Cuadrilla’s fracking operation off the A583 Preston New Road at Little Plumpton must be one of the most closely watched and heavily reported on small industrial enterprises the UK has ever seen.
It is not surprising. Fracking tends to polarise opinion.
Some believe it will provide a large scale home grown supply of energy to help the country keep the heating on through winters to come, create jobs and boost the economy through tax income.
They point to the hugely successful North Sea operations as a parallel.
Others say it will do nothing to help reduce greenhouses gases in the atmosphere which increase global warming, will cause a pollution risk and may cause earth tremors.
They point to the worst excesses of the fracking industry in the USA and to the two tremors Cuadrilla’s first fracking test caused at Preese Hall near Blackpool in 2011.
The Preston New Road operation, which will over the next few months become the first in the UK to carry out actual horizontal drilling and fracking, is of crucial importance and has been the focus of direct action protests. As a result it has to be heavily protected.
Our driver was in contact with the security team as we approached the site and had the day’s password ready if needed. We passed by the small group of protesters maintaining their year-long vigil at the side of the main road and through the outer security gates on to the 100m long road leading to the well pad itself.
This was surrounded by a 4m high metal fence topped with wires bearing signs warning of electricity. CCTV cameras were evident. We were signed in at the security cabin, complete with photographic ID and then the great gates opened to let us in.
Cuadrilla is anxious to show that it is being the good neighbour it has promised to be since the moratorium on fracking was lifted in 2012.
It wants to prove that safety at the site goes above and beyond the planning and environmental conditions, so if successful, more wells can be drilled across the Bowland Shale region to make the most of a resource estimated at up to 1,300 trillion cubic feet that, if recoverable, could meet the UK’s gas needs for more than 50 years.
Mark Lappin, technical director at Cuadrilla has been giving tours of the site to various organisations.
He has been working in the oil and gas drilling industry since the 1980s and the work has taken him all over the world, the USA, West Africa, Poland, Germany as well as in the North Sea.
The first thing he showed us was one of four wells drilled down to monitor groundwater deep below the surface for any impurities which might be caused by the fracking operations.
Water contaminated by fracking fluid or methane gas is one of the many concerns raised about fracking operations by opponents but which the industry says can be avoided.
And the firm is also keen to show it is protecting the environment from any run off. Mark Lappin said: “The whole site is under lain with a thick impermeable membrane which goes all the way across the site. This has felt on top to protect it from the layer of stones.
“There is a ditch all the way around where the rainwater collects. It is taken off site in tankers for treatment. It is basically water with silt in it from the field.”
He then pointed out the main elements of the site.
He said: “The drill rig is essentially like any normal hand-held drill, although obviously at scale. It has a motor, a stem and a drill bit on the end.
“The motor to drive the drill is in the large white box at the top. The main difference is that the stem of a hand drill is fixed but in this case we are extending the length.”
He said this particular drill rig was brought in from the Netherlands where they have a tradition of drilling on shore. As such it is designed to work in areas where there may be neighbours rather than the wide open spaces of the North Sea as in the offshore industry.
Close to the rig is a huge green wall designed to keep in sound from the rig operation, which is mainly automated.
At the time of the tour, there was limited activity and noise levels were low.
But he said: “We are keen to make sure we don’t make too much noise. Nearly all the noise generated on our site comes at ground level.
“There are two things which generate noise above ground – the motor or top drive as we call it and even that has a box around it to reduce the levels, and the hydraulic systems. Around those we have a shield which directs the noise toward the M55 away from neighbouring houses.”
He pointed out a portable noise wall which around a generator but which can be moved to cover any work being carried out on site such as when people need to use an angle grinder.
“The whole site is designed to work within the constraints that the community desires. It does not only meet the planning conditions, it goes beyond that. We aim to act with respect to our neighbours and keep the noise down.
“The conditions for noise are different at night and so the way we behave on site is different at night.”
Samples show ‘promising results’
At the far side of the site are four huge diesel generators, two in use, two as back-up.
Each stands in its won cordoned off area with its own membrane to catch any spills. The water in their bunds at the time of the visit was clear with no sign of a tell-tale rainbow sheen.
Two large green tanks stand nearby. They contain the fluid, known as mud, needed to keep the drill bit cool and lubricated in the hot and challenging environment almost 3,000m below the surface.
It is pumped down and out again in a constant circulation. It also brings up the chippings of rock cut by the drill bit to clear the hole and allow samples to be tested by the site’s geologists.
Mr Lappin said: “We have drilled a vertical well to 2,700m which we are using to gather data, collect rock samples that wil tell us where to drill the horizontals.”
He said that the shale samples they had taken had given promising results.
“There are two things we want from shale gas source,” he explained. One is that the rock contains gas and the second is that the rock is brittle enough to create the fractures we need to release the gas.
“From what we know so far it appears to be very encouraging.”
The company has taken the drill rods out of the well for servicing and replacement of the drill bit and is in the process of re-introducing them into the hole ready to start the horizontal drilling. Putting together the whole drill string to the bottom of the well hole can take 24 hours.
That horizontal drilling process of around 1.5km, and thought to be directed roughly towards the coast, is set to take a couple of months and will see specialist pipes introduced to the well.
Following that, the company will carry out the actual fracking of the shale rock and begin testing the gas flow to see if it is a viable and economic source of energy for the national grid. Once the well is drilled and the rig is removed, a separate rig will be brought in to carry out the fracking. This involves pumping water sand and chemicals into the deep-lying shale rock through a series of openings in the special well pipe to force open the fissures in the shale to release the gas. The pressure is then removed and the water flows back allowing the gas to follow on to the surface. It will then be flared off while it is tested for quality and quantity and if all is well it will then go into the national grid.