Fracking for Gas in a Field of Cabbages

Photographer: Paul Thomas/Bloomberg

Employees manoeuvre a drill pipe slip towards the drill shaft at Cuadrilla Resources Ltd.'s shale gas exploration site in Singleton, U.K. The company plans to start fracturing again next year as debate intensifies on shale’s potential in the U.K. Close

Employees manoeuvre a drill pipe slip towards the drill shaft at Cuadrilla Resources... Read More

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Photographer: Paul Thomas/Bloomberg

Employees manoeuvre a drill pipe slip towards the drill shaft at Cuadrilla Resources Ltd.'s shale gas exploration site in Singleton, U.K. The company plans to start fracturing again next year as debate intensifies on shale’s potential in the U.K.

The cabbages are impossibly big and as perfect as a high-end grocery store advertisement. In the bright sunshine, alongside the muddy country lane, they seem to capture the essence of autumnal rural England.

The gas drilling rig in the adjacent field isn't quite as picturesque. But if the site's owner, Cuadrilla Resources, has its way, gas drilled here may turn out to be as essential to a comfortable British winter as a warm plate of Bubble n' Squeak, potatoes and cabbage.

I'm visiting one of the Britain's first shale gas exploration sites near the seaside city of Blackpool, in northwest England. While shale gas extraction has turned the U.S. into the world's biggest natural gas producer, over-taking Russia in 2009, it's still early days in Europe.

Cuadrilla began pilot drilling in the U.K. in August 2010. As if hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," weren't controversial enough, operations were linked nine months later with two small earthquakes, as Bloomberg News reported last week.

The site itself is about the size of a large parking lot, 70 meters (230 feet) by 90 meters. Most of this space is taken up by shipping containers that house generators, a lab used to test rock samples for gas, offices and other equipment. What stands out is the 100-foot high blue-and-yellow drilling rig, festooned with Cuadrilla flags, and the towering white rack stacked with pipes on their way into or out of the borehole. It's the rig and rack that prompted neighbors to liken the place to NASA's launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Eric Vaughan, Cuadrilla's Chief Operating Officer, walks me over to a wooden pallet stacked with a variety of discarded drill bits. The wide-toothed studs once capable of ploughing through rock are now worn down to smooth knobs. They vary in size from the diameter of a car wheel to that of a dinner plate. One of the smallest bits will be boring into the shale 9,000 feet below us before the end of this year, Vaughan says.

Outside, it's muddy, messy work. But in the rig's control room, a young English engineer toggles joysticks. He's managing a giant wrench, which will unscrew two segments of pipe coming out of the bore hole. While much of the process is mechanized, a grit-spattered worker is still needed outside to guide the pipes and manage the process. With a final twist, the pipe is loose and a robotic arm swings the segment around to its place in the rack. It's half brawn, half carnival game.

So what part of this is actually hydraulic fracturing? The controversial process of pumping sand, water and chemicals into shale to crack open explosives-induced fissures? None of it. Right now, the site is a bog-standard natural gas well. The so-called ``fracking'' will take place next year.

At the far edge of the site, Vaughan points out a half-buried piece of black plastic tarpaulin sticking out of the dirt. The heavy plastic sheet extends under the whole site to capture anything spilled on the surface, he said. Cuadrilla uses a closed-loop drilling system, and fluids pumped out of the well are filtered and re-used. The solids are freighted off every few days to an industrial disposal site. The tarpaulin, the closed-loop system, several layers of pipe protecting the well shaft and the drainage ditch towards the back of the site are all measures intended to calm local anxieties about water pollution, he said. The company uses steel tanks rather than open-air ponds for waste-water.

"Even though there has never been a problem here, everybody is upping the game just a little bit more,'' he said, adding that "never has anyone actually found shale gas in the aquifer, it's always shallow gas from something else.''

Whether Cuadrilla will ever begin to actually "frack" at the site hinges on the U.K. Department of Energy and Climate Change's willingness to give Cuadrilla the go-ahead. The company released a report in November saying drilling at one of their sites caused two small earthquakes earlier this year. The department is reviewing the geological risk.

Earthquakes aside, shale may struggle to get a foothold in Europe, according to Deutsche Bank AG analysts. It's more expensive to drill in Europe, where a well may cost between $6.5 million and $14 million, compared with $4 million for a Marcellus Shale well in Pennsylvania. Then there's the issue of mineral rights. In the U.K., the government owns the nation's oil and gas resources, so there are few prospects to entice landowners to become ``shale-ionaires.''

If Cuadrilla's shale-gas dream doesn't pan out, the site will go back to being a world-class cabbage field.

It won't be the first natural gas well in the neighborhood that's been left to fade away. There's one that belonged to BG Group just a few miles down the road.

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