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Fracking in Lancashire: the beginning and the end?

It started in Lancashire.

In 2011 Cuadrilla Resources, a company chaired by ex-BP head Lord Browne, started the first high-pressure frack in the UK at its site at Preese Hall, Lancashire. The fracking set off two minor earthquakes shaking the resort of Blackpool and – we found out much later – sheering the head off their drill.

In response the government imposed a two-year moratorium on fracking in the UK. The temporary ban made it appear the government cared, and with Preese Hall out of action the fracking industry had nowhere else they could frack anyway, so they weren’t much inconvenienced. But a lot can happen in two years, and a lot did happen.

In June 2013, when Cuadrilla arrived in the Sussex village of Balcombe to start another exploration for shale gas, people were ready for them. The result was the largest environmental protest seen in this country since the 1990s. Scores of people were arrested, including Green Party leader and MP Caroline Lucas. Cuadrillla finished and left town, with no plans to return.

In November that year rival company IGas arrived at Barton Moss, on the outskirts of Greater Manchester, to begin another test drill. Once again, a camp appeared by the side of the road and convoys were ‘slow walked’ in and out. Every now and again increasingly ingenious lock-ons would appear, blocking the gates completely until they could be removed.

Once the press arrived on the scene the events at Barton Moss, and the huge anti-fracking marches that took place in Manchester city centre, were broadcast on Northwest TV. Until this time the campaign against fracking in Lancashire had been one of countless small meetings in people’s homes and village halls, and the slow winning over of individual Parish and County Councillors. The events in Manchester though were of a much higher profile, and helped bring the issue to life.

As the campaign in Manchester wound down – with IGas pulling out and showing no sign of returning – the campaign in Lancashire was coming to a head. Lancashire County Council would have to vote on whether they would allow Cuadrilla Resources to drill at Preston New Road near Blackpool, and in the quiet village of Roseacre.

The decision was postponed and postponed again. Councillors complained that the system appeared to be rigged against local democracy. They could only reject fracking on certain grounds and the council’s own legal advice suggested that the they could face stiff legal penalties for getting the decision wrong. The finale of the democratic process came on a crisp, clear January day in 2015. A large crowd had gathered outside as the councillors held their final deliberations. When the result of the vote was announced they were ecstatic - LCCC rejected both sites.

But it was always clear that this would not be the end. The Tory government was bending over backwards to facilitate the frackers. Lord Browne had appointed a raft of civil servants inside the government, and himself sat in the Cabinet as minister without portfolio. When Greenpeace got 45,000 people to sign up to a ‘legal block’, by refusing to allow fracking under their homes, the government changed the law so householders had no say on what went on under their feet.

Knowing this, Cuadrilla launched an appeal at the start of 2016. After more delays due to the seismic events in British politics that year, Local Government Minister Sayid Javid announced that the Preston New Road decision was being overturned. The decision on Roseacre was postponed.

In January the next year, work began on building the Preston New Road site, and so did the protests. At first it was all very civilised. Cuadrilla faced blockades due to ‘lock-ons’ and ‘lorry surfing’ on an almost daily basis, much to the exasperation of Lancashire County Council who, although they had opposed the development, now found themselves having to pay the bill for policing it.

In October 2018 – more than four years late – Cuadrilla announced they were ready to start fracking. Almost immediately British Geological Survey sensors started to detect earth tremors. These were very minor, so small that they probably would have gone undetected anywhere else in the country, but in Lancashire Cuadrilla had agreed strict limits. The big danger was, like at Preese Hall, they would fracture their borehole again, although without knowing what pressure Cuadrilla were using to cause these earth tremors it was impossible to guess at how serious the problem was.

Perhaps more significantly, when Cuadrilla asked the government to raise the seismic limit, they refused. The government was showing signs that it had expended enough political capital on the failed business of fracking. Increasing it also appeared that Cuadrilla’s backers may have given up expending their capital as well, and Cuadrilla’s share price tumbled. If Preston New Road failed the company still had its back up site at Roseacre, but agreeing to frack this idyllic country village would send shock waves through the Tory shires, where MPs fear the wrath of their constituents if fracking is allowed there. The situation does not look good for the fossil fuel dinosaurs.

So fracking in the UK started in Lancashire, and quite possibly it will end there too.

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