put there for a reason.
“Further watering-down of regulations… would be deeply unpopular and show that the government is putting the interests of shale gas firms ahead of people,” he said.
The current regulations were imposed after tremors near Blackpool in 2011 were believed to be caused by drilling carried out by shale gas operator Cuadrilla. The tremors measured 1.5 and 2.3 on the Richter scale.
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