The shale gas firm Cuadrilla has said commercial fracking cannot go ahead in the UK unless rules on minor earthquakes are relaxed, after admitting it had only been able to frack a tiny section of its gas well near Blackbool because of seismicity regulations.
The company became the first to frack in the UK for years when it started operations last October at its Preston New Road site but was repeatedly forced to pause work for causing tremors that breached a 0.5-magnitude limit.
In a statement on Wednesday, the company revealed that less than 5% of the well had been fracked, or only two of the 41 so-called fracking stages along the well.
The rules had “severely constrained” the volume of sand that could be injected along with chemicals and water to fracture the shale rock and release the gas within. It used less than 14% of the sand, which helps to keep the fractures open, than it had intended to.
Francis Egan, the company’s chief executive, said: “We haven’t been able to inject as much sand into the shale rock as we planned and it’s true that without enough sand we can’t flow the gas back in commercial quantities.”
However, the firm said fracking had confirmed a “rich reservoir” of gas, flowing at a peak of 200,000 cubic feet a day. From that data, the company has estimated a flow of 3-8m cubic feet a day if it was able to frack the entire length of the well.
Cuadrilla called on the government and its regulator, the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA), to carry out a review of the earthquake rules, known as the “traffic light system”. Ineos, a rival fracking firm run by the UK’s richest person, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, earlier this week demanded a review of the limits, saying they had “no sound basis in science” and were unworkable.
Cuadrilla said any decisions on further fracking of the well, and a second well that it has drilled but not yet fracked, would be subject to the outcome of any such review.
Geologists advising the OGA, including Dr Brian Baptie of the British Geological Survey, have said the limits could be safely lifted to as high as 1.5-magnitude.
But the energy minister, Claire Perry, has repeatedly said she has no plans for a review and it would be a “foolish politician” who relaxed the regulations. The Guardian revealed last year that she had told a Tory MP the rules could be loosened as the industry develops, but she subsequently rowed back on the idea.
Egan said: “Cuadrilla and its investors remain committed to this opportunity … All we ask now is that we are treated fairly, with comparable seismic and ground vibration levels to similar industries in Lancashire and elsewhere in the UK.”
Environmentalists said if fracking firms could not proceed under the current rules, they should not go ahead in the UK.
John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace UK, said: “Cuadrilla have practically admitted they can’t make fracking work under the safety rules they’ve been boasting about for years. If they can’t, then they shouldn’t.”