The shale gas company, Cuadrilla, has less than a year to drill two wells and frack three under the terms of the planning permission at its site near Blackpool.
The countdown comes as the company told residents it was exploring only the single well fracked so far at Preston New Road and continued to remove equipment from the pad.
The company has confirmed it finished fracking the first well, known as PNR1z, before Christmas. It began moving equipment off the site in mid-December and since then observers have reported the de-mobilisation of items including sand silos, the coiled tubing unit, cherry picker and a mobile crane.
According to reports from a meeting of the site’s community liaison group this week, Cuadrilla said it was now testing the flow of PNR1z, and expected to see a steady flow of gas soon. Observers have described a shimmer above the flare stacks on the site.
The company was reportedly unable to say how long the flow test phase would last. But according to reports, Cuadrilla said it was exploring only PNR1z at this stage.
Based on the results from this well, the company said it would then decide whether to explore the other well drilled at the site, PNR2, and drill PNR3 and PNR4, the final wells for which it currently has planning permission.
Reports from the meeting said the company described this as a “more costly approach” but one that could provide better outcomes.
The formal minutes of the community liaison group have not yet been published but people who attended the meeting said Cuadrilla denied it was leaving Preston New Road and insisted that the removed equipment would return in 2019.
Members of the group reported that Cuadrilla said it was learning from PNR1z and hoped to be able to drill and frack faster on any subsequent wells.
Earlier this week, DrillOrDrop asked Cuadrilla what equipment would remain on the site. The company’s spokesperson said:
“Any equipment that Cuadrilla doesn’t own and doesn’t need for flow testing has simply been returned until it is required again. We won’t be publishing a log of this. We also won’t give day to day updates on movement of equipment on and off site to ensure security and operational continuity.”
Ticking clock on planning permission
The time limit for the work at Preston New Road is set by two conditions of the planning permission, granted in 2016 by the then local government secretary, Sajid Javid.
Condition 2 stated:
“All drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations shall be completed within a period of 30 months from the date of the commencement of the drilling of the first well.”
Condition 3 of permission required Cuadrilla to notify the county planning authority of various stages of the operation at Preston New Road, including drilling. This set the start dates for Condition 2.
The county council has confirmed:
“Cuadrilla advised the County Council by letter dated 31/5/2017 that commencement of drilling operations on well 1 commenced on 31/5/2017.”
This date marked the installation of the conductor casing, not the start of drilling with the main rig, which was 17 August 2017. But both the council and the company accept that the start date of drilling was 31 May 2017.
The council said:
“We have taken the date of commencement of the installation of the conductor casing as the start of drilling for the purposes of Condition 3.”
An officer confirmed that the end of the 30-month period for drilling and fracking was 30 November 2019.
A spokesperson for Cuadrilla agreed: “That is our understanding”.
Cuadrilla could seek to extend the planning permission to drill and frack the extra wells at Preston New Road by applying to Lancashire County Council. But officials confirmed last week:
“The County Council has not received any request for formal pre-application advice regarding an extension to the time periods for drilling wells 3 and 4.”
Under the council’s constitution, what are described as “controversial” planning applications must not be decided by council officials under delegated powers. This suggests that any decision for extended planning permission would be made by elected members of the development control committee. The application would also be expected to go through a public consultation process.
The Oil & Gas Authority (OGA) confirmed last week that it had not yet approved the hydraulic fracture plan for PNR2.
The OGA also said Cuadrilla had not submitted hydraulic fracture plans for the yet to be drilled PNR3 or PNR4.