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UK regulator withdraws requirement to decommission remaining shale gas wells

05 April 2022

The North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) announced on March 31 that it has withdrawn a notice that required Cuadrilla Resources, the only company licensed to carry out fracking in the UK, to decommission its shale gas wells by June 2022. Cuadrilla now has until the end of June 2023 to evaluate options for two sites, but if no credible re-use plans are in place by then, it is expected that the decommissioning requirements will be re-imposed.

Image: Cuadrilla Resources
Image: Cuadrilla Resources

Cuadrilla applied for consent to keep its two Preston New Road wells and Elswick well on March 28. The NSTA agreed to look carefully at the application, alongside recent developments, before agreeing to withdraw the decommissioning requirement.

Cuadrilla said it applied to keep the wells open given the ongoing UK and European energy price crisis and the UK government’s focus on domestic sources of energy supply. In March, press reports suggested Prime Minister Boris Johnson was reconsidering the UK’s position on fracking, with his spokesperson saying “all options” would be considered as part of the government’s new energy supply strategy. Johnson told reporters that the UK would not abandon its carbon emissions targets, but that the country did need to intensify its self-reliance as a transition with more hydrocarbons.

The reports came after a group of Conservative MPs called for an end to the ban on fracking due to energy cost and supply concerns. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, who has been critical of fracking in the past, told the House of Commons tin March that during a conversation with the Prime Minister, they had agreed that “it didn’t necessarily make any sense to concrete over the wells” and that conversations about fracking’s future would continue.

Cuadrilla welcomed the reports and said it noted them with interest ahead of applying for consent to keeps its wells open. In response to the NSTA’s decision, Cuadrilla’s CEO Francis Egan said: “I am delighted that the Regulator has taken the sensible decision not to abandon the UK’s only two viable shale gas wells at this time of soaring gas prices. It is widely acknowledged that natural gas will continue to play a key role in UK energy supply for many decades to come, even as the country transitions to a Net Zero CO2 economy. We remain convinced that the Bowland shale gas resource has the potential to be a very significant contributor to UK energy supply and in particular a source of cost-effective fuel for heating UK homes and businesses.”

The two shale gas wells at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site will be temporarily plugged and suspended until at least the end of June 2023. The two wells are the only horizontal wells drilled and hydraulically fractured into UK shale rock. The wells were drilled into the Bowland Shale to vertical depths of approximately 2.25km and onwards horizontally for a further 0.75km each through the shale.

Egan added: “The gas resource that Cuadrilla’s shale exploration wells has discovered remains in-situ and available to be further appraised and produced. Given the rapid decline in indigenous North Sea gas production and the ongoing UK gas price and supply crises we consider that the billions of pounds being spent annually on importing expensive gas from the Middle East, the US and elsewhere might be better directed, in part at least, on developing what is recognised to be a substantial domestic shale gas resource.”

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