Cuadrilla Faces Five-Week Public Hearing on Fracking in U.K.

  • Gas company applying to drill as many as 8 exploratory wells
  • Inquiry may end five-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing

A pause on fracking in northwest England that cooled expansion of the practice in the rest of the country may end after a five-week public inquiry scheduled to start Tuesday.

The trial-like hearing will examine two applications by oil and gas company Cuadrilla Resources Ltd. to drill as many as eight exploratory wells in the Bowland Shale formation underneath Lancashire county. Its work in the area was halted in 2011 after hydraulic fracturing to unlock oil and gas from underground rock caused two seismic tremors.

About 40 witnesses are scheduled to speak about the company’s plan, which seeks to create a new source of natural gas supply in the U.K. as domestic production declines. Previously the application was rejected over concerns about noise and traffic disruption, and opposition groups have voiced broader concerns about the safety of fracking.

“What will really signal a step-change in U.K. shale is successful exploration wells,” Francis Egan, chief executive officer of Cuadrilla, said in an interview in London Wednesday. This hearing is “a lot of things coming to a head.”

After the council hears all testimony, an inspector will issue a recommendation to Greg Clark, the U.K.’s Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. He intervened in the approval process in November by saying a government decision on the application would supersede a local decision.

Unconventional Gas

The U.K. government has already issued 93 new onshore exploration licenses in December to drillers. About 75 percent of those relate to unconventional shale gas development, according to the country’s Oil and Gas Authority. French energy group Total SA and the U.K.’s largest privately held company, Ineos Group Holdings Ltd., are among those with exploration interests in the country.

Prime Minister David Cameron said in 2014 the country would go “all out for shale” as flows from the North Sea dwindle to half their levels 10 years ago. Gas from those fields now supply about 43 percent of the U.K.’s needs.

“Now is the time to press ahead and get exploration underway so that we can determine how much shale gas there is and how much we can use,” Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom said in a December statement. Fracking can take place safely with the right safeguards, she said.

Cuadrilla’s activities in Lancashire will clarify the country’s resource potential, according to Egan.

Environmental groups including Friends of the Earth have opposed fracking in the U.K., saying it can pollute groundwater and cause earthquakes. Representatives from the organization will speak at the public inquiry. Those living close to the proposed sites have said the work could mar the landscape and argued the risks outweigh the potential upside.

“There is no evidence that the environmental harm will yield demonstrable economic benefits to the local economy or make any meaningful contribution to the U.K. energy supply,” the Preston New Road Action Group, a residents’ group near one of the proposed exploration sites, said in a report that will be considered during the inquiry.

A survey by the Department of Energy and Climate Change published on Tuesday showed about 44 percent of people in the U.K. are neither for or against fracking, 29 percent oppose it and 23 percent support it.

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