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22 Aug, 2019 16:39

What the frack? Largest tremor yet halts UK hydraulic fracturing op as public outcry continues

What the frack? Largest tremor yet halts UK hydraulic fracturing op as public outcry continues

UK gas company Cuadrilla had to pause fracking in Lancashire after an earth tremor was detected, the latest to stop the controversial practice in its tracks as the government considers loosening regulations despite public outcry.

Public objection to Cuadrilla’s fracking at the Preston New Road site fell on deaf ears as the company resumed drilling last week, in a move described as “shocking” by campaigners concerned about repeated seismic activity at the site. 

Wednesday’s tremor was the largest recorded there with a magnitude of 1.6, and forced Cuadrilla to pause fracking for 18 hours, as per regulations. The company confirmed in a statement that a “micro seismic event” occurred after it had completed the hydraulic fracturing for the day, and likened it to a “large bag of shopping dropping to the floor."

The company had to repeatedly stop operations last year as, under UK regulation, any seismic activity detected over 0.5 magnitude immediately suspends work. A 1.5 magnitude tremor in December was classed as a ‘red’ event under the government’s ‘traffic light’ system, and halted activity at the site until last week. Cuadrilla, the first company to frack in the UK, described the December incident as being akin to “dropping a melon,” a comparison contradicted by a local who felt her house shake and heard a loud bang. 

Drilling at the site started in October 2018 when campaigners failed to secure an injunction to stop it going ahead, after Conservative Communities Secretary Sajid Javid overturned the local council’s rejection of the application in 2016. It was the first fracking to take place in the UK since 2011, when Cuadrilla was forced to stop test drilling as the process was linked to earthquakes. Its 2013 attempt to frack at Balcombe was prevented by strong public resistance. 


The company says it is now using a thicker fracking liquid in the hope it could result in less seismic events. Cuadrilla, which is owned by the US Riverstone Holdings/Carlyle Global Energy and Australian engineering company A.J. Lucas, has also reported four spikes in methane, above levels set by authorities since October. 

Studies have shown that hydraulic fracking, which uses high pressure water and chemicals to break up rock to extract oil and gas, is bad for the environment and poses a risk of water contamination, air pollution, and earthquakes. 

Just last week, a Cornell study found fracking was the probable source of a ‘significant’ spike in methane emissions, which heat the atmosphere quicker than carbon dioxide. The increase coincides with the boom in fracking in the US, where water contamination, flammable water, and a millennium’s worth of earthquakes in Oklahoma within two years have occurred as a result of fracking. Hydrocarbons, like benzene, used in the process can even cause health issues and cancer when they leak into the atmosphere. 

While British environmentalists, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens have all called for fracking to be banned outright, the UK government said last week it would consider an assessment of data by the Oil and Gas Authority that could lead to a review of the traffic light system amid industry complaints that it is ‘strangling’ the sector. 

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has written newspaper columns supporting fracking in the past, recently appointed fracking advocate Andrea Leadsom the business secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Leadsom said in 2016 that those opposed to fracking were victims of “scaremongering,” the Financial Times reports.   

BEIS said fracking could be compatible with the UK target to reach ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2050 and said with “best practice” UK shale gas could have a lower carbon footprint than imported gas, a claim disputed by the Labour Party and environmentalists. 

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