THE starting gun was yesterday fired on the licensing process that could bring fracking to East Lancashire residents doorsteps within five years.
The M65 corridor north of Blackburn through Burnley to Colne and down the Rossendale valley is included in the three-month bidding process.
Half-a-dozen licence blocks are likely to cover the area identified in June by the British Geological Survey as sitting on huge reserves of shale gas – seen by some as the future of energy production in the UK.
Neither of the two major firms currently involved in exploratory drilling in the North West, Cuadrilla and Igas, have ruled out bidding for a licence in East Lancashire.
The British Geological Survey’s study of shale gas resources in Lancashire doubled estimates of reserves and extended the potential drilling area from the Fylde near Blackpool right across the East of the county.
Manchester University geology professor Ernie Rutter, who last year said the M65 corridor was a ‘prime target’ for fracking, said it could take just three years for a company to proceed from getting an exploratory licence to full shale gas production.
He added drilling firms now had to assess the geological information and decide whether to ‘gamble’ on buying one of the £1,400 licences.
Taking one out guarantees up to 31 years exclusive rights to any gas discovered in the ‘Bowland Shale’ underneath East Lancashire.
However companies will have to pass a significant number of regularity hurdles and face down strong local protests to exploit the reserves.
Energy Minister Matthew Hancock imposed tough restrictions on any experimental drilling in Britain's top beauty spots including National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and World Heritage Sites.
Anti-fracking campaigners demanded similar restrictions apply to East Lancashire.
Fracking involves blasting water, chemicals and sand at high pressure into shale rock formations to release the gas and oil held inside.
Environmentalists argue it causes water contamination and earth tremors. The industry is confident the process can be done safely.
A spokesman for Cuadrilla, currently working in West Lancashire, said: “We are pleased with the announcement and will be carefully assessing the exploration acreage included, whilst maintaining our immediate focus on securing planning consents for our proposed shale gas exploration sites in Lancashire.”
A spokeswoman for Igas, currently working at Barton Moss in Salford and on Merseyside, said: “We will be keeping our options on and will examine the position regarding exploratory licences in East Lancashire.”
Lancashire’s only Green Party county councillor Gina Downing said: “The government has admitted fracking is too dirty and dangerous for England national parks.
“If so, it is too dirty and dangerous for the beautiful countryside of East Lancashire.”
Jane Wood of ‘Keep East Lancashire Frack-Free’ said: “Shale gas will not bring energy security and ‘keep the lights on’ in the near future. There would not be significant UK shale gas production until 2020.
“Whilst the government wishes to protect areas of natural beauty, the fracking industry would impact more on northern England rather than the South. “ Burnley MP Gordon Birtwistle welcomed the news that East Lancashire was in the licensing round, the first since 2008.
“I say bring it on,” he said. “It will provide the nation with energy security and our area with jobs and prosperity.”
The licences last six years for exploration then, provided work has started, another five for a development plan and 20 for production.
Pendle Peer Lord Greaves added: “It will be years before we see fracking in East Lancashire based on the tortured geological nature of the area.”
The pros and cons of fracking
Those in favour of fracking claim:
- Shale gas potentially can go a long way towards meeting UK energy needs for up to 60 years
- It could reduce substantially the UK’s dependence on gas shipped from Russian, the Middle East or Asia
- It should stabilise domestic gas prices
- It produces less greenhouse gas emissions than coal burning
- It could power a new industrial renaissance, creating new jobs in areas where they are desperately needed
- There will be cash compensation to communities, councils and landowners affected built into the regulatory scheme
- To extract even 10 per cent of the gas under Lancashire could require between 50,000 and 100,000 wells
- This could mean the industrialisation of the countryside, with thousands of trucks and plummeting property prices
- It would have little or no impact on household energy bills
- The promised boom in local jobs would never happen
- It would cause contamination to water courses polluting the countryside possibly affecting domestic water supplies
- It would accelerate global warming and climate change