Tremors linked to ‘fracking’ were the equivalent of “somebody jumping off a ladder a couple of times” according to the energy company about to drill an exploratory bore-hole in Ellesmere Port.

These minor earthquakes near Blackpool in 2011 gave rise to fears about the controversial method for extracting gas from the shale layer called hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ for short.

But Paul Smith, a spokesman for IGas, who are searching for methane from both coal and shale seams in the North West, including at a site in Merseyton Road, Ellesmere Port, played down concerns given fracking could one day come to the town where sensitive facilities like Stanlow oil refinery and the Capenhurst nuclear plant are based. However, a whole new set of permissions would be needed before this could ever take place.

Paul said: “To put it into context, experts have suggested that the two tremors were the equivalent of somebody jumping off a ladder a couple of times. When those took place the government looked at it, various bodies looked at it, like the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, and they put a report together that examined whether the risks of fracking could be effectively managed in the UK. They concluded that it could but a moratorium was placed on hydraulic fracturing while a review took place and the regulations were stepped up.”

The shale gas operation in Lancashire was run by another energy firm, Cuadrilla, who were unlucky to hit a fault and one of the outcomes was that seismic testing must now take place prior to exploration, to build up a picture of what lies beneath our feet, including where geological faults are located.

At Ellesmere Port, test drilling is due to begin imminently although campaigners who had been living on a nearby protest camp until recently vacating, may have other ideas. Other camps are ongoing at earmarked sites in Upton, Chester, as well as Borras and Dudleston in North Wales.

The extraction of both coalbed methane and shale gas, which lies deeper in the earth, has raised concerns other than earthquakes, including the potential contamination of the water-bearing underground aquifer and the air we breathe, along with fears about extra truck movements, the volumes of water being used and the industrialisation of the landscape.

Paul says of the campaigners: “We live in a democracy. We all have strong feelings about something. It’s their right to do it.” But he added: “We acknowledge their concerns and their right to protest but from our point of view it needs to be within the law.”

However, IGas, which operates the one and only coalbed methane production site in UK at Doe Green near Warrington says it can counter all their fears. Tackling the most serious charge, IGas insists the risks of water and air contamination are minimal providing the steel encased wells meet the highest standards so that the gas is contained in an enclosed system. And regular samples are taken to monitor the situation.

Dave Kerr, IGas operations manager, who showed The Chronicle around the Doe Green site, explained: “You have to design the well. You have to install the well, properly, and if you do that, if you build it to the right standards, I think the risk is absolutely minimal.”

IGas operations manager Dave Kerr
 

He added: “We go to great lengths not to release methane. Aside from the environmental considerations, it’s how we make our money. We’ve got absolutely no vested interest in doing anything other than keeping it in the pipe and turning it into electricity.”

At Doe Green, the methane that comes out of the ground powers a specially-adapted diesel engine which drives a generator that can produce up to one mega watt of electricity supplying around 1,200 homes. IGas accepts the pilot project only covers its costs but says it has been useful as a research and development facility for trying out different techniques.

This has included fracking, more normally associated with shale gas extraction, but it proved “unsuccessful”, probably because only pressurised water was used whereas usually sand and chemicals are used as a proppant to hold open the cracks to allow the gas to flow.

Opponents say society should be pursuing ‘clean’ renewables given the frightening impact of climate change, rather than promoting further reliance on burning fossil fuels like methane. IGas agrees but says gas has half the emissions of coal and is “a stepping stone” to a green era when more sustainable forms of energy are scaled up.

IGas spokesman Paul commented: “The company has nothing against renewables – they see it as definitely part of the mix. What is an interesting thing to consider though is how quickly could the renewables industry in this country, whether it be tidal, whether it be wind, or solar, how quickly can that be developed to the level where it’s a significant part of our energy mix?”

Paul added that North Sea oil reserves were running out and there were geopolitical issues connected with where the imported gas is coming from at the moment.

“For us it’s not an either/or. The country is sitting on a resource of natural gas and the UK government has made a decision that they want that to be explored and if it’s viable, extracted.”