Cuadrilla is moving machinery into place to start drilling an exploratory oil well near the village of Balcombe in Sussex within the next few days, in its first UK venture outside Lancashire.
The company, which is the only business yet to have attempted shale gas fracking in the UK, is hoping to receive a permit from the Environment Agency by the end of this week, that would allow it to go ahead with its first exploratory well in Sussex. Drilling rigs were being moved into position on Tuesday, in anticipation of a green light, after the Environment Agency issued it with a draft permit.
A spokesman for Cuadrilla said the company had already conducted tests on the underground water aquifer in the Balcombe area, and was reassured that drilling there would not cause problems. The company has as yet no plans to frack in Sussex, however. Fracking is the process of blasting water, sand and chemicals under high pressure at dense shale rocks, opening up tiny fissures that release the bubbles of methane trapped within them, that can be collected at the surface through pipes.
Cuadrilla believes that the rock beneath Balcombe, called micrite, may yield oil without the need to frack, and that drilling a vertical then a horizontal well on the site may be enough to release the liquids and allow them to be captured. However, a final decision is some way off. The company must drill an exploratory well first to establish if oil is there and can be extracted, and then if experts find fracking is necessary to release the oil, Cuadrilla may try to do that later.
Drilling at the site has been delayed for about a month by the need for the company to undergo a public consultation on whether it should be granted a licence to generate mining waste, which requires a special permit. The company may also in future need a permit for radioactive materials, but can drill without that. The Environment Agency has decided the company does not need a separate permit for the effect of its operations on ground water.