The UK’s only two shale wells are to be abandoned, ending more than a decade of controversy over fracking in this country.
The firm said it would permanently seal the shale gas wells, even as chief executive Francis Egan hit out at the move, claiming domestic shale gas could combat the cost-of-living crisis, create jobs, level up Red Wall areas and make the UK more energy secure.
But the news was welcomed by environmentalists who have long campaigned against the controversial process, and who called for investment in “better, greener homes” to cut energy bills and climate emissions.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a process in which liquid is pumped deep underground at high pressure to fracture shale rock and release gas or oil trapped within it.
The process has been mired in controversy since it hit the headlines in 2011 for causing two minor earthquakes in Lancashire, prompting a temporary ban on fracking in the UK.
That was later lifted, with controls put in place to prevent tremors, but fracking continued to draw opponents who fear it can also cause water contamination, noise and traffic pollution.
Environmentalists also warn that pursuing new sources of gas – a fossil fuel – is not compatible with efforts to tackle climate change, and the focus should be on developing cleaner sources of energy such as renewables.
Fracking at Preston New Road was suspended indefinitely after a record-breaking tremor measuring 2.9 on the Richter scale in August 2019.
A few months later the Government announced a moratorium on shale gas extraction, on the basis of evidence that it was not possible to accurately predict tremors associated with fracking.
The OGA has now issued instructions that the wells be plugged and abandoned, which is being fulfilled by Cuadrilla.
Mr Egan said the company had spent hundreds of millions of pounds establishing the viability of shale gas deposits in the region, and once the wells were filled with cement it would be “incredibly costly and difficult” to rectify the “mistake”.
“At a time when the UK is spending billions of pounds annually importing gas from all corners of the globe, and gas prices for hard-pressed UK households are rocketing, the UK Government has chosen this moment to ask us to plug and abandon the only two viable shale gas wells in Britain.
“Shale gas from the North of England has the potential to meet the UK’s energy needs for decades to come, yet ministers have chosen now, at the height of an energy crisis, to take us to this point.”
He said he did not think the decision had been properly thought through.
But the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the shale gas from fracking was “not a short-term fix and it’s still unproven as a resource in the UK”.
He said: “The development of domestic energy sources including fracking must be safe and cause minimal disruption and damage to those living and working nearby.
“We ended support for fracking based on scientific evidence so any further development would need to go through the necessary processes including environmental permitting and planning consents.
“It would take years of exploration and development before commercial quantities of shale gas could be produced.
“Even if the moratorium were lifted tomorrow there’s unlikely to be sufficient quantities of gas available to address the high prices affecting all of Europe and would have no impact on prices in the short term.”
Pressed if No 10 was looking again at the fracking decision, he responded: “No.”
Greenpeace UK’s head of climate Kate Blagojevic criticised the suggestion that shale gas could help with the energy crisis, saying the same claim had been made a decade ago.
“Years later, all this industry has given us are a couple of holes in a muddy field and some minor earthquakes.”
She said shale supporters were forced to concede that fracking was not going to lower energy bills, with new gas resources taking years to develop and then sold to the highest bidder on the international market, barely making a dent on global prices.
“The solution to the energy crisis isn’t more gas, but better, greener homes,” she added.
“That’s why the UK Government should start an ambitious nationwide programme to insulate our poor-quality houses. This would cut both energy bills and climate-wrecking emissions.”