A moratorium on fracking in northwest England that stalled the practice in the rest of the country may end after a five-week public inquiry scheduled to start tomorrow.
The trial-like hearing will examine two applications by oil and gas company Cuadrilla Resources 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 UK 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 UK shale is successful exploration wells,” Francis Egan, chief executive officer of Cuadrilla, said in an interview in London last week. 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 UK’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.
The UK government has already issued 93 new onshore exploration licences in December to drillers, including French energy group Total SA and the UK’s largest privately held company, Ineos Group Holdings About 75% of those relate to unconventional shale gas development, according to the country’s Oil and Gas Authority.
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% of the UK’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 UK, saying it can pollute groundwater and cause earthquakes. Representatives from the organisation will speak at the public inquiry. A report by the Department of Energy and Climate Change published last week showed about 44% of people in the UK are neither for or against fracking, 29% oppose it and 23% support it.
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