Fracking near ex-mining areas in Yorkshire ‘risks disaster’ warns leading earthquake expert

The idea of fracking in Yorkshire continues to cause division.
The idea of fracking in Yorkshire continues to cause division.

More rigorous checks are needed to identify the potential dangers of fracking in coalfield areas of Yorkshire and other parts of the UK, a former Downing Street advisor has warned.

Leading seismologist Professor Peter Styles says earthquakes could be triggered on up to half of the land licensed by the Government for shale gas operations.

Read more: What exactly is fracking and why is it controversial?

In a report due to be launched in Parliament on Tuesday, he highlights a potentially dangerous fault line within 10m of the proposed fracking borehole at Harthill, South Yorkshire.

The site is one of two in Rotherham where petro-chemicals company INEOS, owned by Britain’s richest man Jim Ratcliffe, proposes to drill.

Permission for exploratory work was refused by the council but the company has appealed against those rulings and another in Derbyshire.

Sir Keith Barron, MP for Rother Valley, yesterday said: “Professor Styles’s report makes for worrying reading and I hope the Government takes action to implement his recommendations immediately. I believe fracking in coal mining areas is a disaster waiting to happen.”

He will table an Early Day Motion to coincide with the launch of the report, noting in particular its conclusions about the need for buffer zones around former mine workings and any significant natural fractures or faults. The zones are based on recommendations made in 2004, 2015 and 2018.

Read more: Campaigners hail rejection of fracking exploration plan outside Sheffield as victory for local democracy

Business Secretary Greg Clark set out a series of steps on Thursday to streamline the “disappointingly slow” planning process surrounding fracking and create “the world’s most environmentally robust onshore shale gas sector”.

Under the plans there will be a consultation this summer on whether fracking should be treated as “permitted development”, which would not require planning permission.

By contrast, Prof Styles is calling for tighter regulation and has questioned the industry’s technical ability to identify faults or fractures which are likely to lead to prohibited seismic events with a magnitude of 0.5 of greater.

His report urges that the buffer zones are incorporated into the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and that planning applications for any fracking site include all available mapped data and detailed fault surveys from underground mines.

Prof Styles said: “To date, it does not appear that any proper industry or Government due diligence has taken place with regards to fault lines mapped.”

He issued warnings to fracking company Cuadrilla before its failed attempt to extract shale gas in Lancashire in 2011, which caused tremors with magnitudes of up to 3.2 and resulted in a ban on its operations there.

Read more: Analysis - Why our fracking picture in the north is vastly different to that in the south

Baroness Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrats’ spokeswoman on fracking and host of the launch event, cautioned against ignoring the new report.

She said: “Ministers must take heed and listen to the growing weight of evidence on fracking and, at the bare minimum, implement a moratorium on fracking in coal mining areas and review fracking across the UK.”

Her views were echoed by Steve Mason, of campaign network Frack Free United, who said: “Rural communities face the threat of fracking across the country without regulations that are fit for purpose. I think this report could be fundamental.

“It questions the whole industry’s capability in detecting faults that could cause earthquakes.”

A Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy spokesman said: “The UK has over 50 years of experience in regulating the onshore oil and gas industry, meaning the sector is governed by one of the safest, most environmentally sound and well-regulated systems in the world.

“These strong controls and laws will ensure shale gas can be explored safely and sustainably.”

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said the draft NPPF had been out to consultation and all feedback was now under consideration.