The fledgling shale gas sector has faced plenty of hurdles in its battle in the last decade to make fracking commercially viable in the UK. But the highs and lows of the last fortnight have proved extreme, even by the industry’s own standards.
Just over a week after starting on a second well at its Preston New Road site near Blackpool, Cuadrilla, the private company spearheading the UK shale gas drive, was forced to suspend fracking.
The cause was a series of earthquakes over the bank holiday weekend that increased in magnitude and culminated in the biggest at a magnitude of 2.9 early on Monday morning.
Cuadrilla was already operating against the clock as it opted to frack the second well in a race to prove that the technique could become a viable industry in the UK before its planning permission at the site expires at the end of November. In the meantime, it has applied to Lancashire county council for an 18 month extension.
Seismic activity has plagued attempts by Cuadrilla to convince policymakers and critics that the industry has a future in the UK. The company was only able to partially frack its first well on the same site last year after having to suspend work on numerous occasions because of earth tremors that exceeded the permitted limit.
Under regulations known as the “traffic light” system, fracking companies must suspend work if they trigger earthquakes of a magnitude of 0.5 or above.
The strength of Monday’s earthquake, which was felt by local residents with reports of shaking walls and a sound akin to a “guttural roar”, has renewed the pressure on the company. Significantly, the tremor was bigger than one in 2011 at another site operated by Cuadrilla in Lancashire that triggered a seven-year moratorium on fracking in the UK.
During that period, the government commissioned a review into the relationship between seismic events and the technique, which involves pumping water, sand and chemicals deep underground at high pressure to release gas from rock formations.
The events of last weekend have prompted a dilemma for Boris Johnson’s government, which prior to that appeared to be on the brink of relaxing the regulatory regime around the fracking industry.
Companies that want to produce shale gas — which includes Ineos, the privately owned petrochemicals group — argue the current seismic limits are unworkable and far below levels permitted for fracking in the US, typically around a magnitude of 4.
But development of the industry is strongly opposed by environment groups that question why the government would nurture a new fossil fuel industry when it has adopted a target to end its contribution to global warming by 2050.
The seismic activity in recent days has led to suggestions from seismologists that the practice should be halted until there is a better understanding of whether it could get worse.
“As a scientist, I would say we do need more data and we need more time and analysis on what has already happened and I certainly wouldn’t advocate carrying on if we lack more data,” said Ben Edwards, a reader in seismology at the University of Liverpool.
The difference this time, say scientists, is the tremors have moved from “micro seismic events” that can be compared to dropping a shopping bag on the floor to ones that are clearly detectable by local communities.
It is also difficult to accurately predict what will happen next, said Professor Stuart Haszeldine of Edinburgh University’s school of geosciences. “There isn’t enough understanding to place a traffic light system limit on it [the fracking at Preston New Road]” Prof. Haszeldine said. “I’d defy anyone to predict what the next earthquake will be . . . because nobody has measured the stress in these rocks.”
The biggest problem with the most recent earthquakes is they have moved the debate around fracking beyond science, said Peter Styles, professor emeritus of geophysics at Keele University who co-authored a 2012 government review that informed the traffic light system.
“Let’s not pretend 2.9 is a huge earthquake but it is big enough to get people concerned,” said Mr Styles. “The problem is it’s outside of the geological domain now . . . it has to be either an economic or political decision [to continue to support the fracking industry].”
Work cannot now restart at Preston New Road until Cuadrilla receives the green light from the UK’s oil and gas regulator, which has said it is considering whether the company’s plans “continue to be appropriate to manage the risk” of earthquakes induced by fracking.
The company insisted on Tuesday that the recent quakes at Preston New Road “have been within the spectrum of what was modelled, albeit the most recent event was at the higher end of that”.
The modelling Cuadrilla referred to is part of a plan that was published by the company earlier this year, and approved by regulators. This estimated the biggest seismic event that could be caused by fracking a second well at the site would reach a maximum of magnitude of 3.1.
Mr Johnson’s spokeswoman said on Tuesday that shale gas could contribute to the country’s energy security, adding: “The government feels shale gas has the potential to be a new domestic energy source.”
But in response to recent events, she said: “We understand the concerns of local people . . . We have been clear that any shale gas developments must be safe and environmentally sound.”
Cuadrilla must now wait to see if the regulator will let it resume operations ahead of its November planning deadline, unless it can buy more time by persuading Lancashire council to sign up to the extension.
Additional reporting by David Sheppard
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