The shale gas company, Cuadrilla, has taken the first step to extending the life of its suspended fracking site near Blackpool.
Planning permission at the Preston New Road wellpad at Little Plumpton is due to expire in April 2023, when it must be restored to farmland.
But company documents, submitted to Lancashire County Council, show Cuadrilla intends to apply to extend the consent by 24 months, until 2025.
The move is not surprising because Cuadrilla has agreed with the industry regulator to carry out technical studies on seismicity at the site until the end of June 2023.
The company had also previously estimated that site decommissioning and restoration would take 12 months and that work has not begun.
Preston New Road is the UK’s only onshore site where horizontal shale gas wells have been fracked.
It has been largely mothballed since August 2019, when fracking caused an earthquake measuring 2.9 on the local magnitude scale.
In November 2019, a moratorium was extended across England because of the uncertainty about fracking-induced seismic activity.
The North Sea Transition Authority had ordered the plugging and abandonment of the two wells at Preston New Road by June 2022. But after industry lobbying, Cuadrilla was given another year to come up with “credible” plans the wells.
Three weeks later, the government commissioned a review of fracking science following calls for the moratorium to be lifted. A decision on the moratorium is still awaited.
Cuadrilla has told Lancashire County Council that it needs two more years at Preston New Road to complete the technical studies and, depending on their outcome, plug the wells and decommission and restore the site.
It said the extension period would not include drilling, hydraulic fracturing or well testing.
The application will be made under section 73 of the Town and County Planning Act. Cuadrilla will seek to vary a condition in the original application, which limited the life of the site to 75 months.
If approved, the extension, by 24 months, would increase the duration of Preston New Road by just under a third.
“Residents had more than enough of Cuadrilla”
Opponents of Cuadrilla’s operations have criticised the company’s plans.
A spokesperson for Preston New Road Action Group said:
“This is a concerning if not unexpected development.
“75 months should have been long enough for Cuadrilla to do their exploration. The residents living close to the site at PNR have had more than enough of Cuadrilla. Why do Cuadrilla need an extra two years?
“We understand that the North Sea Transition Authority granted them an extra 15 months on the plugging and abandonment of the wells but Cuadrilla should be planning to decommission the site as quickly as they can, not looking to extend the timeframes as much as they are able.
“Cuadrilla already have a proven track record of missing their deadlines. LCC [Lancashire County Council] should push to ensure that the site is decommissioned as quickly as possible. Over six years’ disruption to a local community is bad enough but eight years is intolerable.”
A spokesman for Frack Free Lancashire said:
“As today’s record temperature amply illustrates, we are in a desperate climate crisis already and it seems quite extraordinary that Cuadrilla should even be contemplating an application to extend their planning permission for the Preston New Road site.
“Frack Free Lancashire is very clear that we must transition to renewables as a matter of urgency. Trying to extend the life of the Cuadrilla site serves absolutely no purpose and will simply add to the continuing uncertainty for the community.
“We gathered at the gates last weekend to remind everybody that we have not gone away and that we will return if any attempt is made to bring back fracking. We are confident that the community will continue to resist and, judging by the responses of passing motorists, there is no appetite at all for any revival.
“People are not fooled by the grandiose claims of the industry and its supporters that fracking can play any part in the UK energy mix, nor that fracking will mean cheaper domestic prices. It is time to forget the relic that is fracking and urgently transition to a cleaner and greener future.”
Cuadrilla has divided the proposed extension into three phases:
- Stage 1 – well suspension studies, wellhead maintenance, data collection
- Stage 2 – Decommissioning of two wells
- Stage 3 – Site restoration
The company said the technical studies during well suspension involved: defining key controls on seismicity induced by fracking; improving the seismic imaging of natural faults and fractures; supporting additional research requirements emerging from the scientific review of shale gas.
Following the suspension period, Cuadrilla said the North Sea Transition Authority may allow it to either:
- reuse one or both wells
- bring one or both wells into production
- require one or both wells to be plugged and abandoned
If the wells were to be decommissioned, the company said procuring equipment and acquiring regulatory consent could take four-six months. Decommissioning each well would need another four-six weeks. Up to 12 months of groundwater monitoring would then follow. Site restoration would then take about four months.
During stage 3, up to five heavy goods vehicles an hour, or 40 a day, would be expected at peak times, estimated to last two-four weeks, Cuadrilla said.
Generators were expected to be onsite for less than eight months, the company said.
As an initial move, Cuadrilla has sought a council opinion on whether its extension application needs a detailed study, known as an environmental impact assessment (EIA).
In its screening request, the company accepted that the application met the criteria for an EIA. But it argued that an EIA was not needed:
“It does not exceed indicative thresholds and criteria within the PPG [planning practice guidance] and is not located in a sensitive area as defined by the EIA regulations”.
“The potential exists for effects on ground and surface water, air quality, views and noise. However, the wellsite is located in an agricultural area with few adjacent sensitive receptors and therefore the potential for significant effects is considered to be unlikely.”
The company said there were no designated landscapes within 5km, no world heritage sites within 1km and no designated wildlife sites within 3km. No significant effects on landscape or visual features were expected, it said.
Work carried out during the time extension would generate light and noise, Cuadrilla said, but “significant effects” were not anticipated.
There would be no emissions from the suspended wells, the company said, but it accepted there would be “temporary, localised emissions” from diesel generators and traffic.
EIA screening decisions are usually made by council planning officials under delegated powers. The company’s application for an extension is likely to go before Lancashire’s planning committee.