- Cuadrilla submits new planning application
- Large pad with 4 horizontal shale gas wells
- Plan to be drilled and fracked over 2 years
- Second site nearby, application public soon
- Plans tailored to hide impacts at this stage
- Trying to advance project without opposition
- But application reveals many lurking issues
- Would become critical at production stage
- One site takes 7% of region’s spare water
- Full scale fracking would overwhelm system
- Threat to water supply of 6.6 million people
- Site would use 65% of fracking waste capacity
- Vast new frac waste disposal system needed
- Most waste not treatable, would accumulate
- Site requires over 20,000 vehicle movements
- Production needs water/waste storage ponds
- Wake up call for communities to get organised
The push to frack the UK has reached a new intensity with the arrival of new planning applications in Lancashire from fracking company Cuadrilla Resources. These plans are still just for exploration, since full scale production would require the involvement of a much larger company with the money to drill hundreds or thousands of wells. However, if allowed to go ahead Cuadrilla would be one step closer to that goal. This would be the first multi-well shale gas site in the UK and the first massive slickwater hydraulic fracturing conducted since Cuadrilla caused a number of earthquakes at its Preese Hall site (now being abandoned) in 2011.
Even these test wells could have significant impacts on local people, but the bigger picture is the massive threat posed if these sites allowed the industry to get a foothold in the UK. Cuadrilla is bragging that there is 330 trillion cubic feet of shale gas under their licence (PEDL 165) in Lancashire. No one knows exactly how much gas it might be possible to extract, but it would be a small percentage. To extract even 1 percent would require drilling 3,300 wells (based on the average total production from US shale gas wells – PDF, page 8). Producing 4 percent of this claimed gas could require in excess of a staggering 12,000 wells.
The main planning application (LCC/2014/0096) is for a frack pad off Preston New Road, near Little Plumpton on the Fylde in Lancashire. A second application for a similar site near Roseacre, about 5 miles to the northwest, has just been submitted but is not yet public. An ancillary application (LCC/2014/0097) deals with constructing a seismic monitoring array comprising 90 buried, and surface monitors within 2.5 miles of the site. The main Preston New Road application runs to over 1,000 pages with an additional 3,200 pages in the accompanying environmental statement.
Cuadrilla have also submitted an application to the Environment Agency for a set of permits: EPR/AB3101MW/A001 (Mining Waste), EPR/KB3395DE/A001 (Radioactive Substances Activity) and EPR/BB3093RH/A001 (Groundwater Activity). These permits cover the management of mining waste (drill cuttings and drilling mud), the flaring of gas, the storage and disposal of radioactive waste (primarily radium contaminated flowback fluid) and the discharge of pollutants which could affect groundwater (injection of chemicals during hydraulic fracturing).
Cuadrilla’s plans at Preston New Road involve constructing a 1.55 hectare (3.83 acre) well pad along with an associated access road, ditches, bunds and fencing, and potentially a gas pipeline connection. The total area of the surface works would be 7.34 hectares (18.14 acres). After drilling an initial vertical well through the Bowland Shale to a depth of approximately 11,500 ft, an up to 1.25 mile long horizontal sidetrack would be drilled and fractured. Three additional wells, with horizontal sections, would then be drilled and fractured. This program is planned to take around two years (see work plan below).
It seems clear that the plans for the second site at Roseacre will be pretty similar, when they emerge. The prize for all this effort would be data on gas flow rates etc. from the wells which could be used to try to convince a much larger company (with the resources needed to drill thousands of wells) to buy Cuadrilla, and take the project forward. The selection of these sites and the methodical (and expensive) way in which the development is planned, seems calculated to conceal the negative impacts at this initial stage. Cuadrilla is clearly hoping that this will allow them to advance a step closer to their goal, without to much opposition. Obviously a potential buyer would be looking at not just the geological data but also the social data, on the amount opposition.
Ironically by carefully examining the ways in which these plans deviate from the usual fracking industry practice in the US, it is possible to discern which impacts Cuadrilla are most concerned about covering up at this early stage. This can also shed considerable light on how the fracking industry could evolve in the UK, if it was allow to gain a foothold. Given the size of these documents it is likely they will provide a useful source of such insights (if scrutinised carefully) for some time to come. For now we have picked out a few of the more obvious points:
Cuadrilla envisage using between 5.9 and 8.9 million gallons of water to hydraulically fracture each well (PDF – Table 19.8), depending on the number of frac stages used (between 30 to 45). A frac stage involves isolating a small section of the well, forcing in fluid into it, before moving on to the next section. However, the planning documents suggest Cuadrilla was originally considering using 60 frac stages (PDF – page 593), which could require 12 million gallons, but scaled back its plans to reduce it’s massive water requirements.
Given that the trend in the US is towards using 60-100 stages per well (PDF), it seems likely that if production was allowed in the UK, the same practices would be used here. Cuadrilla imply that they will only work at a leisurely rate of one frac stage per day (PDF – page 609), but work on actual production wells (when costs must be cut to the bone and time is money) can often reach 5 or more frac stages per day (PDF – page 5), requiring a much higher rate of water use. Drilling the 4 wells would use an additional 1.9 million gallons for drilling mud etc.
While the planning documents attempt to demonstrate (not all that convincingly) that the water demands from the site would not affect existing users they also show how quickly the system would be overwhelmed if the industry scaled up to full production. For a more realistic 5 frac stages per day, a single frac job would be using 7 percent of typical spare water capacity (15.2 million gallons per day – PDF, page 598) in United Utilities’ “Integrated Resource Zone”, which stretches from the Wirral, Liverpool and Manchester up to Penrith in Cumbria.
If scaled to thousands of wells on hundreds of pads, when each pad’s peak water usage would be equivalent to a town of 20,000 people, the water supplies of 6.6 million people (PDF – page 4)could be under threat. Whether the “Integrated Resource Zone” as a whole could cope is one thing, but the local water mains system (where local residents already complain of low pressure) is also an issue. Note that it is likely Cuadrilla would be trying to develop the Preston New Road and Roseacre sites simultaneously, potentially doubling the amount of water required. Water supply for just this exploration phase already seems tight.
Cuadrilla are planning to use expensive sliding sleeve completion technology whose main selling point is the efficiency and speed with which a frac job can be completed. While the planned rate of one frac stage per day seems tuned to work within the existing water supply constraints, commercial production with 60 (or more) frac stages per well at rates of potentially a dozen or more stages per day, certainly would not. In the US some companies are bragging about rates of 24 frac stages in 10 hours, or more, with the latest technology.
Cudrilla estimate that 5.61 million gallon of radioactive waste (frac fluid which flows back contaminated with Radium-226, Radium-228 and Lead-210) will be produced during the initial flow testing phase for all 4 wells combined (PDF – Table 17.52). However, given that elsewhere they state they expect 40 percent of their frac fluid (i.e. 9.44 – 14.24 million gallons) to flowback during this period there appears to be a significant discrepancy in their numbers (which recycling can’t explain). They claim there will be an additional 7.71 million gallons of radioactive waste during the extended flow phase (PDF – Table 17.63).
No mention is made of other toxic materials, such as heavy metals and aromatic hydrocarbons, which may also be leached out of the target formation. Likewise no mention is made of where these materials (radioactive or otherwise) will eventually end up. Most of them (radioactive isotopes or heavy metals) cannot be treated out of existence and will accumulate wherever they are dumped. Mixing them into municipal sewage or re-injecting it underground, the two solutions most used in the US, have both proved extremely problematic. Once they reach their final destination, wherever that is, they will start to build up there.
Cuadrilla has identified existing waste facilities in the north of England, which they claim can treat the radioactive flowback fluid. Even leaving aside the oxymoron of “treating” this radioactive material, 65 percent of the capacity of the identified waste facilities would be taken up by the waste produced by just the Preston New Road site. The two sites combined would overwhelm existing capacity. In the light of this, it becomes clear why in the US the industry is desperately stuffing waste down old oil wells (causing earthquakes) or dumping it with sewage into rivers. They have no choice, given the massive volumes involved.
The Preston New Road site appears to have been chosen, with direct access off an A-road which connects to the M55, in order to provide a best case scenario in terms of transport. However, since production involves stamping out fracking sites on a grid, with little choice in their location, few would have such good connections to the road network. Cudrilla’s plans require over 20,000 vehicle movements during the life of the site, peaking at up to 100 vehicle movements per day. A large fraction of these will be HGVs.
It should be noted that the whole of Cuadrilla’s work program is spread over a much longer period, compared to production in the US. Drilling a shale gas well in the US usually takes 30 days or less rather than the 100 days Cuadrilla is planning, while hydraulic fracturing often takes less than 2 weeks rather than the planned 45 days. Commercial constrains would require similar work rates for production in the UK, increasing the maximum rate of vehicle movements by up to a factor of 3.
All this is without transporting water to the site by road. If the local water supply system was overwhelmed by the demand, which seems almost certain at the production phase, either dedicated pipelines would have to be built to bring the water from further afield or it would necessary to transport it by road. Supplying just one, 5 stage per day, frac job would require in excess of 200 extra HGV movements per day and add thousands more HGV movements to the total number of vehicle movements. Connection large numbers of dispersed sites to the gas network will present additional problems.
Cuadrilla’s plans involve storing the water for hydraulic fracturing in 20 steel tanks, each holding 40,000 gallons (800,000 gallons in total – PDF, page B9). This could handle the needs of one (or a few) frac stages but could not supply a modern production frac job, with 60 or more frac stages and rates in excess of 5 stages per day. However, as we have already seen bringing water onto a site at this rate involves significant issues. The alternative is to store up much greater volumes of water on site, or nearby.
The many million of gallons that would be needed, would require hundreds of steel tanks which would not fit on a pad, and in any case would likely be prohibitively expensive. In the light of this it becomes clear why so many frac pads in the US have massive, multi-million gallon water impoundments nearby (see image above). Similar ponds to store the frac waste produce are also often necessary if the rate at which it is being produced exceeds the rate at which it can be taken off site for treatment.
While it is often stated that these ponds (especially the waste ones) are illegal in the UK, the reality is that the source for this information (as with a lot of other such statements) can be traced to one throw away comment in an industry propaganda report (PDF -page 20). More recently it has been stated (PDF – page 21) that “the UK regulatory approach is not expected to to permit this practice”, which seems far less definitive. In the face of the hard reality that these ponds are an integral part of the process it seems unlikely that bureaucracy will stand in the way.
Cuadrilla’s aim is to gather data which it can use to tempt buyers/investors that could move Lancashire fracking operations forward into production, while the present owners walk away with a huge profit. Part of the data which investors will consider is how large, and organised, the opposition is. Now is the time for communities to come together to resist this threat. This is not just about objecting to the planning application (though that is a useful first step), because however many isolated individuals are against this, they can safely be ignored. Well organised communities on the other have a track record of killing such projects.
If this does not happen then there is a real threat of the fracking industry taking over Lancashire and then the UK. The massive and invasive nature of fracking, with vast numbers of wells, pipelines, compressor stations and associated infrastructure coating the landscape over huge areas leads to a whole host of impacts, including Water Contamination, Air Pollution, Radioactive Contamination, Human Health, Agriculture & Animal Health, Wildlife, Methane Migration, Climate Change, Fracking Waste,Water Usage, Earthquakes, Transport, Pipelines, Blowouts, Spills & Explosions, Frack Sand, Leaking Wells, Orphaned Wells, Industrialisation, Secrecy, Oppression, Corruption, and Boom & Bust.
Note: All volumes have expressed in US gallons in order to be easy compared with fracking in the US