Fracking: A price worth paying?

Mark Miller
Mark Miller
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What’s the truth about fracking?

As exploratory work today resumes in the county, the Lancashire Evening Post investigates whether the controversial practice of drilling for gas will be a boost or burden for the area.

Supporters say fracking will bring untold riches, while opponents think it could have disastrous ramifications for the environment.

A spokesman for Cuadrilla Resources, the firm hoping to start the drilling, said reports into a series of earth tremors caused by the process will be studied by experts at the Department for Energy and Climate Change in the coming days.

If they give the go-ahead, the process, which will see water pumped into the earth using a ‘hydraulic fracturing’ process to unlock natural gas trapped in shale rock, could resume immediately.

Today, we look at the arguments for and against a practice which company bosses say will bring at least 1,700 local jobs.

Mark Miller has seen the benefits which shale gas can offer.

The softly-spoken chief executive of Cuadrilla Resources, the firm looking to unlock the huge reserves of the energy locked under the Lancashire countryside, was born in Pennsylvania in the United States where the industry has taken hold and the positive and negative aspects of the ‘dash for gas’ are there for all to see.

It has brought with it a multi-billion dollar industry, thousands of new jobs but also environmental concerns over its safety.

The expert, who has 30 years’ experience in the gas industry, insists he has not been surprised by the outcry which followed it drilling its first exploration wells in Singleton and Weeton and more recently on farmland close to Hesketh Bank on the opposite side of the River Ribble.

“It is broadly similar to the reaction shale gas got in the United States.

“What I aim to do is speak with people about their concerns and try to allay their fears,” he says.

He revealed it is now targeting from 100-kilometre square area of the Bowland Basin, the area of Lancashire stretching down the spine of the county from Garstang in the north to Skelmersdale in the south where Cuadrilla has a licence to search for gas.

This section covers what many people would refer to as the Fylde, with the River Wyre at its northern boundary, Kirkham at its south-eastern point, stretching out as far west as Anna’s Road where Cuadrilla has recently opened its fourth exploration well in the countryside near Lytham.

The latest part of its campaign has this week seen it start work on geo-physical work which will tell it where the thickest layers of shale rock are in Lancashire.

It started on Monday in the “north west quadrant” of this exploration site in fields around Poulton-le-Fylde and will continue until July.

“That will tell us where the shale is and from that we will be able to judge where is the best place for us to drill,” explains Mr Miller, “so then we will know where the optimum area for us to work is.

“Then we have to look at things like whether this is the best place for us to access, is it an area we can get water to easily, there are a lot of other variables.”

Asked whether the 40 square miles of Fylde countryside it has targeted are where it will begin extraction if it obtains permission, the boss adds: “There is still a long way to go before we get to that stage, but the fact we are looking at this area tells you this is where we believe the best return is.”

Cuadrilla has recently confirmed its initial testing has estimated around 200 trillion cubic metres of gas is unlocked in the Bowland shale with the potential to sustain 1,700 jobs in extracting it.

That extraction would see up to 40 well sites – each the size of a football pitch and holding 10 wells each – scattered across the county within nine years, rising to 80 sites in 16 years.

Cuadrilla has also predicted benefits of up to £120m will be paid in business rates over the next 30 years with up to £6bn being pumped into the UK economy in taxes.

Mr Miller talks of “the Aberdeen effect” creating an industry in Lancashire comparable with the one which has emerged in the Scottish city in off-shore gas and oil extraction.

He says: “Shale gas is new to Europe and the first place which does it will become the hub for the talented people who will undertake this work.

“What that will bring is not just the highly-skilled people who will work on the rig but also the health and safety, training and support staff which will build up around it.”

What environmental issues it brings is an argument the chief executive has made ever since Cuadrilla rose to prominence last year.

In Elswick, a fracking site was set up more than 20 years ago and gas was extracted from it.

Fylde councillor Maxine Chew, who represents Singleton on Fylde Council, admits she was against the plans when they were first mooted more than two decades ago.

She says: “It was fear of the unknown. It was close to about four or five houses and I was helping my friend object to it because we had visions of what people have got visions of now, accidents, explosions. None of that happened.

“The well in Elswick has run peacefully and successfully for 20 years without anybody knowing about it.”

Although she says: “They did not go as deep. Nowadays, they are drilling to 9,000ft.

“I think (Elswick) was about 2,000ft deep. Twenty years ago, they wouldn’t have had the machinery.

“They followed the same process that (Cuadrilla) is doing now, drilling and fracking.”

For many in Lancashire though, the jury is still out on the benefits of shale gas, and the real inquest into its environmental impact is yet to come.