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Cuadrilla Resources hopes to start fracking operations at the UK’s first test shale gas well within weeks, CEO Mark Miller told lawmakers Tuesday. The company started drilling its Preese Hall well in Lancashire last summer, and is now preparing for fracking operations, he told the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee.

In a confident performance before the members of parliament, Miller said that industry best practice would ensure the operations were safe, and that it was “near impossible” that fracking liquids could escape from the well.

That would only happen with a badly designed well, Miller said. Even if it did happen, it was possible to use instruments to pin-point the fault in the well casing and apply a remedial cement job within three to five days.

While one MP raised the BP Deepwater Horizon incident as evidence that wells could go wrong, Miller said he was “very confident” of the company’s procedures, and that well designs were also checked independently.

He added that the entire drilling site was covered in a thick plastic, with gravel on top, and that the plastic — hard to cut even with a knife –would prevent any surface spills that might occur from soaking into the ground and possibly contaminating local water supplies.

The effect of shale gas exploration on groundwater has become a controversial issue in the US and worldwide.

Questioned by Albert Owen MP, Miller admitted that he would not want to drink his fracking solution, used to open up pores in the shale rocks to release gas. But he added “there’s a lot of things in my household I wouldn’t drink.” Cuadrilla’s actual fracking solution was 99.8% water and sand, he said, plus small amounts of friction reducer and biocide.

The friction reducer enables large volumes of water to be pumped down the well without exceeding the pressure limits of the well. The biocide is to stop bacterial growth in the water — bought from the local water company — while it is held in tanks awaiting fracking operations.

Asked about the amount of water required for fracking, Miller said that drilling a well required about 1,000 cubic meters, and fracking another 12,000 cu m. In total that was about five Olympic swimming pools a well. But he said the local water company — United Utilities — was able to provide that.

Andrew Austin, CEO of onshore explorer IGas Energy, told the committee his company had potential shale assets, but was currently focusing on another unconventional gas source: coalbed methane.

Austin’s company aims to have the first commercial CBM site onstream in the UK during 2011.

He said that CBM did not require any chemical use at all, since unlike shale gas it was at shallower depths. IGas has carried out fracking operations on its Doe Green site in the UK, but used only water, though it may consider re-entering and fracking with water and sand in the future.

Both Miller and Austin said that unconventional gas production offered gains for the UK, including potential for new jobs, with a service industry expected to build up within the UK if the industry takes off, and then potential to export workers and expertise from the UK abroad.

Both executives also said the UK’s regulatory regime seemed “fit for purpose.” Miller said that compared to the US one possible advantage was that the UK approach took a more individual look at each site.

Cuadrilla is the UK’s first shale gas driller. The company is owned 41% by investment group Riverstone, 41% by Australian services group AJ Lucas and the rest by management.

Environmental groups have called for a moratorium on fracking in the UK until further scientific studies have been completed, and received backing from shadow energy minister Huw Irranca-Davies, although the government is in favor of exploration continuing.

Later in the evidence session, shale gas expert and author of the “No Hot Air” blog Nick Grealy pointed out to the committee that whereas many groups came before the energy committee seeking subsidies for their technologies, “the shale gas industry wants to give you money.” Unlike carbon capture and storage or offshore wind, shale would not need taxpayer support, but would make contributions to the Treasury. “Nobody is here with their hand out,” Grealy said.

MPs were preparing for a site visit to Cuadrilla’s operations. Cuadrilla is meanwhile getting ready to launch a website explaining its work to the public. In a move towards greater transparency, CEO Miller already has some videos where he explains fracking techniques active on youtube.

Platts, 1 March 2011