April 17, 2012 12:01 am

Cautious go-ahead for fracking

The future of hydraulic fracturing – known as fracking – the contentious natural gas extraction technology – has been boosted after a report cleared the way for a company to resume use of the technique despite it triggering two small earthquakes near Blackpool last year.

However, Cuadrilla Resources has been told it should adopt more cautious operating procedures and far more robust seismic monitoring to prevent tremors, say the authors of a report for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, published on Tuesday.

The report recommends that preliminary seismic checks should be done before any other group in the UK uses fracking – a process that typically involves injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals deep underground at high pressure to extract gas trapped in shale rock formations.

DECC said it would invite comments on the report for six weeks, which would be considered before any decision was taken on further fracking for shale gas.

Mark Miller, Cuadrilla chief executive, welcomed the report’s recommendations but some experts said they should have already been implemented in the area where the company was operating.

“This part of Lancashire is like a pack of playing cards vertically between two books – very slippery planes of movement,” said Stuart Haszeldine, a professor at the University of Edinburgh.

Advances in fracking technology in the US have sparked a gas boom that has transformed the outlook for US energy with promised abundant, cheap supplies of a cleaner fuel than coal.

But fracking has also prompted concerns about its environmental effects, especially on water and air quality, and has been banned in France and Bulgaria.

Cuadrilla, the first company to start exploratory fracking for shale gas in the UK, said it had found enough gas to keep the UK supplied for 56 years, but halted fracking at one of its Lancashire wells after two minor quakes were recorded in April and May, with magnitudes of 2.3 and 1.5 respectively.

It commissioned a study into the tremors, which drew attention around the world when it concluded it was highly probable the quakes were caused by fracking. However, it also said the tremors arose because of an extremely rare combination of geological factors at the well site, which would be unlikely to recur at future sites.

But the authors of the DECC report, who reviewed the Cuadrilla report and other data supplied by the company, cast doubt on this finding saying: “We believe it is not possible to state categorically that no further earthquakes will be experienced during a similar treatment in a nearby well.”

As a result, they say smaller volumes of water should be injected into wells in future, and allowed to flow back to the surface immediately so the results can be analysed ahead of larger injections.

It also says seismic sensor equipment should also be installed so fracking can be better monitored and a “traffic light” system introduced, so any tremors of magnitude 0.5 or above are treated as a red light signal for fracking to stop.

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