Fracking fear: Well barrier failure likely to contaminate certain sites' surroundings


Environment Editor


A small percentage of the shale gas sites drilled in the event of a UK fracking boom would probably contaminate the surrounding environment because of problems with wells, a new report has warned, adding that in some cases the damage could be exacerbated because the companies that drilled them will have gone out of business.

A Durham University study into the impact of shale gas production concludes that “it is likely that well barrier failure will occur in a small number of wells and this could in some instances lead to some form of environmental contamination”. Examples of well barrier failure include leaks through the pipe that provides the wells casing, the layer of cement that separates the pipe from the surrounding rock and the cement plug at the top of the well.

Furthermore, the job of dealing with environmental hazards could be made more difficult because some of the operators are likely to go bust, the report warns.

“It is likely that, in the future, some wells in the UK and Europe will become orphaned… meaning that the company that operated the well has gone bust and is no longer responsible for it,” the report said.

The study included a thorough examination of the US shale gas boom and Britain’s small conventional onshore oil and gas industry. It was unable to establish who owned 53 per cent of the 2,152 hydrocarbon wells that have been drilled on UK land since 1900, estimating that up to 100 had become orphaned while ownership of the rest had changed because those operators had been bought.

“It is important therefore that the appropriate financial and monitoring processes are in place, particularly after well abandonment, so that legacy issues with the drilling of wells for shale gas and oil are minimised,” the report concluded.

“Where the company that drilled the well no longer exists, or has been taken over or merged, liability for any well integrity failures that lead to pollution is unclear,” it added.

The report also criticised the dearth of data available, which it said hampered its ability to analyse the integrity of onshore oil and gas wells in recent decades.

Greenpeace policy director Doug Parr said: “Government ministers and shale gas executives have consistently argued that we don’t need to worry about fracking as we’ve been drilling onshore for years. Yet this report reveals that, in reality, they haven’t got a clue about the number of well failures because the data doesn’t exist.”

“And a lack of clear ownership means a lack of clear responsibility for clean-ups and compensation when things go wrong. This would leave the public sector to clear up the mess when corporations go bust or disappear, as has happened in the past,” he added.

Harry Huyton, head of climate change at RSPB, said he wants fracking companies to be forced to take out a financial guarantee that is sufficient to cover any cleanup costs for a lifetime of the well and its decommissioning. This would cover such costs regardless of what happens to the company, meaning that the taxpayer will never have to pick up the cost in the event of, for example, the operator going into administration, he says.

“The finding in this paper that up to half of all onshore wells drilled in this country were drilled by companies that no longer exist is a clear illustration as to why Government needs to introduce such a requirement,” he said.

A spokesman for UKOOG, the fracking industry association, said: “The report highlights that there has only been one instance of recorded well integrity failure out of 143 wells active in the UK since 2000… This is an exemplary record.”

UKOOG's chief executive Ken Cronin added: “This extensive study into the onshore oil and gas activity around the world should give great reassurance about the quality of operations and regulation in the UK oil and gas industry.”

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