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Drilling at Preston New Road is last-ditch effort to convince regulators to relax safety rules

Cuadrilla's Preston New Road site in Lancashire




Cuadrilla was forced to abandon its first well at the Preston New Road site.
Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Cuadrilla plans to restart fracking at its Preston New Road site in Lancashire in a last-ditch effort to convince policymakers to relax safety rules.

The first company to frack for shale gas in the UK will drill a second well near Blackpool after it was forced to abandon the first, which caused multiple earth tremors.

It plans to remobilise its drilling and fracking equipment within the coming months to test gas flows from the site before its permission expires in November.

Francis Egan, the company’s chief executive, plans to use the data to convince the government and regulators to loosen the safety rules that have slowed the progress of the UK shale industry.

He said the work could help to make a case for the UK’s controversial shale ambitions by proving that the Bowland Shale region offers a “hugely exciting opportunity for the UK”.

Q&A

What is fracking?

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a way of extracting natural gas from shale rock formations that are often deep underground. It involves pumping water, chemicals and usually sand underground at high pressure to fracture shale – hence the name – and release the gas trapped within to be collected back at the surface.

The technology has transformed the US energy landscape in the last decade, owing to the combination of high-volume fracking – 1.5m gallons of water per well, on average – and the relatively modern ability to drill horizontally into shale after a vertical well has been drilled.

In the UK, deployment of fracking has met with protestslegal challenges and planning rejections. In November 2018  energy company Cuadrilla was forced to stop work at its Preston New Road site in Lancashire twice in four days due to minor earthquakes occurring while it was fracking. The tremors breached a seismic threshold imposed after fracking caused minor earthquakes at a nearby Cuadrilla site in 2011. In March 2019 the UK’s High Court ruled that the government’s fracking guidelines were ‘unlawful’ because they had failed to sufficiently consider scientific evidence against fracking.

Cuadrilla has struggled to convince the public among growing opposition to shale gas exploration, and protests by environmental campaigners.

Egan said it was no secret that Cuadrilla had asked for the “exceedingly low” tolerance for earth tremors to be lifted.

“It remains the case that we are the only UK operator currently able to move forward and provide more data to support an expert review of this threshold – and we intend to do so,” he said.

Egan warned last year that commercial shale gas fracking could not go ahead in the UK unless rules on minor earthquakes were relaxed.

Cuadrilla was repeatedly forced to suspend its work at the Preston New Road site after the government’s safety limits for earth tremors were breached on multiple occasions.

The rules call for an immediate halt if frackers trigger an earthquake measuring a magnitude of 0.5 or higher, which is common when fracturing the Earth’s shale layers to release gas.

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Natascha Engel stepped down as the UK’s first shale gas commissioner only after six months in April, blaming the “ridiculous” regulations for hobbling the industry.

The energy minister, Claire Perry, said last October there were no plans for a review after the Guardian revealed that the government was considering looser rules once the industry matures.

Since then she has said it would be a “foolish politician” who relaxed the regulations.

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