Anger over bid to extend the life of Preston New Road fracking site by two years

Cuadrilla has announced that it intends to apply for permission to extend “the currently approved period for the completion of all works” at its Little Plumpton operation. 

Although the move would not permit any further drilling or fracking at the site – approval for which has now expired – campaigners and the county councillor for the area have questioned the need for the time extension.

If granted, the application would give the firm until April 2025 to complete the decommissioning process and the restoration of the land, as required under its existing planning permission. A condition attached to that approval means that those works must be finished by 5th April. Cuadrilla was ordered by regulators back in February to plug and abandon its two wells at Preston New Road, but that demand was withdrawn just a month later when the North Sea Transition Authority said that they should instead be plugged temporarily – and until at least the end of June next year.

John Singleton – who represents the Fylde West division on Lancashire County Council – told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that he was shocked to learn of Cuadrilla’s latest application for more time before vacating the site.

“There is a clear steer from the government [on fracking] – there is a ban. So a two-year extension is totally out of the question and I would be expecting a date of March 2023 for that site to have undergone restoration.

“Why do they want to extend – what’s the reason? I’ll be objecting in the strongest possible terms,” said County Cllr Singleton, who warned that the proposal would cause “upset” amongst residents.

The county council’s Green Party group leader Gina Dowding – who regularly joined protests at the Little Plumpton site when it was being explored and drilled – said “it was time for the fracking industry to face up to the fact that the “writing [is] on the wall”.

“There is no future for fracking in this country – it’s a distraction from getting on with the real energy security measures that will solve the energy crisis. Investment in both renewables and energy efficiency for our homes are the way forward.

“The fact that [Cuadrilla] are applying for an extension will be deeply disappointing to local communities who just want peace of mind that this fracking experiment is truly over,” County Cllr Dowding said.

Anti-fracking campaigners also condemned Cuadrilla’s bid for a time extension, with a spokesperson for Frack Free Lancashire saying that there was “no justification” for it. They added: “The Preston New Road site should be finished and abandoned by April 2023. With the moratorium in place, as per the 2019 manifesto, and with Labour promising to ban fracking if they are elected, then the site has no future and it is time to end the stress and uncertainty that its continued existence causes the local community.”

Meanwhile, the Preston New Road Action Group (PNRAG) said that while they welcomed the fact that no application was being made for further drilling or fracking, they could not understand the reasoning for Cuadrilla’s request for more time to decommission.

“We are perplexed that [the firm is] asking for a further 24 months to restore the site. The deadline for this has always been April 2023.

“At the Community Liaison Group meeting of 5th August, 2019, Cuadrilla stated that restoration of the site would take around 12 months and, consistent with this, in March 2022, Cuadrilla stated they were about to plug and cap the wells – the first step in restoring the site. There was no indication then that they needed more time.

“The events in Ukraine led to this work being put on hold, but it is now clear that the government is committed to continuing the moratorium on fracking. Therefore there is no earthly reason why the plugging and capping of the wells and full site restoration cannot begin right now – but so far there has been no activity on the site.

“As Cuadrilla have only been delayed by eight months, any extension of the timeframe beyond December 2023 cannot be justified,” the PNRAG spokesperson said.

They also called for “evidence” that restoration work had begun before any extension was granted “to ensure that no further delays occur”.

The application, once it is formally submitted, will be determined by Lancashire County Council’s cross-party development control committee of councillors. Until 22nd December, members of the public can inspect copies of the application and associated documents at County Hall in Preston, by emailing to book an appointment.

After it has been formally lodged, the application will be available to view on the county council’s online planning portal.

The LDRS approached Cuadrilla for comment about its latest plans. A notice pinned up at the Little Plumpton site stressed: “For the avoidance of doubt, this application does not seek permission for any further drilling or hydraulic fracturing operations as the condition has expired.”

When the moratorium was briefly lifted, Cuadrilla’s chief executive Francis Egan said that a thriving shale gas industry would “drive job creation across the North of England, generate much-needed tax revenues for central and local government and help tackle spiralling gas prices”.

He added that the move would enable the UK “to move towards gas self-sufficiency and not be reliant on the whims of dictators, or the vagaries of international supply lines and prices”.

When the policy was reversed within weeks, Mr. Egan’s response was that it “beggars belief” – and he backed a recent British Geological Survey report that suggested “consistent risk targets” could be considered for all energy-related industries that risk inducing earthquakes.

The Cuadrilla boss said that the same standards should be applied to fracking as those that currently govern quarrying, mining and geothermal processes.

Parent company AJ Lucas Group announced in February, when the capping of the Little Plumpton site was ordered, that it planned to retain its shale exploration licence in Lancashire, where the Fylde plot accounts for just 0.01 square km of the 100 square km area covered by that licence.

The firm said it would “continue to engage with industry peers, the regulator, and the government to find a way of ending the moratorium and safely exploring and, in time, producing UK shale gas”.