Energy firm Cuadrilla said it was stepping up its activities and hoped to drill up to nine new wells in the Lancashire countryside outside Blackpool in a bid to prove the shale gas industry was economically viable.
Local campaigners and green groups criticised the news claiming there were still unanswered questions over the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and dismissed claims by the company that it could lead to lower domestic gas prices.
Cuadrilla said it intended to apply for consent to drill and frack at up to six new sites in addition to an existing one on the Fylde and to apply for planning permission for a further three test wells. It was also considering seeking the go-ahead to frack on a second established site.
Chief executive, Francis Egan, said: “The purpose of all our on-going exploratory work is to demonstrate that natural gas can be produced from the shale in commercial quantities. By sharing our plans for the exploratory programme, we hope that people will have an understanding of what we plan to do and why.”
Fracking – in which water, sand and chemicals are used to blast natural gas from shale rock - was halted in Britain in 2011 following two minor earth tremors believed to have been most likely caused by the process. The Government lifted restrictions in December 2012.
The six new proposed sites could become the first to be fracked since the tremors. Controversy over the technology has seen campaigners occupy one of the company’s rigs at a drilling site.
John Hobson of the group Defend Lytham said local people were not being given a “clear or accurate story”. He said there remained concerns over the impact on over wintering birds at one site and that the lack of detail left residents in the dark.
“We have no doubt that when the detail of Cuadrilla’s plans starts to emerge the local community will make their feelings very clear to the planning officers at Lancashire County Council,” he said.
Last week the Coalition signalled the go-ahead for the industry, promising tax breaks for exploration and proposing that communities receive at least £100,000 per fracking well and one per cent of future revenues.
A survey by the British geological Society suggested shale gas reserves were present across much of northern England.
Friends of the Earth’s North West Campaigner Helen Rimmer, said many more communities across Lancashire would find themselves affected.
“Local people are already mobilising against the threat of fracking and others are bound to follow when they see the threat shale gas poses to their environment and quality of life. Shale gas is not the solution to the UK's energy challenges. It will keep the nation hooked on climate-changing fossil fuels and do little to cut household energy bills,” she said.