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Special Digest

Are Cuadrilla fracking at Balcombe?

8th August 2013.

Cuadrilla say they are not fracking at Balcombe. West Sussex County Council believe them. Is this true? This seems a typical case of Cuadrilla having their cake and eating it. When they want to persuade us that fracking has been happening in the UK for decades, so we are safe, they say 200 onshore wells have been fracked here. Certainly there have been carried out various well "stimulation" techniques. Because the target formations have been easier-accessed than shale they have not required extreme techniques that we now associate with high-volume, high-pressure injection of water and chemical cocktail and involvong horizontally-drilled wells.

One of those techniques has involved use of acid. This has been various described as acid washing, acid etching, acid stimulation and acid fracturing. The difference is only one of degree. The intention of acid washing is to clear away drilling debris and mud from a wellbore, and thereby open up the well to access naturally-occurring fractures in the rock. If we call it etching we assume that the acid does more than just a cleaning out process, but starts breaking down the target shale. More aggressive use of acid creates bigger new splits in the rock.

Where do the dividing lines between the terminologies drawn? No-one seems to know. EA doesn't know, and certainly West Sussex County Council don't know. They accept it when Cuadrilla says it is acid washing but not fracking. They believe Cuadrilla because they have limited experience, and they have the non-expert civil servant mentality of trusting what applicants tell them.

So Cuadrilla can tell us when it suits them loads of UK wells have been fracked (including by acid washing) but when it doesn't suit them they say they are not using extreme hydraulic methods so it isn't fracking.

They are playing fast and loose with the English language, but more importantly they are pulling the wool over the planning authority's eyes.

There are several planning issues here. Cuadrilla currently have an application granted (it runs out on 28th September) which includes hydraulic fracturing. Cuadrilla stated use of water and sand. They got Environment Agency and DECC approval for the drilling on the basis that they are not fracking. Again WSCC believes that. HOWEVER, the planning conditions for the existing permission do NOT cover acid washing, this was not included in Cuadrilla's description of its drilling programme which formed the basis of their planning condition number 3, that all operations should be strictly in accordance with the information they had supplied.

WSCC have failed to respond to the suggestion that this means Cuadrilla should be applying for an amendment of planning condition, as they were forced to do for their new flare plans. This is not acceptable.

Also unacceptable is WSCC insisting that they can grant a 6 month renewal of planning permission and this does not require an Environmental Impact Assessment because Cuadrilla now SAY they won't use fracking , and don't currently have EA and DECC consent for fracking.

In my opinion the application for extentsion can NOT change any other condition. In practice, Cuadrilla, on granting of a new extra 6 month consent could go immediately to the EA and DECC requesting a new permit for fracking. WSCC will then be sitting looking pretty damn stupid.

In June WSCC were saying they saw an extension of Cuadrilla's permission only being achieved through an application for a completely fresh application. In July they had backtracked and allowed an application for extension as a "minor material amendment". What happened between June and July to make this change of heart?

WSCC has also said that no EIA is required for the extension because Cuadrilla haven't got EA and DECC permits for fracking, which would, one assumes, then have convinced them an EIA was required. As I have said, Cuadrilla could go straight away to get those permits during the extension period. The lack of EA/DECC permits is not a factor which should have been taken into account when deciding an EIA was not necessary.

WSCC have already been brought to task by FoE for not requiring an EIA in 2010. The application WAS very definitely for fracking then (and as I say, nothing has changed now). FoE said they did not see how WSCC could have lawfully arrived at the decision that an EIA was not necessary.

Now we have reports from Balcombe that Cuadrilla have been delivering silica to their site. Our information is that this was amorphous silica (which can be a synonym of silicon dioxide sand). On the assumption this is silica sand, there is only one use which we can see for this. As a proppant to keep open the fractures that have been accessed by the acid stimulation, or as they call it, cleaning or washing.

Are Cuadrilla attempting to hoodwink DECC, the EA and WSCC? Are they fracking?

I leave you to decide. In the recently isued government guidance hydraulic fracturing was defined this way (my bold and italics):
"Hydraulic fracturing is the process of opening and/or extending existing narrow fractures or creating new ones (fractures are typically hairline in width) in gas or oil- bearing rock, which allows gas or oil to flow into wellbores to be captured."

Significantly, the Environment Agency told me in an email "we are comfortable with the definition of hydraulic fracturing given in the planning guidance notes."

Why might Cuadrilla not want to have their exploration seen as fracking? A number of reasons spring to mind why they should be tempted. Firstly, to ensure getting planning and permits, secondly to lessen public concern, thirdly to avoid paying 100,000 for an exploratory well under the government's new bribery plans. Plus the inexperience of the planning authority and the regulatory bodies.

In Banks, Lancashire they have attempted to say that further exploration testing is not fracking. They say they will use DFIT (Diagnostic Fracture Injection Test). This is a pre-frack procedure, and it seems to me the whole point is to get to and measure the point at which fractures are initiated in the rock. One of DFIT's industry nicknames is a mini-frac. Yet again Cuadrilla say they are not fracing. As I say, you make your own mind up, but I know which direction my own thoughts are pointing. Cuadrilla's tests are fracking.

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