Cuadrilla, the company spearheading Britain’s shale gas industry, will frack a second well in Lancashire in a last roll of the dice before its planning permission expires in November.
The decision comes just a few months after the UK government’s “fracking tsar” resigned saying that overly tight regulation was throttling the nascent industry.
Fracking advocates claim that it could transform Britain’s energy system but is strongly opposed by environmental campaigners.
Francis Egan, Cuadrilla’s chief executive admitted this year that it was not possible to produce shale gas commercially within the rules currently governing the industry.
Cuadrilla will frack a second well that has already been drilled at its Preston New Road site near Blackpool in a last-ditch attempt to gather enough data to persuade policymakers and regulators that rules on seismicity should be relaxed.
Under regulations known as the “traffic light” system, fracking companies must suspend work if they trigger earthquakes measuring 0.5 on the Richter scale or above.
Companies that want to produce shale gas — which includes Ineos, the privately owned petrochemicals group — argue the current limits are unworkable and far below levels permitted for fracking in the US, typically around 4.0 on the Richter scale.
Cuadrilla has been urging the UK’s oil and gas regulator to review the traffic light system based on data provided from its work, a request that has so far been rebuffed.
Cuadrilla was only able to partially frack its first well after having to suspend work on multiple occasions last year because of earth tremors that exceeded the allowed limit.
Mr Egan said: “It remains the case that we are the only UK operator currently able to move forward and provide more data to support an expert review of this threshold and we intend to do so. I am looking forward to demonstrating over coming months that this remains an entirely safe and hugely exciting opportunity for the UK.”
Cuadrilla has secured permission from the Environment Agency, a government body, to use a different mix of chemicals for fracking, a process that involves pumping water, sand and chemicals deep under the ground at high pressure to release gas from rock formations.
Mr Egan said this “more viscous” combination is expected to “improve operational performance under the uniquely challenging microseismic regulations”.
The company, whose backers including the private equity group Riverstone Holdings, has until November 30 before its planning permission expires.
Cuadrilla and Ineos are fighting for a change in regulation at a time when climate change has gone to the top of the political agenda. The UK recently became the first G20 economy to legislate for a 2050 net zero carbon emissions target, and earlier this year parliament declared a climate emergency.
Mr Egan argued that hydrogen could be produced from shale and be a “key ingredient” in decarbonising heating in Britain. He believes hydrogen could replace gas boilers to heat homes while the emissions caused by fracking could be captured and stored.
But Jamie Peters, Friends of the Earth campaigner, said: “Fracking just isn’t viable and investment in renewables and energy efficiency is clearly the answer. Fundamentally, at a time when the government have declared a climate emergency, the last thing we should be doing is starting an industry that extracts gas — a fossil fuel, along with coal and oil, that should be left where it is.”
In April, Natascha Engel, a former Labour MP, quit her role as commissioner for shale gas after only six months, claiming that a “perfectly viable industry is being wasted” and policy was being driven by “environmental lobbying rather than science”.