Skip to content

The New Riches That Are Buried Deep In Blackpool’s Rock

HAVING built its reputation on one kind of rock, Blackpool is now looking to another to help fuel an unprecedented economic boom. Underground flows of shale gas close to Britain’s most visited seaside town may well prove to be a gold mine when drilling starts later this month to see if it can be used commercially.

If these untapped reserves are the country’s latest energy source, Blackpool’s economy has the potential to become as bright as the resort’s famous illuminations.

Shale gas is found in tiny cracks of rocks buried thousands of feet below the surface of the earth.

Over the past 10 years it has become a hugely important source of fuel in the US where it now accounts for nearly 20 per cent of the country’s total natural gas production.

The company behind the UK drilling, Cuadrilla Resources, believes shale gas could one day contribute hundreds of millions a year to the Blackpool economy and do for Lancashire’s Fylde coast what North Sea oil did for Aberdeen in the Seventies.

Within a few years the Scottish city was transformed from a depressed port dependent on fishing to a boom town at the centre of Europe’s blossoming petroleum industry. The population swelled by 60,000 over a decade and oil remains a cornerstone of Aberdeen’s economy.

Although the city’s oil reserves continue to flow fast, experts believe it has surpassed its peak production rate and may have only 50 years left. The need for alternative energy sources has never been greater.

Cuadrilla, funded by American equity firm Riverstone and Australian services group AJ Lucas, believes shale gas could meet up to 10 per cent of the UK’s energy needs. The firm began drilling at its second test site in the village of Singleton, about four miles from Blackpool, in January. The first exploration was carried out at Preese Hall Farm, Weeton, last August. Extracting the gas is known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, and involves blasting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals 4,000ft beneath the earth to release natural gas trapped between layers of clay-like shale rock.

This process begins at the farm on March 21. It will be the first time it has been used to cultivate shale gas in Europe. Cuadrilla has plans for four wells in the area, and believes they could generate up to £2million each for the local economy.

Bowland Shale, the geographic formation running beneath Blackpool and much of West Lancashire, has the potential for 400 wells across 40 sites, bringing in “hundreds of millions”.

Rob Green, head of commercial development at Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre Economic Development Company, the organisation charged with the area’s regeneration, said: “These are exciting times.

“We are aware of the potential and economic growth energy production can bring. It would be nice to see companies exploiting these resources and base their headquarters in this area to provide employment locally. Long-term, we would want a project like shale gas to act as a trigger for economic regeneration.

“For years Blackpool has been linked with the tourism trade but we want to see the area’s economy diversified to make use of the existing technological skill base. If this operation raises confidence in the town and private sector businesses are willing to invest, we will hopefully see a huge change. Income generated by business rates would be ploughed back into local services.”

Blackpool is already undergoing a facelift in time for the summer season. Tourists still flock here; 13 million visited last year, the highest number in 10 years, but the Golden Mile has lost some of its sparkle. Beneath the 518ft Blackpool Tower, the beachfront promenade with its many slot machine arcades and pubs is now looking a touch shabby.

Mr Green said: “Any growth in the economy would have a knock-on effect on the tourist infrastructure.

“Many of the hotels and bed and breakfasts in Blackpool are traditional and while there is a market for that, there is also a need for a much broader range of accommodation, particularly more modern hotels.”

The economic benefits were presented to members of the Commons’ Energy and Climate Change Committee, who toured the Singleton site last Wednesday as part of their inquiry into shale gas exploration.

Paul Matich, well services manager at Singleton, said: “Workers on this site are spending their money in Blackpool and the surrounding area. They stay in local hotels and eat and drink in local restaurants and bars.”

The company estimates it has spent £1million in this way so far.

Mark Miller, Cuadrilla’s CEO, hopes to centre the firm’s global operations on the Fylde coast. He said: “There’s a real possibility of Blackpool experiencing the Aberdeen effect.” The interest in the UK’s shale gas potential is the result of a rapid growth of production in America which expanded five-fold between 1990 and 2008.

However, there are concerns over a threat to the environment. Campaigners are calling for the fracking process to be halted until all the risks are properly assessed.

Critics, the Green Party among them, have raised fears that chemicals used to open pores in the rocks will pollute groundwater. They point to evidence in the US where residents close to shale gas rigs have become ill as their water was contaminated by gas and fracking chemicals.

Philip Mitchell, chairman of Blackpool and Fylde Green Party, said: “If the aquifers [water-bearing permeable rock] were contaminated, Blackpool’s drinking water could be affected. This could put tourists off coming to this part of Lancashire, which might significantly harm the region’s economy.”

A spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change said stringent tests would be made prior to any exploratory drills.

Sunday Express, 6 March 2011