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Shale Gas

One hole in Lancashire: How Cuadrilla fracked it up

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That Cuadrilla’s application to frack in Lancashire has been recommended for rejection may have come as some surprise to the ‘London bubble’. Some of the commentariat certainly seemed surprised and responded by accusing Nimbys of selfishness and, quite ridiculously, potentially causing blackouts, as in Andrew Critchlow’s histrionic column in the Daily Telegraph.

But should we be surprised by the decision? After all, Lancashire County Council has received over 27,000 objections. While some may argue anti-fracking campaigners have spread misinformation, when we look at the various mishaps by Cuadrilla, perhaps we should not be surprised the local community appears generally unfavourable to its plans.

Shake it off

Cuadrilla’s mishaps started in 2011, when its poor geological surveys led it to frack in a faultline, thus causing several earthquakes, the largest of which registered 2.3 on the Richter scale. In fact, it caused 50 earthquakes in all. In May, the Department of Energy & Climate Change slapped a moratorium on shale drilling that was not lifted until December 2012. This is the primary reason why the total number of fracked wells in the UK stands at one, at Preese Hall Farm roughly 3 miles due east of Blackpool.

While the earthquakes were significant, albeit relatively minor, of more concern to authorities was Cuadrilla’s failure to report the Preese Hall site’s deformed well casing until six months after the event. In a letter dated 11 May 2012 to Cuadrilla chair Lord Browne, former BP chief exec and key Cabinet Office adviser, energy minister Charles Hendry stated the failure “discloses weaknesses in Cuadrilla’s performance as a licensee.” Within weeks, Cuadrilla announced it would be replacing CEO Mark Miller with present incumbent Francis Egan.

While the earthquake and subsequent fall-out was the first self-inflicted wound, it was by no means the last. In September 2011, Cuadrilla announced it believed it had 200 trillion cubic feet of gas-in-place in its PEDL165 license area, enough to fuel Britain’s gas needs for more than 50 years. Leaving aside the technical realities of such claims, this gargantuan figure in retrospect looks to have damaged the burgeoning shale industry.

Overegging the pudding

Immediately, large swathes of the Establishment proclaimed shale as the cure to all our energy ills. So-called experts popped up on Newsnight saying Granny Smith’s gas bill would halve, Matt Ridley and other prominent climate sceptics used shale as a club to bash renewables and other alternative energy sources to fossil fuels. Boris Johnson’s typically hyperbolic rant about shale’s potential to boost British bauxite smelting is a personal favourite.

The Daily Mail knocked up a tongue-in-cheek sidebar that neatly encapsulated the general mood in late 2011.

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But as one senior energy PR executive put it, Cuadrilla overegged the pudding and their claims about gas in place against recoverable reserves were confusing. Unfortunately, the hype and the interminable ‘gas vs wind’ debates (not to mention the irritating conflation of natural gas exploration/production with power generation!) that followed had a highly polarizing effect and galvanised opposition. It was seemingly not possible to be pro-shale and pro-renewables, it was either one or the other, a situation beneficial to neither.

A year to forget

With a moratorium still in place, 2012 was a forgettable year for Cuadrilla. It started badly, with an infamous meeting in Balcombe in January, which will live long in the memory of those who attended. It is not unfair to say Cuadrilla was run out of town on a rail. We shall return to Balcombe later.

Between April and June, Cuadrilla’s subcontractors trespassed on private land, which resulted in a claim settlement, while the inadequate use of explosives for seismological survey work was said to have caused damage to a neighbouring property.

In September, Preston Magistrates County court heard Cuadrilla breached planning conditions at its Banks site by drilling two months beyond their 90-day time period ending 30 September 2011 after conditions were imposed to protect overwintering birds.

To top off a bad year, Cuadrilla lost a packer, a tool used during testing for well integrity, down its Anna’s Road well and was abandoned. This meant two of Cuadrilla’s four sites had been abandoned – a 50% failure rate.

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Desolate: Balcombe protests

Cuadrilla’s tendency to self-harm continued in 2013. In April, the Advertising Standards Authority found Cuadrilla’s leaflet distributed to residents entitled “Summer 2012 Exploring For Natural Gas – Cuadrilla Resources is exploring for natural gas in Lancashire” contained misleading information, with six statements in breach of code.

The summer started well, with Centrica paying £40m for a 25% stake, but by the end of the holiday season, things were not looking so hot.

In July, the Environment Agency granted permission for Britain’s best-known fracking firm to drill a test well in an easily accessible, deeply Conservative West Sussex village on the London-Brighton mainline in the summer holidays. Surely nothing could go wrong?

Well, pretty much everything went wrong. The ‘fracking’ issue was relatively under the radar until Balcombe, but it soon became national news. And rather than being hostile to Swampy-type protesters with dubious personal hygiene, it was generally favourable to their cause.

Suddenly the mainstream media was full of pictures of nice middle-class schoolchildren holding up banners and bursting with weak fracking puns. Even the Daily Mail was generally supportive of the protesters. Fracking was seen as a Bad Thing, no doubt about it.

Then came Lord Howell’s highly damaging comments in the House of Lords on 30 July, in which he stated fracking should take place in “desolate” areas such as the North East “where there’s plenty of room” and not “beautiful natural areas” in more densely-populated areas like the South East.

The hapless Lord Howell, who was until April 2013 a government advisor, said he actually meant to say fracking should take place not in the “desolate” North East but the “unloved” North West.

The new (since departed) energy minister Michael Fallon chipped in with his own careless comments about flaring and shaking walls of the commentariat’s homes in Middle England. It’s unfair to blame Cuadrilla for Lord Howell’s foot-in-mouth disease but it would not have happened had it not drilled in Balcombe in high summer.

Fracking: The North

In the period since the Balcombe protests, Cuadrilla has made fewer cock-ups, but was still making a hash of its West Sussex operations, of which it has all but abandoned to concentrate on its PEDL165 license area, with two sites at Little Plumpton and Roseacre Woods in the Fylde.

A North vs South fracking divide was apparent in May 2014 with the British Geological Survey’s report about shale resources in the Weald Basin, which was spun as not being worth the candle, in great contrast with reports about northern shale deposits. Rejection of Celtique Energie’s South Downs drilling application in September 2014 gave further credence to suggestions that the south was being spared at the expense of West Lancashire.

Cuadrilla’s PR machine has greatly improved since the early days. Recently it has focused on winning the support of local businesses, and made donations to Fylde rugby club and other institutions. Support from central government has never been in doubt. But can Cuadrilla win the hearts and minds of locals? With increasing numbers of MPs turning against fracking ahead of the General Election, is it too late?

Cuadrilla’s plans to frack at Little Plumpton and Roseacre Wood may yet soon proceed, but whether in the long term fracking can take place in the face of resistance from local communities remains to be seen. Whatever may happen, Cuadrilla remains an object lesson in how not to do it.

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About timprobert

Journalist & Owner, Millicent Media

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