Fracking: call for inquiry defeated as county council praises safety monitoring

Fracking has to stop whenever a tremor of more than 0.5 is recorded on the Richter scale.
Fracking has to stop whenever a tremor of more than 0.5 is recorded on the Richter scale.
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Councillors have clashed over the significance of recent earth tremors at the Preston New Road fracking site in Fylde.

A Lancashire County Council debate which started with a call to halt the process ended with a resolution which welcomed that the operation is “the most closely monitored in Europe”.

READ MORE >>> Largest tremor yet at Fylde fracking site

Energy firm Cuadrilla said the authority’s decision was “a great vote of confidence” in the company and its work at the Little Plumpton site.

Seismic activity in the area has forced fracking to be stopped on several occasions since it began in October. Earlier this week, the largest tremor to date was recorded - at a magnitude of 1.5 on the Richter scale.

READ MORE >>> What is happening at fracking site?

Leading the call for a long-term suspension of the process, deputy leader of the Labour opposition group, John Fillis, said the government should set up an independent inquiry into “what is going wrong”.

“How many people in this council believed that Lancashire [would have] earthquakes on a regular basis?” he asked.

“[Something] is going wrong because they have to keep stopping drilling.

“An independent report would also benefit the fracking companies, because they are trying to convince the public that this is alright - and yet there is serious disquiet.”

READ MORE >>> Council calls for cost of policing fracking site to be covered by government

But cabinet member for economic development and environment at the Conservative-run authority, Michael Green, told a meeting of the full council that the authorities regulating the site were themselves independent. He also warned councillors to avoid “misleading” language when talking about tremors.

While the British Gelogical Survey describes any seismic activity as an "earthquake", County Cllr Green said use of the term to refer to recent movements in Lancashire "is very unhelpful".

"It suggests the impacts are much greater than have actually been recorded,” he told members.

“The county council must treat this business in exactly the same way as it does any other which operates legitimately in Lancashire.

“Indications are that the [most recent] seismic event was induced by hydraulic fracturing - but compliance has been maintained with the environmental permit and traffic light [warning] system,” he added.

But County Cllr Green’s amendment to the Labour motion - removing the call for an inquiry and instead requesting that “all efforts continue to ensure safety” - sparked a furious response from some opposition councillors.

Independent member Paul Hayhurst, whose Fylde West division covers the Cuadrilla site, told County Cllr Green he was being “naive”. He added that an office worker at a nearby industrial estate described the most recent tremor as akin to “a car hitting the front door at speed”.

“If Cuadrilla [chief executive] Frances Egan gets his way, there will be thousands of sites in Lancashire - can you imagine the effect of them all facking at the same time?

“It’s not about being for or against fracking - this is about trying to protect people,” County Cllr Hayhurst said.

And Green Party councillor Gina Dowding condemned what she called “a wrecking motion”.

“What we need to be thinking about is what’s going on in the wells, not whether our tea cups are shaking. On the Richter scale 2 is not double 1 - it’s to the power of ten. Cuadrilla told us [the tremors] wouldn’t get above 0.5,” she said.

The amended motion was passed by a majority of three.

REACTION FROM THE ANTI-FRACKING FRONT LINE

Barbara Richardson, who regularly protests at the Preston New Road site and chairs the Roseacre Awareness Group - which campaigns against a proposed second fracking operation in Fylde - said councillors should have backed calls for an inquiry.

“I am disgusted at those who voted against the motion and weakened it with a political amendment,” she said.

“In my view, the comments made by Conservative councillors were disingenuous and inaccurate. Clearly, they have been listening to industry lobbyists.

“We call on this government to cease all operations at Preston New Road until a full and independent inquiry has been carried out, Ms. Richardson added.

“A GREAT VOTE OF CONFIDENCE”

A spokesperson for energy firm Cuadrilla said: “We are very pleased that the amendment was carried and recognised that our shale exploration site in Preston New Road is the most closely monitored in Europe.

“What a great vote of confidence for Cuadrilla and for Lancashire operations. The support we are getting at the moment is fabulous, from local people and businesses who recognise that what we are doing is not only safe and extremely well regulated but a hugely exciting economic opportunity for Lancashire.

“Our early results confirm the potential of this natural gas resource and we look forward to continuing to turn that potential into Lancashire jobs and more business for Lancashire companies in 2019.”