Fracking company Cuadrilla has requested an urgent review of existing earthquake safety levels, in the hope permission to generate larger tremors will allow it to extract greater quantities of shale gas from Lancashire.
Currently the company must suspend drilling when quakes measuring over 0.5 magnitude are detected.
Though numerous legal challenges and protests were not enough to prevent the company from beginning explorative drilling at its Preston New Road site late last year, it is now the government’s “traffic light system” for seismic activity which the industry appears to consider the greatest threat to its survival.
Despite it emerging that senior figures in the company had believed they would not cause tremors serious enough to halt operations, the company has had to stop drilling on several occasions after surpassing government limits.
In results published today, Cuadrilla said since they began drilling in October last year, they had confirmed there is a “rich reservoir of recoverable high quality natural gas present”, but that the seismic operating limit remains a barrier to the industry.
Due to the earthquake limits, the company said it used “less than 14 per cent of the sand we had planned to inject into the shale rock”.
“An intentionally conservative micro-seismic operating limit during hydraulic fracturing, set at just 0.5 on the Richter scale, had … severely constrained the volume of sand that could be injected into the shale rock,” Cuadrilla said in a statement.
It said it has requested the Oil and Gas Authority “urgently review” the traffic light system to enable the Preston New Road wells to be “properly tested and produced effectively, without compromising safety or environmental protection”.
Cuadrilla chief executive Francis Egan said: “Cuadrilla and its investors remain committed to this opportunity. The potential for Lancashire and the UK has again been clearly demonstrated by the fracturing and flow-testing carried out at Preston New Road. We look forward to completing the job.
“All we ask now is that we are treated fairly, with comparable seismic and ground vibration levels to similar industries in Lancashire and elsewhere in the UK who are able to work safely but more effectively with significantly higher thresholds for seismicity and ground vibration.”
But campaigners against fracking have said the company’s request shows it cannot complete the work as planned and should abandon drilling.
John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said: “Cuadrilla have practically admitted that they can’t make fracking work under the safety rules they’ve been boasting about for years. If they can’t, then they shouldn’t. In order to ‘grasp the prize’ of a very small amount of very expensive fracked gas, ministers have already removed people’s property rights and are pushing plans to suppress all local democratic control by allowing fracking without planning permission. And now the industry need just one more regulation to be lifted, the safety limit on earthquakes. Until the next one, of course.
He added: “The UK government should stop wasting time on this polluting industry and back the clean energy infrastructure we need to tackle climate change.”
Daniel Carey-Dawes, the infrastructure policy manager at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said Cuadrilla’s request was “an act of desperation” from a company “that knows it is on the losing team”.
He said: “The industry is transparent in its attempts to force the government’s hand over seismicity regulation, but regulation is there for a reason – to protect the public and our environment.”
Cuadrilla’s call for relaxed seismic limits follows calls from Sir Jim Ratcliffe, founder of petrochemicals giant Ineos to loosen regulations on earthquakes, describing the current limits as “absurd”.