It is possibly the biggest planning decision Lancashire will ever take. And probably the most controversial.
But shale gas exploration – or fracking – is coming to a field near you soon, if councillors approve it by October.
The first of two huge applications has landed on the table at County Hall with a thud. It is thousands of pages thick and reveals for the first time the full extent of what explorers Cuadrilla intend to do with the green pastures between Preston and Blackpool and, more importantly, beneath them.
The planning application for drilling up to four exploratory wells on land off Preston New Road at Little Plumpton, to the west of Kirkham, will be considered over the next 16 weeks. A similar one, in size and content, is due to arrive soon for another site at Roseacre Wood near Inskip.
Cuadrilla want the go-ahead to start drilling and testing for natural gas in both locations using a process which has already been blamed for causing earth tremors on the Fylde Coast in May 2011.
Even if they decide there are insufficient reserves under Lancashire to warrant long-term extraction, the timescale from drilling to returning the sites to their original form is five years, according to one of 90 separate reports in the Preston New Road submission.
Cuadrilla say they have listened hard to locals before submitting their plans. But opponents Friends of the Earth in the North West say the consultation process has been “little more than a public relations exercise to hype up the supposed benefits of fracking to a very wary community.”
Responding to the mammoth application Helen Rimmer said: “They can’t hide the fact that fracking is a highly risky operation that would see drilling and flaring 24 hours a day in rural Fylde, produce vast amounts of toxic wastewater and create only eleven jobs while risking the farming and tourism economies.
“If this application is granted it could pave the way for thousands of fracking wells in Lancashire. Instead of fracking we should be harnessing clean renewable energy sources.”
Cuadrilla’s submissions for the Preston New Road site would involve:
l The construction of a drilling pad for four wells just 500-metres west of the village of Little Plumpton.
l Round-the-clock 24/7 drilling for around two years.
l Fracking of all four wells – taking two months each – but only during daylight hours.
l Removal of waste water, containing low levels of natural radioactive material, from the site by road to a Government treatment facility.
l Burning of gas in two giant flare stacks for as long as two years per well.
l Increased traffic on local roads due to wagons travelling to and from the site.
The company says that, even if the supplies of gas are not sufficient to warrant full scale extraction, the whole process from building the drilling platform to returning the site to its original condition will take almost five years.
“We’ve been working hard to take on board feedback received during our extensive consultation with local residents, community groups and broader stakeholders,” said Cuadrilla’s chief executive Francis Egan. “I am very grateful to those people who gave us their comments. Where it has been reasonably practical to do so, we have amended our plans to incorporate feedback and suggestions.”