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An effort to bring fracking to Britain hits pause

Last fall an energy company began a hydraulic fracturing operation in northwest England that it hoped would be a milestone in creating a new, domestic source of natural gas for Britain — in much the same way that fracking has taken hold in the United States.

[LONDON] Last fall an energy company began a hydraulic fracturing operation in northwest England that it hoped would be a milestone in creating a new, domestic source of natural gas for Britain — in much the same way that fracking has taken hold in the United States.

Three months later, after regularly causing earthquakes, the fracking has stopped, and the company has begun pulling some equipment from the site.

The company, Cuadrilla Resources, says it will continue to work in the cow pasture near Blackpool in Lancashire, seeking to extract natural gas economically and safely from the shale rocks. But so far, its results have failed to win over skeptics.

Some gas has bubbled up through the fracking liquids in its well, demonstrating that the rock formation Cuadrilla was exploring, known as the Bowland Shale, indeed contains some fuel. But the company was forced to suspend fracking at least four times when the work led to earthquakes that exceeded a magnitude of 0.5, the upper limit set by British regulators. There were also many smaller tremors.

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This stop-and-go added to the company's costs while doing little in Britain to improve the public image of fracking, which involves injecting special fluids under high pressure to free up gas trapped in shale rock. Cuadrilla is also running behind its original schedule: The company indicated in October that it planned to drill and frack two wells in three months, but has so far fracked just one.

"It's not gone very well," said Peter Styles, an emeritus professor of geophysics at Keele University, who has advised the British government and industry on fracking and seismic matters. "They've probably lost the public argument."

With fracking halted, trucks have been taking pumps and other heavy fracking gear off the site, leading to local speculation that Cuadrilla might be throwing in the towel, something that the company denies.

Cuadrilla said in an email that it was shifting its focus from fracking to testing how much gas can be coaxed from the well. Such flow rates are important in determining whether shale gas drilling is commercially viable. The company said it was returning equipment that was not needed for this purpose. Cuadrilla is owned by a Wall Street investment firm, Riverstone Holdings, and an Australian drilling services company, AJ Lucas.

At the same time, the company has been lobbying the government to lift the limits on earth tremors so it can speed up the fracking process and, possibly, permit more powerful pumping.

"We would like to see our data and experience considered as a starting point to revisit the limits, whilst ensuring public safety and confidence is maintained," the company said in its email.

In October, Francis Egan, Cuadrilla's chief executive, used stronger language, warning in an interview with The Financial Times that the fracking industry "could be strangled at birth" unless rules were eased. Frackers in the United States have also encountered earthquake problems, though the thresholds in North America for stopping work are typically greater than magnitude 2.0, F. Todd Davidson, a research associate at the Energy Institute of the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in an email.

Other companies pursuing shale in Britain, like Igas Energy and Ineos, a large petrochemical company with shale interests, have also called for a review of the rules.

The government has rejected any appeals to loosen its regulations. On Nov 2, in a letter obtained by Greenpeace, Claire Perry, the minister of state for clean growth and energy, wrote to Mr Egan that "the government believes the current system is fit for purpose and has no intention of altering it."

Ms Perry also noted that Cuadrilla's fracturing plan was "developed and reviewed over several months with reference to existing regulations" and that "at no point did you communicate that it would not be possible to proceed without a change in regulations."

The tremors have not posed a threat to life or property, according to experts. The British Geological Survey, a research organisation that had placed monitors around Cuadrilla's fracking site, reported that only two of the tremors — including the largest one, on Dec 11, which registered magnitude 1.5 — were felt by residents in the area.

"All of the events have been extremely small," said Brian Baptie, one of the organisation's seismologists. "The regulations are doing their job" in preventing earthquakes that might disturb the public, he said.

Mr Baptie said that the British rules had been set at "very, very conservative" levels. As more data becomes available, he said, there could be "scope" for modifying the thresholds to perhaps a limit of 1.0. He warned, though, that increasing the amounts of liquids injected might also increase the probability of larger seismic events. In western Canada, for instance, fracking was blamed for a substantial 4.8-magnitude earthquake in 2016.

Still, the fact that any tremors were recorded may prove a setback for the industry. "It has demonstrated quite clearly that they cannot undertake the fracking process without causing earthquakes," said Miranda Cox, a local councilor in Kirkham, which is about 3 miles from the site, and an opponent of fracking.