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Earth tremor risk halts UK fracking plans

Author : Alan Franck, Editor, Hazardex

14 November 2019

On November 2, the UK government imposed an indefinite suspension on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations due to fears about earth tremor risk. The government announced the suspension after a report by the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) said it was impossible to predict the probability or size of tremors caused by shale gas extraction.

Preston New Road site - Image: Cuadrilla
Preston New Road site - Image: Cuadrilla

Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom said: “After reviewing the OGA’s report into recent seismic activity at Preston New Road, it is clear that we cannot rule out future unacceptable impacts on the local community. For this reason, I have concluded that we should put a moratorium on fracking in England with immediate effect."

In a statement, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy said: "Exploratory work to determine whether shale could be a new domestic energy source, delivering benefits for our economy and energy security, has now been paused - unless and until further evidence is provided that it can be carried out safely here."

Fracking activity was halted in the UK on August 26 when Cuadrilla Resources, the only company licensed to carry out the process, stopped operations at its Preston New Road site in Lancashire after seismic activity measuring at 2.9 on the Richter scale occurred during operations. The shutdown came less than a week after Cuadrilla began fracking a second well on the site after abandoning the first well as a result of multiple shutdowns due to tremors.

The suspension is a step short of an outright ban, but the practical result is that the UK now joins France, Germany, the Netherlands and most other EU countries in temporarily or permanently banning fracking on its territory.

Cuadrilla is calling for the existing tremor shutdown level of 0.5 on the Richter scale to be raised to more ‘realistic’ level. The company says the minimal damage caused by this low-level seismicity should not impede development of the high-quality gas resource that is the Bowland Shale in Lancashire, estimated by the British Geological Survey to contain sufficient gas to meet the needs of the UK for many decades.

The UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) in its 2019 report foresees the UK continuing to consume significant quantities of gas out to 2050 and beyond, even in a carbon-neutral scenario. The CCC also said that it is essential that the UK does not simply offshore its emissions and environmental responsibilities by importing gas from other countries that may be less well regulated.

In the end, any final decision on whether fracking in the UK has a future will be political. If a Conservative-majority Government is returned in December, it may allow the resumption of shale gas and oil exploitation across the country with increased safeguards, whereas any coalition including the other major parties is likely to impose an outright ban.

Whatever happens, forecasts in the early years of the century of a UK shale bonanza similar to the one in the US now seem very wide of the mark.

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