How to apply European Commission Recommendations in real life: Stara Kiszewa case study

Author: Michal Tarka

Lawyer and doctoral candidate at Faculty of Law, Adam Mickiewicz University (UAM) in Poznań, Poland

Published:  March 21, 2014

As an expert for the “Together about shales” programme financed by the National Fund for Environmental Protection (NFEP), I have analyzed one of the first cases of a shale gas licence to which the recommendations of the European Commission should apply. With reference to a project concerning the prospecting and exploration of oil and natural gas in the 1/2011/p STARA KISZEWA licence area, the investor, PGNiG, has submitted the project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) to the Regional Director for Environmental Protection. Though individual minimum principles set out in the Recommendation of the European Commission have not yet been taken into account in the report, they will certainly be supplemented later.

Risk assessment and characterisation of the potential site

Pursuant to paragraph 5(1) of the Recommendation, operators should provide a competent authority with a risk assessment and characterisation of the potential site and surrounding surface and underground area.

With reference to risk assessment, the Recommendation specifies elements to be included in such assessment (paragraph 5(3) of the Recommendation). First, the operator should present a forecast of the changing behaviour of the target formation, geological layers separating the reservoir from groundwater and existing wells or other man-made structures exposed to the high injection pressures used in high volume hydraulic fracturing. Furthermore, the investor’s risk assessment should respect a minimum vertical separation distance between the zone to be fractured and groundwater.

The EIA report prepared for the STARA KISZEWA licence area does not include a correctly and sufficiently carried out risk assessment in respect to the planned project. It should be pointed out that no standardised minimum vertical separation distances between the fracturing zone and groundwater have been established so far; in the EIA report however, the investor should indicate at least a potential distance in order to enable a competent authority to determine whether it is sufficient for the protection of the affected water-bearing and other geological layers.

Due to the fact that the areas with potential for wells (and consequently, the areas subject to hydraulic fracturing) are located in the territory of the Main Groundwater Reservoir no. 116 (Gołębiewo Intermoraine Reservoir) and in the territory of uniform bodies of underground water no. 30 (of good water quality), it is necessary to carry out a thorough analysis and risk assessment in relation to potential exposure during hydraulic fracturing operations.

Baseline study for the STARA KISZEWA area

Paragraph 6 of the Recommendation defines basic principles for requirements prior to the determination of the environmental status and before hydraulic fracturing.

The investor has partially determined a so-called “baseline” for the natural environment in the EIA report. It should be noted, however, that certain elements of the comprehensive assessment of this status have been omitted by the investor in the document, subject to analysis.

First of all, there is no description of the seismicity of the installation site, its surrounding surface and underground area. Due to the considerable scope of any project involving large-scale hydraulic fracturing, a prior description of the seismicity of the area is essential.

Moreover, the presence of methane and other volatile organic compounds in water, biodiversity, status of infrastructure and buildings as well as existing wells and abandoned structures have also not been exhaustively described.

Operational requirement

The requirements to be met in relation to operational works are set out in paragraph 9 of the Recommendation. Those requirements are defined for both competent administrative authorities and directly for operators conducting or planning to conduct operations.

First, the investor should present a water management plan for all project stages. Although the EIA report indicates water demand during individual project phases, it is not sufficient since the investor has not taken seasonal variations in water availability into account. This may result in the planned project having a negative impact caused by the short-term effects of water management in the investment area.

Second, it is necessary for the investor to develop a transport management plan. It seems insufficient to determine air emissions and describe the use of the existing public roads. The impact of motor vehicle traffic on the health of local communities and biodiversity should also be taken into consideration.

Third, the operational requirements set out in the Recommendation include the need to capture gases for subsequent use, minimise flaring and avoid venting. In the EIA report, subject to analysis, the investor has described proceedings related to the burning of the produced natural gas using so-called “flares.” No measures to limit the venting of fugitive emissions from the gas flare to air have been mentioned, however. It is worth noting that pursuant to paragraph 9(2)(c) of the Recommendation, venting of methane and other air pollutants should be limited, and only done in the most exceptional operational circumstances and for safety reasons.

In the EIA report the investor has also failed to specify the manner and scope of conducting integrity tests on individual wells. The results of integrity tests should be reviewed by an independent and qualified third party. In addition, such tests should be conducted at all stages of project development and after well closure.

Monitoring requirements

The EIA report presents proposals for monitoring of the impact of planned geological operations (Chapter 12). Still, the proposals do not include a number of elements for which such monitoring should be planned. All the monitoring requirements are specified in paragraph 11 of the Recommendation.

First of all, the operator should monitor:

  • the precise composition of the fracturing fluid used for each well;
  • the volume of water used for the fracturing of each well;
  • the pressure applied during hydraulic fracturing;
  • the fluids that emerge at the surface following high-volume hydraulic fracturing: return rate, volumes, characteristics, quantities re-used and/or treated for each well.

Monitoring of the aforementioned elements should be included also for the project planned in the case of the STARA KISZEWA licence. Moreover, monitoring should be planned in respect to the impact of hydraulic fracturing on the integrity of individual wells and the surrounding surface and underground area.

To sum up, it should be emphasised that taking the minimum principles set out in the Recommendation of the European Commission into consideration will contribute to the mitigation of potential risks and to both the authority involved in proceedings and the general public being adequately informed about the impact on individual environmental components, thereby achieving the high social and environmental standards proposed by the European Commission.

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