Fracking paused in Blackpool after biggest tremor to date

Minor quake near Cuadrilla site is on par with one in 2011 that led to moratorium

Residents of Blackpool have reported feeling the tremors of an earthquake from nearby fracking operations that started two months ago.

The minor earthquake was not only the biggest yet but was on a par with one in 2011 that led to a moratorium on fracking.

The 1.5-magnitude quake occurred at about 11.20am on Tuesday, shortly after the shale gas company Cuadrilla resumed fracking after a month-long break. The firm’s Preston New Road site is about one mile to the east of Blackpool.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a way of extracting natural gas from shale rock formations that are often deep underground. It involves pumping water, chemicals and usually sand underground at high pressure to fracture shale – hence the name – and release the gas trapped within to be collected back at the surface.

The technology has transformed the US energy landscape in the last decade, owing to the combination of high-volume fracking – 1.5m gallons of water per well, on average – and the relatively modern ability to drill horizontally into shale after a vertical well has been drilled.

In England, the government placed a moratorium on fracking in November 2019 after protestslegal challenges and planning rejections. A year earlier, the energy company Cuadrilla was forced to stop work at its Preston New Road site in Lancashire twice in four days due to minor earthquakes occurring while it was fracking. The tremors breached a seismic threshold imposed after fracking caused minor earthquakes at a nearby Cuadrilla site in 2011. In March 2019 the high court ruled that the government's fracking guidelines were unlawful because they had failed to sufficiently consider scientific evidence against fracking.

The tremor was far higher than the regulatory threshold of 0.5 magnitude – the level at which firms have to stop fracking, which involves pumping high volumes of water, sand and chemicals underground to fracture rock and release the gas within.

The company said it would pause and continue to monitor seismic activity for the next 18 hours, in line with the regulatory regime, before resuming on Wednesday.

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In October, Cuadrilla repeatedly fell foul of tremors which breached the threshold, and is understood to have spent November carrying out tests with much smaller volumes of water.

The firm appears to have restarted higher-volume fracking on Monday, when the first tiny tremors were registered.

Tony Bosworth, a Friends of the Earth campaigner, said: “Within a day of Cuadrilla restarting fracking in Lancashire, there has already been another earthquake which means they’ve had to down tools.”

Labour said the tremors were disturbing but not surprising. “The government cannot block their ears any longer to community voices and climate scientists. They must act in the public interest and follow Labour’s call to ban fracking immediately,” said Rebecca Long Bailey, shadow business secretary.

The British Geological Survey said it had received reports from five people in Blackpool who had felt the tremors.

The Oil and Gas Authority, the regulator for the “traffic light system” covering seismicity caused by fracking, said the tremors would be similar to vibrations from a passing lorry or coach.

Tom Wheeler, the OGA’s director of regulation, said: “This is the largest seismic event triggered by the Preston New Road operations to date and it may have been felt by some people close to the site.”

Despite the hold-ups caused by the earthquakes and regulatory regime, Cuadrilla is understood to be on track to complete its fracking operation by the end of December. In total there have been 47 minor earthquakes since mid-October.


Adam Vaughan

The GuardianTramp

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