Cuadrilla, the company seeking to produce shale gas in the UK, said it was “ready” to frack a second well at a site near Blackpool, despite admitting previously that it was impossible to work within current rules governing the industry.
Time is running short for the private equity-backed company because its planning permit for the site at Preston New Road in Lancashire, north-west England, expires at the end of November.
Cuadrilla has already partially fracked one well at the site — a process that involves pumping water, sand and chemicals under the ground at high pressure to release gas from rock formations.
However, it could not complete tests of the exploration well after it was forced to suspend work on a number of occasions last year when it triggered earth tremors exceeding 0.5 on the Richter scale. A “traffic light system” that governs the industry dictates that work must be paused if earthquakes reach that level or above.
A letter seen by the Financial Times from Frances Egan, Cuadrilla’s chief executive, to Andy Samuel, chief executive of the UK’s oil and gas regulator, highlights the time pressure on the company as it tries to keep the fledgling fracking industry alive. Cuadrilla has spent around £200m on its bid to commercially produce shale gas in the UK. It is the only company so far to frack in Britain.
In the letter sent in December, which was obtained via by a Freedom of Information request, Mr Egan urged the regulator to carry out a review of the current rules and make fresh recommendations on safe seismic limits by the end of March. Meeting this deadline would allow “further exploration wells [at Preston New Road] to be safely and effectively hydraulically fractured and tested within the 2019 planning approval window”, Mr Egan said.
So far, pleas by both Cuadrilla and Ineos, the energy and petrochemicals company that hopes to frack for shale in England, have been rebuffed by the government and the regulator, although the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) said in February it was carrying out a “scientific analysis” of the data gathered from Cuadrilla’s recent work. This analysis did not, however, constitute a review of the traffic light system, the regulator stressed.
Despite not securing a rule change so far, Cuadrilla told the Financial Times it had “recently completed a work programme designed to ensure that our wells remain ready for further hydraulic fracturing”. A second well at the site has already been drilled but is yet to be fracked.
Further work at the Preston New Road site will be met with exasperation by rural campaigns and environmental groups. Jamie Peters, Friends of the Earth anti-fracking campaigner, said: “It’s clear fracking has failed. Instead of throwing good money after bad, it’s time to invest in renewable energy, which would create jobs and protect the climate.”
Cuadrilla has been feeding data to the regulator in the hope it can build a sufficient body of evidence to support a review of the current rules. Fracking the second well at Preston New Road would provide further detailed data.
The company has also applied to the Environment Agency to alter the chemicals used in the fracking process to improve its results.
The extent of the fracking industry’s lobbying efforts to secure a rule change was revealed earlier this week in minutes of a meeting between Ineos and the OGA, in which the company controlled by Sir Jim Ratcliffe “strongly hinted” it would not apply for planning consents to frack in England unless there was a review.
Some seismologists are sympathetic to the industry’s case. Brian Baptie, head of seismology at the British Geological Survey, said in January that current rules are “quite conservative and are set at a level that is unlikely to be felt”.