A new report has given the green light for the UK to continue with fracking, a method of extracting natural gas that is mired in controversy.
Fracking involves drilling a well up to 2km deep and pumping high-pressure water, sand and chemicals into shale rock in order to release methane gas.
The government-commissioned independent report suggests that fracking shale should be expanded across Britain, despite concluding that fracking was responsible for earthquakes that occurred in Blackpool last year.
The report — written by Peter Styles, professor of applied and environmental geophysics at Keele University; Brian Baptie of the British Geological Survey (BGS); and Christoper Green, an independent fracking expert — found Cuadrilla Resource’s fracking activities near Blackpool caused two minor tremors of magnitudes 2.3 and 1.5 in spring last year after the company attempted to extract methane from Lancashire shale.
‘There’s no record of a quake at this size doing any structural damage,’ said Styles. ‘But they would be strongly felt, and there is a possibility of superficial damage.’
Cuadrilla terminated fracking at its Preese Hall site after the earthquakes were felt at the surface. However, British earthquakes of magnitude 3 have been generated for decades as a result of coal mining and still take place regularly without impact.
The report, which will now go out for a six-week consultation, claims that fracking should go ahead in Britain providing it is carried out under what would be some of the strictest guidelines in the world. Specifically, the report recommends four precautions that should be taken at Cuadrilla’s Preese Hall site and other projects in Bowland Shale. They are:
- Hydraulic fracturing should include a smaller pre-injection and monitoring stage before the main injection;
- Hydraulic fracture growth and direction should be monitored during future treatments;
- Operations should monitor seismic activity in real time; and
- Operations should be halted and remedial action instituted, if events of magnitude 0.5ML or above are detected.
The expert panel believes fracking at the Blackpool site will probably lead to more quakes but they will be too small to cause structural damage above ground.
Mark Miller, Cuadrilla’s chief executive, said: ‘We are pleased that the experts have come to a clear conclusion that it is safe to allow us to resume hydraulic fracturing, following the procedures outlined in the review.’
He said the company is already amending its procedures in light of the suggestions put forward by the experts.
David MacKay, chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), said: ‘If shale gas is to be part of the UK’s energy mix, we need to have a good understanding of its potential environmental impacts and what can be done to mitigate those impacts.
‘This comprehensive independent expert review of Cuadrilla’s evidence suggests a set of robust measures to make sure future seismic risks are minimised — not just at this location but at any other potential sites across the UK.’
As well as earthquakes, shale gas has been linked to ground-water contamination and air pollution — particularly in the US, where it now accounts for almost 30 per cent of total US natural gas production.
While the exact amount of shale gas in Britain is not known, it is being pursued by energy companies and potentially — in light of this report — the British government.
Last year, Cuadrilla estimated that 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas lies beneath the Lancashire region alone. According to the Wall Street Journal, this would be enough to meet UK gas demand for 64 years. However, BGS estimated that the reserves contain only 4.7 trillion cubic feet of shale gas — one 40th of the amount calculated by Cuadrilla.