Ministers “still talking” about whether to abandon Cuadrilla’s fracking wells

Government appeared to be considering a u-turn this afternoon on the order to Cuadrilla to plug and abandon its shale gas wells at Preston New Road near Blackpool.

Business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, answering questions in parliament, 9 March 2022. Photo: Parliament TV

The business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, said this afternoon talks were continuing.

Asked in parliament whether it was sensible to plug the wells, he said:

“In conversations with my right hon friend the prime minister we were clear that it did not necessarily make any sense to concrete over the wells. We are still in conversations about that.”

Last month, Cuadrilla said it had been ordered by the Oil & Gas Authority to abandon the two Preston New Road wells, both of which caused earthquakes when they were fracked.

A crane moved onto the site on two days ago (7 March 2022) to begin work. The operation was expected to take about five weeks.

Supporters of fracking have called for a lifting of the moratorium on fracking, imposed since November 2019 because of concerns about earthquakes. They also said the Cuadrilla wells should not be abandoned.

This morning, the business department told the Guardian that the wells would be abandoned by the deadline of the end of June 2022.

But the business secretary’s comments suggest there could be a change of plan and a softening towards shale gas.

Mr Kwarteng said the government’s position on the fracking moratorium had not changed. But his comments appeared less dismissive of the technique. He told MPs:

“If it [fracking] can be done in a safe and sustainable way the government is open to the idea.

Previously in a tweet, he said:

“The wholesale price of gas has quadrupled in UK and Europe. Additional UK production won’t materially affect the wholesale market price. This includes fracking – UK producers won’t sell shale gas to UK consumers below the market price. They’re not charities.”

During questions on the phase out of Russian oil imports to the UK, the Rother Valley MP, Alexander Stafford, asked whether fracking was a red herring. Mr Kwarteng said there had been seismicity issues with fracking but he added:

“We’ve always had an open mind. We’ve always said that we will support shale gas if it can be done in a safe and stable way. We will be led by the science on whether this is indeed possible. There are lots of experiments, there are lots of empirical evidence that we need to consider.”

A spokesperson for Frack Free Lancashire, which has opposed Cuadrilla’s operations, said this afternoon:

“Certain politicians and climate change deniers are trying to use the desperate situation in Ukraine to galvanise the twitching corpse of UK fracking. It is really shocking that they should try to use the immense suffering of an entire nation in this way.

“The Government has been clear that fracking must not be allowed to restart unless the companies involved are able to demonstrate conclusively that they can control the risks associated with seismicity. They simply cannot do this.

“At the same time, there is a growing wave of people who have lined up to tell us that UK fracking will not reduce energy prices and will not have a material impact on supply levels. These include Government spokesmen, Lord Browne the ex-chair of Cuadrilla, and Iain Conn, ex-chief executive of Cuadrilla Investor, Centrica, who stated this week that it won’t be “possible to drill enough wells to be able to make a material difference to the UK’s supplies”.

“Fracking is dead. Let it rest in peace.”

A spokesperson for Preston New Road Action Group, which also opposed fracking at the site, said:

“On numerous occasions over the last few months ministers have stated that allowing fracking to continue will have no impact on our current Gas issue.  

“It is hard to see that 3 months extra for further experiments at PNR is going to make any difference. Cuadrilla have had over 3 years since first fracking at PNR and have failed to prove the process. So far no solution to the induced seismicity has been found. The work just commenced to plug and abandon the wells should be allowed to continue without delay and the site restored to its green field state.”    

Link to government statement on phase out of Russian oil imports

17 replies »

  1. Frack Free Lancashire spokesperson: Fracking wont make any material difference?? What a statement from 2 ex-business leaders who are no longer in the game, similar to many politicians and PM’s who are also not in the game! This is what that Anti’s always spin!,

    Opinions change, and without allowing the same seismic thresholds as pile driving for the construction industry and noise and vibration analysis for the quarrying industries. Fracking was destined to fail, what of the alleged damage which caused but not reported?

    Take it in this instance, a man once feed the 5000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish! What do you think could be achieved to feed the masses…?

    Many wells accumulated within the acreage of which the government has LEGALLY awarded the onshore oil and gas exploration companies licences in which to explore, drill, test, and produce Shale Gas.

    Energy Security before the UK, has no coal, no oil and no gas industries… and huge energy reliance of other nations in times of need.

    • Then how about a comment from Professor Al Fraser, Chair in Subsurface Geoscience at Imperial College, from a presentation given to the research group UKUH (Unconventional Hydrocarbons in the United Kingdom Energy System) at their online meeting September 2021? This is the group researching the issue of seismicity due to fracking in the UK for the government. To his credit, Professor Fraser freely admits to having made a U-turn from his previous position on shale gas development in the UK. (Unfortunately I am unable to post the slide here, link below.)

      He states that regarding UK shale gas: We know how good it is; We know how complex the geology is; We can characterise the geochemistry of the shales; We know more about fracking and induced seismicity; Importantly WE KNOW IT WON’T WORK. (my emphasis.) As a geologist he then asks ‘could we have known this 10 years ago and avoided a lot of wasted effort and money?

      Click to access Al.pdf

      Regarding seismicity, you are not comparing apples with apples.
      Vibrations from blasting in quarries are estimable in accordance with relevant British standards. It is in the operators interest to reduce peripheral vibration, not to do so is wasting the energy of the explosives. Blasting can be timed to occur during the working week, not first thing on a Bank Holiday Monday as happened with the 2.9 at PNR.
      In construction, the highest impact is from pile driving, a cheap and quick method of establishing foundations. The resultant vibrations at the surface are as a result of local surface activities, not shifting faults, a kilometer underground and another 3 distant.
      On modern piling job, the vibration levels can be monitored in real time, and smart equipment sends out alerts to relevant people if permitted levels are being exceeded.
      The vibrations are predictable and controllable. Changes can be made to the piling process to reduce the vibrations at source, if they cannot be reduced sufficiently, for example to protect heritage assets, other methods of constructing foundations are available.

      Fracking does not have such real time controls or other options. The 2.9ML at PNR occurred some 60 hours after the pumps were switched off. Faults go undetected; it has been proven that there are no means of predicting or controlling their behaviour, so put Teddy back in the cot and stop playing like you’re hard done by.
      The Institute of Directors’ business model for shale gas development in the UK was based on the over riding premise that the geology is suitable. As indicated by Prof. Fraser above, (and Profs. Styles and Underhill before him,) it clearly isn’t.

  2. Let’s just look at a couple of scenarios…
    1. Martin Lewis last night says, without government action, the energy price cap will rise in October to over £3000. The median household income in the U.K. is £29,500 which means OVER HALF of U.K. households will fall into the government’s definition of fuel poverty.
    2. The European have committed themselves to reducing their dependence on Russian imports of oil and gas. This means competing with the Far East for very drop of LNG and crude oil on the market. On the bright side for some environmentalists, a Bloomberg commentator suggested today that high prices might turn into shortages with the prospect of “car free days”.
    3. Relevant is the fact that Russia and Ukraine are massive agricultural exporters, they produce 10% of the calories in all forms traded in the world today. That’s Ok for the richer countries who only use 10% of their income on food (higher the poorer you are) but less developed countries, Egypt for example, uses 32% of its income on food. It’s all ramping up inflation and suffering.

    If I were the British government I’d be looking, short to medium term, for every source of energy I could get. I suspect that he would like to push the issue fracking into the long grass by “looking into the matter” but ultimately he will have to make a decision.

    • Earlier today I was thinking along a different line of metaphor – Boris Johnson delays a decision and kicks a can down the road. As a politician he will have his eye on the next election resulty in the UK. Remember how undecided he was on whether to go with Brexit or Remain? He will be eying this situation. Less han 50% of UK population wants shale gas, especially as i is not ring fenced for use by our populaion anyway, it would just be sold to make government revenue. Then we have got that horrible individual Farage supporting Steve’s Baker’s pressure ot reopen fracking debae. All this is really just people who dont think climae change is serious trying to exploit the Ukraine situation to undermine the UK.s net zero target. Its as simple as that.

  3. Cuadrilla had the courage to drill wildcat wells to find shales suitable for recovering gas by fracking.

    In this narrow sense, Cuadrilla’s efforts were a success.

    Unfortunately for Cuadrilla, with the wisdom of hindsight they should have first undertaken 3D seismic surveys to better determine where natural geological faults might trigger two different sets of major problems:

    1: reactivation of powerful ancient geological faults that were not supposed to be there but were there on 3D seismic surveys; and

    2: presence of small ancient geological faults that are sometimes prolific but unknown, causing the profitable frackable layer to be slightly offset sufficient to be ‘lost’ – as indeed was too often the case for otherwise profitable coal seams in the heydays of the South Lancashire Coalfield when automatic pit props encountered unexpected tiny faults.

    To summarise, with the wisdom of hindsight, Cuadrilla could have and should have invested in time, trouble, cash and effort in first conducting expensive 3D seismic surveys of their allocated PEDL blocks, in order to determine where their drilling should be in order to minimise the expensive risks of problem 1 and problem 2.

    It is worth adding that neither problem 1 nor problem 2 are to be expected in the thin, more predictable, frackable shales of much of the USA.

    Robin Grayson FGS
    Manchester Liberal Democrats

    • Robin

      Longwall supports and the associated machinery is fine with small faults. Its the larger ones that prevent you having a 274m wide face and a 2 mile run (retreat, especially if gassy). Up to 2ft in 6ft seam fine, bit more of a problem in a 3ft seam, and extremely difficult in 3ft with a trepanner.

      Re pit props, hydraulic props were used on hand filled faces which coped with faults by working round them, so I am not sure what you mean by automatic pit props. Chock shields which snake and advance without operator input (tripped by the machine passing) were not used in the Lancs Coalfield (Parkside last pit)

      • Hi Hewes62

        You are absolutely right, but fracking relies on accurately knowing where the frackable pay shale is, and of course miners don’t go underground to check the fracking is on track or not. Gullick Dobson hydraulic pit props were expensive but essential – but not usable in fracking. Fracking is essentially unmechanised apart from the fracking process. A serious problem in fracking such a thick semi-uniform shale sequence as the Bowland Shales is that it is unfortunately possible to wander off the desired fracking horizon. Extremely useful fossil horizons are present, but not enough such horizons IMO to keep the fracking on the desired horizon.

        Hi Martin

        Perhaps the answer is that all you need to do is to get an undergraduate degree in geology, followed by a masters
        degree, and then be consultant to 20 oil exploration companies in NW England and Eastern Irish Sea Basin.

        Nuclear power is perhaps OK but probably unattractive at present as nuclear power stations are at serious risk in the Ukraine. There is also the as yet unresolved issue of where on earth to store the high-level radioactive waste?

        Wind turbines are worth considering for electricity to replace gas and oil. The Greater Manchester Pension Fund not only invest pensioner’s funds in oil and gas, but also has set up a major investment fund jointly with the Greater London Pension Authority and some other pension funds to invest heavily in onshore wind farms in the Republic of Ireland; and indeed recently invested in efficient off-peak battery storage of electricity that seems likely to increase the existing profitability of wind power.

        Robin Grayson FGS
        Manchester Liberal Democrats

        • But, I have retired, Robin. I was thinking of others.

          Wind farms I have no problem with, if they are out to sea. No reason any more to industrialize the landscape, apart from a few in already industrialized landscapes. However, no point to more until there is more provision for when the wind doesn’t blow. Cart before the horse comes to mind.

          Yes, your point about nuclear waste is important. However, it will be conveniently forgotten as the arithmetic will have to balance eventually, and that is what is left. It was always going to be the case that the birds would come home to roost.

          I am anticipating more in the Boris plan around securing UK oil and gas into UK and tight control over exporting it, then more on hydrogen, and more on nuclear. Wind is already happening off shore at pace. Somewhere in there might be a bit about UK diesel production as well, where the UK is still very reliant upon outside production.

    • Perhaps the answer, Robin, is for another geologist to be employed?

      Meanwhile, I did note recently an MP calling for support of the nuclear industry in the N.West, so lots of choices. Unlike some of the comments above, choices do change when situations change.

      • We’re no strangers to nuclear, here in the North West, with 2 power stations at Heysham, visible from my bathroom window. Sellafield across the Bay and Springfields a few miles from here, so no change there.

  4. Just a fear, a reasonable one I think…
    A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson has, according to The Evening Standard said:…

    “The sanctions hysteria in which London plays one of the leading, if not the main, roles, leaves us no choice but to take proportionately tough retaliatory measures.”.

    Given the U.K.’s so-called special relationship with the US and it’s partial estrangement from the EU,. it would not surprise me to see the U.K. singled out for retaliatory action. Whether this action is diplomatic, cyber, energy related or something nastier, remains to be seen but the possible risk to our energy system further strengthens the case, (not now, it’s too late) for a more defensible energy system, a mixture of renewables and base load gas and nuclear.

    • Most of our gas currently comes from Norway, so anyone looking at this positng on Drill or Drop will be well informed comapred to the average reader of the Daily Mail where Baker and Mackinlay have been selling their opinions. I think the above comment by Shalewatcher is political rather than relevant to the fraking issues we are talkng about. here. As London has been world capital of money laundering for so long, it is obvous that we would have a lot more work to do to clamp down on the pandering to Russian dirty money than ohter countries have.

    • Martin – worth remembering that Norway’s borders are mostly not with the Russian Federation but with Finland and Sweden.
      Also worth noting that Norway’s oil and gas is in the middle of the North Sea. Cheers. Robin

  5. So, Robin, have you discussed with any Norwegians who have done their national service, what is required on that northern border if there was conflict? I have.

    All I would add, is “good luck with that.”

    I seem to note Ukraine’s borders were not mostly with the Russian Federation, either.

    Hmm, so the oil and gas is in the N.Sea. Who would have thought it! Would just politely suggest it would be no good to man or beast sitting there, Robin, unless it was under the control of a friendly power. Which is always the issue with respect to strategic resources. Foes know it well, others have ignored it for too long and even gone so far as to suggest energy security.

    However, you did cheer my day from your previous post. A politician with 20 second jobs-it may be some sort of record!

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