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Fracking Company Hopes for Seismic Change

Emily Gosden, The Times

Industry is unlikely to succeed unless earth tremor limits are raised, Cuadrilla chief says

Efforts to begin fracking have been met by protests, but limits on earth tremors are what has brought work to a halt
Efforts to begin fracking have been met by protests, but limits on earth tremors are what has brought work to a halt LUKE MACGREGOR/REUTERS

At about 5am last Tuesday, a convoy of 26 lorries carrying pumps and giant coils of tubing made their way under police escort westwards down Preston New Road in Lancashire.

Just after the village of Little Plumpton, they turned off into a field to their destination: Cuadrilla Resources’ exploration site, where the energy firm is preparing to resume work on the front line of fracking in Britain.

Two kilometres below the ground lies a thick layer of shale rock that extends across much of Lancashire and that Cuadrilla believes contains 200 trillion cubic feet of gas. If a tenth of that could be extracted, it would equate to seven years of UK gas needs.

Extracting it requires fracking: pumping water, sand and chemicals into the ground at high pressure, hydraulically fracturing the rock and allowing the gas to escape.

In early 2014, the privately-owned company identified Preston New Road as the best place to launch a British shale gas industry, aiming to supply nearby homes a year later. Other firms jostled for exploration rights in northern England, while politicians talked of Britain emulating the fracking revolution that has transformed America into an energy superpower.

Yet in the five and a half years since, the only fracking to have taken place is at one well at Preston New Road last year, and that did not go according to plan. Though Cuadrilla reported “highly encouraging” flows of gas, it was unable to complete the fracking after repeatedly causing earth tremors that forced it to stop under UK safety rules known as the traffic light system. It had to halt for 18 hours after each of the six “red light” tremors of more than 0.5 magnitude — one of which was felt by local residents.

Francis Egan, Cuadrilla’s chief executive, warns the industry is “highly unlikely to be commercial” unless the seismic limits are raised and has been calling for a review — pointing to limits of between 2.5 and 4 magnitude elsewhere in the world. Having failed to convince the government, he is preparing to frack a second well before planning permission expires in November.

“The point of this is twofold: one is to demonstrate we can get a flow rate of gas, the second is to gather more data because we have been advised that more data will be helpful as a prelude to a possible review,” he says.

This time, Cuadrilla will use different chemicals to form a more viscous fracking fluid that can carry higher density of sand, which is crucial to prop open the fractures in the rock. Mr Egan, 58, says this will not prevent “red light” tremors of 0.5 magnitude, but should enable more effective fracking before hitting that limit.

Cuadrilla will collect data it hopes will bolster its case for a review. Rather than magnitude, Mr Egan says, “what really matters is ground vibration”.

The strongest tremor in December caused ground movement of 0.6mm per second; Cuadrilla says quarries are allowed 6mm per second and construction 15mm per second. “The limits applied to fracking are completely at odds with the limits applied to every other industry in the UK,” Mr Egan says.

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