A publicity video used by Cuadrilla as evidence of the first shale gas production from its site in Lancashire may not be quite what it seemed.
The company sent up a drone to film a burning flare stack at the site near Blackpool in early November 2018.
It released the news to the media, describing the development as “significant” and “a good early indication of the gas potential that we have long talked about”. The pro-fracking group, Lancashire for Shale, said the gas flow was a “real credit to the expertise and tenacity of Cuadrilla”.
But an official document released this week reveals that the volume of gas reaching the surface at Preston New Road at the time was so low that the company had to feed in propane as a support fuel to light the flare.
Opponents of Cuadrilla’s operation had been sceptical about the 12-second video and the volume of gas in the well.
This week, the Environment Agency confirmed that the volume of gas coming to the surface was “very low” and that the day before the video was released methane was released unburnt into the atmosphere.
The details are in a report of a site inspection by the Environment Agency on 2 November 2018. The document, called a Compliance Assessment or CAR report, said:
“On the 1st November gas was sent to the flare from the separator. The gas was not burnt at the flare on this occasion due to the very low volume of natural gas. The gas was picked up on the onsite monitoring instruments at very low levels (5ppm over ten minute period).
“We acknowledge that the level of methane detected was significantly below anything that would have an impact on human health or constitute a risk of explosion and there was no environmental impact. Gas was managed in this way for safety purposes and does not constitute a breach of the permit.
“On the morning of 2nd November gas was again sent to the flare from the separator. On this occasion a support fuel (propane) was used to assist combustion. There was no visible increase in methane emissions on the boundary monitoring equipment.”
DrillOrDrop asked Cuadrilla what were the volumes or proportions of shale gas and support fuel burned in the flare on 2 November 2018. We also asked why Cuadrilla had not mentioned the support fuel in the press release and how long the company had continued to use a support fuel in the flare.
A spokesperson for the company said:
“As you are aware, we are now in the flow testing phase at Preston New Road and will look to publish results in due course. We are very encouraged by what we are seeing but are not providing a daily commentary on testing.”
The campaign group, Frack Free Lancashire, said today:
“It would seem that Cuadrilla’s woeful PR campaign has fallen flat on its face yet again. In November, desperate for some good news after provoking a series of earthquakes, they published a video showing the flaring of gas from their first well.
“Widely ridiculed at the time, as it only lasted a few seconds before being seen to have petered out, we now learn that far from being a “significant” find, this gas flow was so weak that they had to add patio gas to it to make it burn. No further comment is really needed, is it?”
There are several options for dealing with gas during flow testing. It can be piped into the gas grid – as Cuadrilla plans to do during the extended well test at Preston New Road. It can also be flared or – usually in emergencies – vented to the atmosphere.
The Environment Agency said in the CAR report:
“We are currently reviewing what is best practice including the benefits of using a support fuel to assist the combustion of very low levels of natural gas against the management of natural gas without combustion through the flare.”
The gas flow press release came after a difficult fortnight for Cuadrilla.
By 2 November 2018, fracking at Preston New Road had already caused more than 30 earth tremors.
The company’s Australian partner, the mining group A J Lucas, had seen its share price fall since the start of fracking on 15 October 2018. By 2 November, the price had dropped from 0.39 to 0.26 Australian dollars.
Cuadrilla’s chief executive, Francis Egan, told the Financial Times on 30 October that UK rules on fracking-induced seismicity – known as the traffic light system – were too strict. The country’s shale gas industry could be strangled, he said.
He called for an urgent raising of the limit at which fracking should pause from 0.5ML (local magnitude) to 2.0ML.
But the energy minister, Claire Perry, responded on 31 October that this would be “foolish” while the government was trying to “reassure people about safety”.
It has since emerged that she also wrote to Mr Egan on 2 November, saying:
“I note that your Hydraulic Fracture Plan was developed and reviewed over several months with reference to existing regulations, including the traffic light system and at no point did you communicate that it would not be possible to proceed without a change in regulations”.
She concluded the letter, released this week in response to a freedom of information request, saying:
“The Government believes the current system is fit for purpose and has no intention of altering it”.
The A J Lucas share price rose rose after the press release, reaching 0.31 AUD on 5 November 2018 but since then it has fallen to 0.20 AUD today.