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Horizontal drilling comes to the UK, but fracking must wait

Pioneering driller Cuadrilla is optimistic over shale gas well prospects

Cuadrilla Resources says it has moved closer towards launching the UK's first major fracking project by drilling the country's first ever horizontal shale gas well at its Preston New Road site in Lancashire, north-west England. 

The company hasn't been cleared to carry out hydraulic fracturing, which has been halted in the UK since earth tremors were recorded during tests at another Cuadrilla site in 2011. However, the company is optimistic that it will be cleared to frack in the near future, both in this well and another it plans to drill now. 

The company, which says it has permission to drill four wells in all on the site, has drilled its first horizontal well through the Lower Bowland shale at a depth of some 2,700 metres below ground. The excavation extends laterally for some 800 metres through the prospective shale gas reservoir. 

"From the data we have amassed so far, we are optimistic that, after fracturing the shale rock, natural gas will flow into this horizontal well in commercially viable quantities," said Francis Egan, Cuadrilla's chief executive. 

The company said it plans to apply to the government for consent to fracture the first horizontal well "in the very near future".  

"We plan to be in a position to hydraulically fracture both horizontal wells one and two in Q3 this year," it said, adding that gas could be flowing into the local grid by 2019. 

There is improved confidence among UK shale gas companies that the tide may be turning in their favour, despite vociferous opposition to lifting the fracking ban which has prompted thus-far unsuccessful legal challenges. Planning permission for the Preston New Road site was refused by the local council in 2015, but that decision was overturned by the government in 2016. 

While ministers have yet to give final approval for fracking, the UK's Conservative government has said it favours the development of a shale gas industry to provide added energy security in the face of declining gas production from the country's North Sea reserves. 

Cuadrilla also hopes to develop another site in Lancashire, known as Roseacre Wood. A new planning inquiry dealing mainly with road access issues only is due to start on 10 April, it said. Other small firms are also hoping to drill in England if fracking gets approval.  

Tough sell  

Progress made by would-be shale gas producers in the UK has been glacial thus far, despite Cuadrilla's upbeat prognosis. Opponents embarked on intensified protests outside the company's site this month and have the support of environmental groups.  

Greenpeace UK's chief scientist Doug Parr said in a statement: "Just as Bloomberg reveal that solar plants have dropped in cost by 20% in the last 12 months, Cuadrilla announces that seven years after the last UK well was fracked, they are almost ready to have another go, notwithstanding local opposition, pending government permission, sometime in the summer, maybe. And this announcement of yet another delay in getting started is what Cuadrilla are trying to pass off as a success."  

Protesters have persisted in efforts to blockade potential fracking sites in the UK

Though the government may see the benefits of giving the shale gas firms an opportunity to establish whether they really can produce commercial quantities of gas, it will also be mindful that signing off on further fossil fuel drilling while trying to increase the proportion of clean energy to meet climate change goals could be a tough sell. 

That sensitivity was in evidence in the decision of local government minister Sajid Javid at the end of March to reject an application to develop a 3m-tonne open cast coal mine in north-east England, despite the local council's approval of a project that it saw as creating jobs in an unemployment blackspot.  

A new gas development is easier to justify on climate grounds than coal, given the lower emissions of gas. But with gas via pipeline from Norway and Liquefied natural gas imports still fairly abundant, it's not inconceivable that shale drilling could remain on the backburner for a while yet.

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