Fracking in the UK will be impossible on a significant scale and will not help tackle the energy price crisis, the founder of the UK’s first fracking company has warned.
Chris Cornelius, the geologist who founded Cuadrilla Resources, which drilled the UK’s first modern fracking wells in Lancashire, told the Guardian he thought government support was just a “gesture Politics”.
“I don’t think there is a chance of fracking in the UK in the short term.”
He said when Cuadrilla operated here, she discovered the UK’s geology was not suitable for large-scale fracking operations. “No sane investor” would take the risk of embarking on big projects here, he said. “It’s a very difficult geology, compared to North America [where fracking is a major industry].”
Unlike gaseous shale deposits in the US, the UK’s shale resource is “heavily faulted and compartmentalised”, making it much more difficult to exploit on any scale.
Liz Truss, the Prime Minister, has made it clear she supports fracking and will lift the moratorium in place since 2019, although it remains to be seen where and how sites will be permitted. She said she hoped to see gas from fractured sites within six months.
But Cornelius said “that wouldn’t happen.” Truss’ decision to greenlight fracking “will have no impact” on the UK’s energy supply, he told the Guardian in an interview. “It makes for some good soundbites but I can’t see anything happening,” he said.
Longer term, he said it was possible there would be a few localized operations, but they would be small and unable to make a significant contribution to the UK’s energy needs. “They’ll never be on a large scale, because the investment costs are a huge issue,” he said.
Writing in today’s Guardian, Cornelius and his former colleague, Mark Linder, who handled public affairs for Cuadrilla in its early days, said the UK was over-regulated, having “identified the sector of energy for regulations that impede operations that are standard in agriculture”. and other industries”. But Cornelius said that was unlikely to change and frackers would not be given “social license” to operate.
Cuadrilla, founded in 2007, was the first company to use modern hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technology in the UK on dense shale rock, first at a site in Lancashire in 2011 and continuing through 2018. Shale rocks, containing tiny pockets of methane, are blasted with a mixture of sand, water and chemicals to create cracks through which the gas can escape, to be siphoned to the surface.
However, Cuadrilla soon ran into problems, including its inability to report damage to an exploration well, and as public awareness of fracking grew, protests began at sites and potential sites. In 2018, a magnitude 1.5 earthquake at its site near Blackpool caused hydraulic fracturing to stop. In February this year, the company said its wells – the only two wells to be horizontally drilled and hydraulically fractured in the UK – would be “plugged and abandoned”, in accordance with instructions from the regulator.
Cornelius resigned from Cuadrilla in 2014, after former oil company BP chief Lord Browne took over as chairman. Browne left in 2015. The company declined to comment on Cornelius’ views.
Cuadrilla has spent “hundreds of millions of pounds”, according to its managing director, Francis Egan, in its efforts to start a hydraulic fracturing operation. However, the company never produced gas for sale.
Egan welcomed the announcement this month to lift the moratorium, but the company has yet to say whether it will open any wells.
Cornelius, an academic geologist, remains a strong advocate for fracking – “it’s been used safely all over the world, across the United States, with no problem” – and shale gas, but said geology of the UK and the densely populated nature of the UK countryside has made it impossible to set up a commercially viable fracking business here.
For Truss, promoting fracking was “primarily a political decision — they have to be seen to be doing something,” Cornelius said. “It doesn’t make economic sense. I don’t think sane people put money into it.
He added: “It’s a sad situation. It’s a disappointment. 10 years ago there was an opportunity to look at this [fracking] reasonably, but that opportunity has now passed. It was worth looking into then, but it’s not practical now.
Writing in today’s Guardian, Cornelius and Linder call for investment in key technologies they believe are more likely to generate energy than hydraulic fracturing, including geothermal and tidal power .
Cornelius, who in 2014 also tried to start fracking under the Irish Sea with a project known as Nebula, which never became operational, is involved in a geothermal consortium called Triassic Power, which is evaluating the potential of using hot water found underground in certain geological formations in the UK as a source of energy. He has no commercial interest in tidal energy.
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