The new year looks set to be a pivotal one for fracking in the UK.
Despite fracking once again being halted in Lancashire amid concerns over earthquakes linked to the activity on Preston New Road, gas exploration firm Cuadrilla has not given up on its plans to keep drilling.
The government’s announcement at the start of the General Election drive in November of a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing came after a series of tremors from the site near Little Plumpton in August and a damning report from the Oil and Gas Industry which said it was impossible to predict the likelihood or scale of earthquakes from a well.
While welcomed by anti-fracking campaigners, opponents of the controversial method of drilling for shale gas remain wary that a loophole was created by the Government saying that if technology could better predict tremors associated with fracking, then it might relax the temporary ban.
At the time Cuadrilla, which has been testing the pressure in the second of the two wells it has drilled, said it would work with the Government to explore the technological possibilities.
And this week, the gas exploration firm’s parent company, mining specialist AJ Lucas of Australia, has said that in 2020 it would be exploring new areas for gas extraction licences and was encouraged by the fact the pro-fracking Conservative government won with a big majority in the December election.
It said in a statement to shareholders: “During calendar year 2020, Cuadrilla will conduct an examination of various acreages ahead of an anticipated resumption of exploration activities.
“While the current timing of a lifting of the moratorium remains unclear, the results of the recent UK election provide the industry with comfort that the long-awaited period of stability will return to the UK and will allow the government to address priorities facing the United Kingdom post Brexit such as the domestic energy opportunities.”
But one leading geologist has said that even if the Government does give Cuadrilla the go ahead to continue its testing work, the state of the shale rock deep beneath Lancashire in the Bowland Shale layer, may not be good enough to allow fracking to move on to successful full production in the way that areas of the USA has seen.
Professor John Gluyas director of the Durham Energy Institute at Durham University, said that the shale rocks in the UK were not as uniform in structure as the continental shale in the USA.
And he added that the Bowland shale structure appeared to be softer and more “gooey” than the “crunchy” shales in the USA.
He said that meant that when high pressure water and sand is used to blast open fractures in the shale to allow the trapped gas out, the muddier UK rock then begins to close up the gaps more quickly.
He said: “These are mud rocks and they are very shaley, soft and gooey. Even with proppants (materials such as sand designed to keep the fractures open so the gas can be harvested) the muddy rock will eventually mould itself around them.
“Most of the fracking companies in the UK are just explorers, apart from Ineos. They will drill and frack and then pass the site on to a gas company to handle the ongoing production. Ineos is after the gas as a feedstock for its chemicals.
“I think the gas companies will find that although the wells may produce gas at the start, the gas flow will slow down quickly, much more quickly than in the USA.
“There are 10,000 wells in the US but are we really going to see that number here? You would have to drill horizontally under villages and historic churches.”
He said the companies would face increasing opposition, not just because of the possibility of tremors, but also as people realised the number of trucks needed to carry away millions of gallons of fracking water from the sites down country lanes.
He added: “In economic terms, the Government was keen on fracking because it thought it was a get out of jail card.
“Until 2004 we were an exporter of gas, thanks to the North Sea, since then we are an importer, so a home grown gas supply would have been very attractive. Now it is going to be difficult.
“We would be better off developing ground source heating or geothermal. Apart from London, most of the big populations centres in the UK sit close to where you could produce geothermal energy.”
Cuadrilla has said that it is encouraged by the early results from its second well at Preston New Road.
Chief Executive Francis Egan said: “Once again Cuadrilla has demonstrated that the UK Bowland Shale contains the highest quality natural gas and that this gas will flow to surface.
“The UK Government has now introduced a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing operations pending the resolution of concerns raised about seismicity induced by fracturing.
“We will continue to work with the regulator to address the issues raised.
“As and when the concerns can be alleviated the UK is sitting on very large, high quality, gas resource that can, once developed, play a significant part in meeting the country’s energy requirements for decades to come.”