Lancashire fracking safety row

Fracking firm accuses Green Party co-leader of 'scaremongering' after he raises concerns over emergency procedures

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Cuadrilla chief executive Francis Egan has accused a Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley of “excessive scaremongering” after the politician raised concerns about emergency planning at the fracking firm’s Preston New Road site near Blackpool.

After Cuadrilla directors hosted a site visit by Bartley last week, he wrote to business secretary Greg Clark complaining that the company appeared to have no evacuation plan in the event of an emergency other than its standard health and safety protocol. He said he was raising the question on behalf of local residents.

Cuadrilla hopes to begin fracking shortly, after lodging an application with Clark, a process seen as a formality until he delayed a similar licence to Third Energy earlier this year due to concerns about its financial resilience, forcing the company to suspend plans for fracking in Kirby Misperton, North Yorkshire.

Cuadrilla has been confined to test drilling since 2011, when it was forced to stop fracking after it caused earthquakes at its nearby Preese Hall site. If it gets the go-ahead, it will be the first fracking in the country since then.

In his letter to Clark, Bartley wrote: “As you will know there have been several onshore frack well blowouts across the world and, in particular, a tragic one in the USA that killed five workers and resulted in an air and ground exclusion zone. Given the Preston New Road site’s proximity to domestic residences, schools, businesses and a busy arterial road many people are naturally concerned about the potential for accidents.”

He asked Clark if an emergency plan was needed, if he was satisfied that local emergency services were sufficiently well prepared for a well blowout or gas leak and if a risk assessment has been carried out on the potential for a leakage of hydrogen sulphide from the site to the surrounding atmosphere.

Bartley concluded: “It seems clear to me that a decision on whether to grant Cuadrilla a licence to frack should not be made until these matters have been investigated thoroughly and these questions answered satisfactorily.”

But Egan hit back, saying: “We were happy to facilitate Mr Bartley’s tour of our Preston New Road shale gas exploration site in Lancashire. However he is unnecessarily scaremongering saying there are insufficient emergency plans in place.

“The risk of an incident requiring implementation of an emergency plan has been fully assessed as part of our environmental permit applications and any risk of harm to the workers on site or to the public outside of the site is very low.

“Furthermore the emergency services have visited the site as required by the Borehole Site and Operational Regulations 1995. Cuadrilla does have an incident management plan, which details how Cuadrilla and the emergency services will respond if there was an incident at the site. All personnel and visitors to the site are made fully aware of emergency procedures.”

Bartley also raised concerns with Clark that emergency services in Lancashire were relying on a generic plan not publicly available.

But Lancashire County Council, part of the Lancashire Resilience Forum – which developed the generic plan – said this was in line with Cabinet Office guidance after the forum carried out an assessment at Preston New Road showing the risk of an emergency as medium.

“This means the level of risk does not warrant specific planning and can be covered by generic arrangements,” said a Lancashire County Council spokesperson. “The risk assessment will be reviewed at appropriate intervals in line with robust processes in place through the Lancashire Resilience Forum.”

The row took place as Cuadrilla reported a profit for the first time, generated in part from payments by Centrica, which has a stake in its Lancashire exploration license. But a consultant employed by Caudrilla’s part-owner, the Australian engineering group AJ Lucas, has produced a less optimistic estimate of the gas that can effectively be fracked in the Bowland Basin than Cuadrilla itself.

The pressure on Cuadrilla to make more progress towards fracking was underlined earlier this month when it won an interim injunction forbidding campaigners to trespass on Preston New Road and farmland around it, and prohibited unlawful obstruction of its entrance and unlawful disruption of its suppliers.

Egan said the court order does not restrict lawful protest but is “an important deterrence against unlawful protest”.

“We’re being silenced and buried from view because Cuadrilla have the power of influence”

Campaigners have until 10 July to challenge the interim injunction but, if they fail, the injunction will come into force in August and is wider than the one it replaces.

As protests at Preston New Road continue, campaigners have complained that artwork on nearby hedges and fences it had created was taken down by two local authorities.

Prominent anti-fracking activist Tina Rothery wrote: “As each method of expression is gagged, what remains? The recent injunction prevents us applying our bodies to protest and with our creative outlet through art now taken away, we’re being silenced and buried from view because Cuadrilla have the power of influence, the Conservatives support them and Lancashire County Council is weak and poor.”

Another activist, Ros Wills, noted the irony in artwork being taken down for health and safety reasons when “there is a toxic rig behind”.

Lancashire County Council insisted it took action because it has a responsibility to maintain highway safety and was concerned the artwork presented a distraction to motorists and obscured lines of sight for vehicles exiting the site.

Its spokesperson said: “We’re grateful to those protestors who helped to clean up this area by filling bags to be taken away by Fylde Borough Council.

“The material is in storage at our local highways depot and is available to be collected.”

A Fylde District spokesperson added: “Fylde Council has a responsibility to keep all highways clean from litter and debris. Over the last few weeks the council has received numerous complaints about littering.

“The clean-up in the area this week is necessary, and was actually started last week by some of the protestors. However the volume of litter and debris concerned required the council resources to get the task completed quickly.

“The litter and debris was having a detrimental visual impact on the area and whilst the council respects the right to protest peacefully the residents of Fylde take pride in the cleanliness of the borough and expect the council to fulfil its statutory responsibility to clean the streets.

“We would like to thank the residents and protesters on Preston New Road for their valued support and will continue to work with all parties to maintain a high level of cleanliness throughout the borough and safety on the highway.”

Last week the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering said it will update its 2012 report on fracking. It concluded that the risks from fracking were low and can be managed effectively, and was used extensively by government to back up its case. It will review international research produced since then and expects to comment further in winter.

Campaign group Frack Free United welcomed the review and called for a moratorium on fracking until the new report is published but said the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering should open up the process so that academics, scientists and community groups can submit evidence, rather than just reviewing published research.

Professor Peter Styles, emeritus professor at Keele University and a former Downing Street adviser, last month published a report mapping the extensive overlap between former coal mining sites, where seismic events occurred, and current fracking licence sites. In an interview with Drill or Drop last month, he warned of the risks of fracking near geological faults in former coal mining areas.

Commenting on news of the new report, he said: “While warmly welcoming the return of the Royal Societies to the fray, I would urge that they take care to include appropriate existing UK mining data into their appraisal and do not rely too much on either USA analogies or numerical models, no matter how sophisticated.”

“That Cuadrilla would effectively accuse them of scaremongering is profoundly disrespectful and adds insult to potential injury.”

Bartley too remained concerned. “The points put to Cuadrilla were those of the local residents,” he said. “They were relayed on their behalf and made at their request.

“The people of this community clearly have legitimate fears for their own safety. That Cuadrilla would effectively accuse them of scaremongering is profoundly disrespectful and adds insult to potential injury.

“The residents here aren’t driven by any ideological agenda. They are local people with very real and entirely understandable concerns. Cuadrilla should stop pointing the finger at residents and take a long hard look at its own failings.”

Photo: an anti-fracking protester with a tree sculpture hat adorned with handcuffs poses at the security fence of Cuadrilla’s site during a quiet day of continuing protests. Cuadrilla has applied for an extension and modification of an injunction to make protesting at their site illegal, and protesters have vowed to massively increase their campaign of protest, delay and obstruction in response.

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