By Sarah Young
LONDON Aug 16 An oil explorer has suspended
drilling in southern England in response to the threat of an
escalating protest against fracking, the controversial process
used to extract gas and oil from shale deposits that has
transformed the U.S. energy market.
Caudrilla Resources's site in the village of Balcombe in
rural West Sussex has become a focal point for protesters who
oppose fracking, a technique the company has pioneered in the
search for shale gas in Britain.
Public debate on shale gas and fracking has intensified in
The government in July proposed tax breaks for shale gas
investment as part of its efforts to follow the United States,
where surging production has lowered energy prices and cut
Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday gave his unequivocal
support to fracking, risking angering his party's supporters
from more rural areas where any exploration is likely to take
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, retrieves gas and oil
trapped in tight-layered rock formations by injecting
high-pressure water, sand and chemicals.
Critics say it can trigger small earthquakes and pollute the
water supply, while others oppose any oil and gas exploration in
picturesque parts of the countryside.
UK-based Cuadrilla said on Friday it would scale back its
operations in West Sussex after taking advice from police who
are concerned about an influx of up to 1,000 extra protesters
"We plan to resume full operations as soon as it is safe to
do so," the privately owned company said.
Cuadrilla is drilling a conventional test well to look for
oil in Balcombe, but has not ruled out seeking permission for
fracking at a later date depending on the results of its initial
Conoco Philips drilled a well on the same site in
1986 which found evidence of oil, but not in commercial
Acquiring fracking permits in the UK is a lengthy process
which often takes months.
Cuadrilla is the only company to have fracked a shale gas
well elsewhere in Britain, making its activities a target for
Sussex Police said the relocation to Balcombe of a climate
camp under the banner "No Dash for Gas", which had been due to
take place in Nottinghamshire, was behind the expected increase
Local protesters and a group called "Frack Off" have formed
the opposition so far.
A Cuadrilla spokesman said the company had brought in extra
fences ahead of the weekend. Security firm G4S has
provided security since the start of drilling in July.
"I'm quite worried about safety on the site, we have a group
who are relocating a camp to the site, who have said publicly
that they will be taking direct action against the site,"
Cuadrilla Chief Executive Francis Egan told ITV News on
Britain is thought to have major shale reserves which could
help reverse a rising dependency on energy imports, but the
nascent industry has yet to prove that it can make oil and gas
flow from the rocks.
UK utility Centrica recently bought a quarter stake
in Cuadrilla's northern England shale licences. French oil
company Total has also said it would like to explore
for shale gas in Britain.
Britain also has a history of environmental activism causing
disruption to infrastructure projects.
In one of the most high-profile cases in 1996, nearly 7,000
people demonstrated against the building of a new road near
Newbury in southern England. The development of other motorways
has also been delayed, resulting in tens of millions of pounds
of extra costs.
VSA Capital analyst Malcolm Graham-Wood said that the
suspension of drilling should not affect Caudrilla's plans long
"It makes no difference whatsoever that they're halting
drilling...I would have thought the delay will only be a day or
two. The international oil and gas business work in much more
difficult conditions than Balcombe in West Sussex," he said.
Protesters from the No Dash for Gas organisation's 'Reclaim
the Power' group claimed Caudrilla's suspension of operations as
"It's only a start. We would like to make sure they don't
frack in Balcombe, or anywhere else at all," protester Luke
Johnson was quoted as saying on the group's website.
Britain's Department of Energy and Climate Change sought to
reassure critics. "The government has been clear that wherever
shale gas fracking is conducted it must be done in a safe and
environmentally sound way," it said.