Earthquakes raise concerns as commercial fracking moves closer

Placards and ribbons on a fence at an anti-fracking protest

Anti-fracking protest

Experts have said that fracking style oil exploration could be linked to a series of earthquakes that have rocked rural Surrey since April. ROD HARBINSON investigates

It is an extraordinarily perverse decision given the reality of accelerating climate change. Essentially the government is locking us in to a whole new fossil fuel industry.

At least twelve earthquakes have awoken the usually quiet rural area around the village of Newdigate. The area is close to the oil exploration sites of UK Oil and Gas (UKOG) at Horse Hill and Angus Energy at Brockham.  

Along with searing global temperatures attributed to climate change, the quakes have not deterred the government from pressing ahead with measures to smooth the way for the onshore oil and gas industry. 

Water reinjection

Critics say the timing is a cynical ploy to accelerate development over the summer - traditionally a time of low public scrutiny. 

David Smythe, Emeritus Professor of Geophysics at the University of Glasgow, told The Ecologist: “We know from the US that re-injection can trigger quite major earthquakes, bigger than the ones in Surrey.

“For every barrel of oil that’s produced ... you get seven barrels of water that you have to get rid of ... The usual way of doing it that you have another borehole nearby and you force it down there back underground ... That’s called re-injection.” 

The reinjection site doesn’t even need to be close by to trigger an earthquake: “They can be 40-50 miles away”. 

It is an extraordinarily perverse decision given the reality of accelerating climate change. Essentially the government is locking us in to a whole new fossil fuel industry.

It has now become clear that the quakes were relatively near the surface, increasing the likelihood that they were caused by human interference.

Weak regulation

Smythe explained: “In the case of UKOG at Horse Hill it is just possible that they started some activity that they haven’t told anyone about. Re-injection or well testing or something like that, before the first of the Newdigate earthquakes that was on 1 April this year.” 

On the 27 June 2018, the same day as one of the bigger earthquakes, UKOG put out a press release that stated: “Production flow test operations commence.” 

The Ecologist invited UKOG to comment on reports linking its operations to the earthquakes but it did not respond. 

Smythe said: “It’s clear from the evidence that they will ignore the regulations and permits with impunity. And they say they’re not active at a certain day but you know, whose checking up on them?”

Recent regulatory and government approvals coupled with a draft law designed to dissolve planning obstacles, have given oil and gas companies a summer fillip. 

Commercial fracking

On 24 July, energy minister Claire Perry announced: “I am content that Hydraulic Fracturing Consent should be granted” for an extraction license at the Preston New Road exploration site in Lancashire. 

This is the first time that horizontal commercial fracking has been allowed on mainland Britain since a moratorium was put in place in 2011 due to earthquakes linked to operations. 

Green MP Caroline Lucas said in parliament the decision had been: “smuggled out on this last day before recess.

“It is an extraordinarily perverse decision given the reality of accelerating climate change. Essentially the government is locking us in to a whole new fossil fuel industry.” 

Residents Action on Fylde Fracking have challenged fracking company Cuadrilla’s apparent exemption to water restrictions at a time when Northwest water provider United Utilities has imposed a hosepipe ban from 5 August. 

‘Water protector’

That same day that the government awarded the license, six activists were arrested for locking on using arm pipes and obstructing the fracking site entrance road. A Cuadrilla press release on 24 July stated: “Cuadrilla can confirm that it plans to take legal action against six individuals.” 

When asked whether he was there to enforce the injunction one policeman at the site that day said the injunction covered, “actions on this road and any other road as well, but that’s their [Cuadrilla’s] concern and not the police. It’s a civil matter.”

Fiona [last name withheld], an activist at Preston New Road, described herself as a “water protector” and was doing her shift on “rig watch.” 

She said that the injunction had not stopped protesters blockading the site. “I’m staying here all the time. It feels really important.” she said. One protestor said that the cost of challenging the injunction at Preston New Road had so far proved prohibitive. 

The six anti-frackers from Surrey including from Leith Hill Protection Camp, were in court in early July and are expecting the verdict on their legal challenge in August. The ruling could have significant implications for civil liberties including the right to protest against fracking companies.

Eroding democracy 

On 17 May, government minister Greg Clark announced that it would introduce a bill to allow oil companies to bypass the planning application process altogether by allowing exploration to go ahead as “permitted development.” 

The bill is currently under public consultation over the summer and if successful could see central Government excluding local and county planners from much of the process. 

Campaigners say this amounts to an erosion of local democracy. Fiona said the campaigning organisations around Preston plan group meetings with their MPs to lobby against the plans. The plans could enable companies such as Angus Energy easier access to drill. 

According to campaign group Brockham Oil Watch, Angus has ignored planning requirements and went ahead with unauthorised drilling. Now, a year and a half later, its retrospective application was approved on 8 August by Surrey County Council, to the dismay of campaigners.  

Ada Zaffina of Brockham Oil Watch said: “They [Angus Energy] misled the council into believing they were doing maintenance on an existing well and not drilling.” 

Ignoring opposition

In a letter to The Times, 6 August, four senior academics said: “A moratorium is urgently needed on hydrocarbon exploration in the area of Surrey recently affected by 12 earthquakes.”  

However their professional concerns failed to sway Surrey County Council which on 8 August passed a controversial application by 7 votes to 4 for Brockham operator, Angus Energy to drill. The company said it was “pleased to acknowledge today’s planning approval.” 

Zaffina, who spoke at the meeting, said: “This permission was given against the objections by the Parish Council, Mole Valley District Council and the local people”. Campaigners were shocked that the Council decision had ignored widespread local opposition.

Referring to letter in The Times, Zaffina said: “The Oil & Gas Authority can hardly be regarded as independent or impartial. Its objective is to support the industry in maximising the economic recovery of oil and gas, and it is largely funded by the industry.

"We are disappointed that the planning officers relied on such advice in favour of the recent advice from a group of leading independent geologists.” 

Self regulation

Smythe argued that existing permits do not require the company to submit an appropriate level of detail: “Unfortunately under the regulations in which Angus energy operate, there has been no requirement for them to report on a daily or weekly basis, what they are doing to report about re-injection - how much and how often.” 

Zaffina agreed that self-monitoring by the industry is not adequate: “Even the way the permit applications work is really old school. In some US states you have a live, searchable online database that can be accessed by the public. Here you have nothing like that.” 

At nearby Leith Hill campaigners were dismayed to receive news that the Environment Agency had issued an approval decision for exploration to go ahead on 23 July. 

In its decision the Environment Agency highlighted the biological sensitivity of this ancient woodland classified as both a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). 

Yet it has still given the green light for industrialisation of this protected area.

Radioactive materials 

The decision report stated that: “The permit will authorise as part of the mining waste activity the flaring of any waste gas arising from well testing.” 

The decision also allows naturally occurring radioactive materials “in concentrations exceeding those set out in ... the Regulations.” It also determines that “an environmental permit for a groundwater activity is not required.” 

A concerted Government drive to promote the industry is now underway. Ongoing consultations over the summer could decide whether onshore projects are included in the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime, allowing central government to override regional decisions about projects. 

This dovetails with provision for extra resources for fast-tracking decisions on appeals of oil and gas applications that were refused at the county level. Whether the measures will kickstart the nascent industry in the face of widespread public opposition, has yet to be seen.

This Author

Rod Harbinson is a multimedia journalist focussing on environment and human rights issues, often in developing countries. At home behind a camera, he is also a persistent researcher, uncovering new and often overlooked stories. His photography is represented by the Polaris Images agency in New York.

Further Information



Leith Hill:

More from this author