UK Shale Gas Drilling Moves Closer to London

An anti-fracking protest outside the Houses of Parliament in London on December 1, 2012.
JUSTIN TALLIS | AFP | Getty Images
An anti-fracking protest outside the Houses of Parliament in London on December 1, 2012.

The only company to have fracked for shale gas in the U.K., Cuadrilla Resources, is set to begin exploratory drilling for oil in Balcombe, Sussex this summer, just 31 miles (50 km) south of London, creating new protests over its environmental implications.

Cuadrilla plans to drill a well 3,000 feet (914 meter) deep and a horizontal bore 2,500 feet (762 meter) wide to take samples of underground rock over the next several months, with operations set to cease by September.

The announcement comes after the U.K. government lifted its ban on shale gas exploration in December last year. The ban had been enforced in 2011 after two earth tremors in Lancashire that some blamed on nearby fracking by Cuadrilla.

The U.K. hopes that it can profit from cheaper energy prices from shale gas extraction similar to the U.S. natural gas boom.

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) allows companies like Cuadrilla to extract normally inaccessible gas from shale by blasting water into the rocks.

(Read More: A US-Style Fracking Revolution for the UK?)

Cuadrilla plans to hold discussions with Balcombe residents to explain what their drilling work will involve, but has been quick to emphasize that this development is just drilling, not fracking, and that any future fracking would involve consultation before any implementation.

Despite such reassurances, local Sussex residents are angry. Vanessa Vine of Frack Free Sussex told the Financial Times, "They're not drilling just for the fun of it. If they find any oil or gas, they'll frack."

A Cuadrilla spokesman said Balcombe residents should not be concerned.

"This is just drilling, not hydraulic fracturing. If there isn't enough oil or gas flow the well would be capped and abandoned. If oil or gas is found, a series of extensive technical,environmental and public consultations would take place before any further decisions are made."

The dispute over drilling in the Sussex area is a sign of problems to come involving any work linked to shale gas extraction. Environmental activists maintain that fracking poses a significant risk to drinking water.

So far, the current U.K. government has been supportive of shale gas, hoping the industry can help boost the moribund economy.

After lifting the ban on fracking in December, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Edward Davey wrote: "I consider that new controls to minimize disturbance to those living and working nearby, and to prevent the risk of any damage, are now a prerequisite for further exploration."

But, a new law, the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, can allow shale gas exploration to be deemed a "national significance", allowing the government to override local authorities to grant planning permission.

A report from the British Geological Survey (BGS) is expected later this year to detail the country's shale gas resources. It is hoped the amount available will help heat British homes for over a century.