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UK tremors amplify unfair perception of fracking

Cuadrilla Resources is in the media spotlight because of concerns that fracking operations in the UK caused earthquakes. CEO Mark Miller says this isn’t the case

WHEN a 2.3 magnitude tremor hit the Fylde coast, northwest England, on 1 April this year, the British Geological Society (BGS) launched an investigation. The earthquake was followed by a similar one, measuring 1.5 on the Richter scale, on 27 May.

The BGS said the epicentre of the second tremor was within 2 km of one of Cuadrilla Resources’ shale-gas drilling sites and issued a statement claiming hydraulic fracturing (fracking) could “possibly produce earthquakes”. A media-outcry followed in the UK, with an array of headlines suggesting that Cuadrilla’s drilling in Lancashire’s Bowland Shale basin, in the northwest of England, was responsible for the tremors.

Fracking – a drilling technique pioneered in the US that unlocks natural gas from shale formations – is often portrayed as damaging to the environment and the media’s response to the earthquakes in Lancashire has not helped Cuadrilla’s campaign to convince the public that what it is doing is safe, the company said.

Front-page news

“Some of the headlines wanted to convey that we weren’t being responsible and that we were endangering the public,” Mark Miller, Cuadrilla’s chief executive, told Petroleum Economist. “That’s just not true. But when the newspapers talk of an earthquake, it alarms people.”

In an interview at Cuadrilla’s Preese Hall drilling site in mid-June, Miller stressed his company’s innocence. Cuadrilla voluntarily suspended its fracking operations until a study had been conducted to determine if there was a connection between fracking and the tremors, he pointed out.

Miller said that when the first tremor occurred in April he didn’t believe it was anything to do with Cuadrilla’s operations, but admits now there could be a connection. “We don’t put enough energy into a frack to cause an earthquake,” Miller said. “But if there are natural stresses [in the rock] then there might be some connection between us putting water in and relieving them.”

Yet there are naturally occurring tremors in northwest England approximately every six weeks, he said. So it’s too early to tell whether fracking has any direct influence on them.

Curious locals

Part of its effort to take the fear out of fracking involves Cuadrilla telling local Lancastrians what it actually involves. There’s an open-door policy for the curious to come onto the drilling site, and town-hall-style meetings to engage with the public in Hesketh Bank, near Southport, where Cuadrilla plans to begin drilling in July.

For non-locals there are videos on Cuadrilla’s website. In one, Miller uses a glass of water and some sand to explain the process.

“It’s important to give the public the right perception. Some of the stuff you see on the internet gives the impression the fractures created are enormous, maybe feet wide,” said Miller. “To someone who’s never been in this business, they don’t understand how small it really is.”

Actually, the fractures are only a few inches wide. When I visited Cuadrilla’s Preese Hall site it struck me as a very inconspicuous operation. The rig was much smaller than some of its US counterparts and it was quiet, too. Cuadrilla has also used special soundproofing equipment to mask the noise of the machines – one of the conditions of them gaining the licence to drill.

The film Gasland has famously – some say notoriously – heaped more negative perceptions on the shale-gas industry. Scenes depicting residents in Pennsylvania able to set their tap water on fire – supposedly because shale-gas drilling has caused methane to contaminate water supplies – have gone viral.

Get it right

“The film is just wrong,” says Miller. “When you see things like Gasland, it creates the impression that the industry is out of control, or that we don’t understand the [drilling and production] process. We understand it very well – it’s about putting the time and effort into your well design to get it right.”

It is “physically impossible” for gas to permeate through a couple of miles of rock, says Miller. If there is a gas leak in a pipeline it’s generally easy to repair  “another message people often don’t understand”.

A positive shale-gas story for the UK media, Miller said, was the dampening effect development could have on domestic gas prices. Scottish Power recently announced plans to raise prices for domestic consumers by 19% from August. But new supplies on the market could make shale-gas production more palatable to the public.

Cuadrilla recently claimed there could be trillions of cubic feet (cf) of shale gas in the Bowland Shale basin. If such huge volumes are confirmed, this large new supply source would ease supply-security concerns and prices. The UK’s existing, proved conventional reserves stand at 9 trillion cf, but are in steady decline, according to Cedigaz.

Encouraging results

Miller said initial results from the first two test-wells were good. “We’re encouraged by the numbers we saw at Preese Hall,” Miller said, “it looks like there’s a significant volume of gas in place.”

The shales in the Bowland lie around 10,000 feet deep and Cuadrilla has so far drilled to around 8,500 feet. The company has one well at its Preese hall site near Singleton and is drilling another at nearby Grange Hill farm. Cuadrilla will drill four or five wells in northwest England to gauge the extent of its resources, with the hope of releasing a reserves estimate by mid-2012. Then it will assess whether production is commercially viable.

The company also holds two shale-gas licence areas in Poland, is awaiting planning permission for a site in the Netherlands and has tight-gas operations in Hungary. When the company had to suspend fracking in England, it “seemed a good time” to ramp up operations in continental Europe, said Miller.

Cuadrilla’s plans to move its fracking equipment into Europe until the results of the BGS’s investigation into the tremors are announced. Only then will the company know if it can resume its UK drilling operations.

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