THE divisive issue of fracking was never far away from the news in 2017 and it is sure to become an even bigger talking point locally in 2018.

Energy company IGas want to frack for shale gas on Ince Marshes, while the firm has applied for planning permission to ‘flow test’ a well in Ellesmere Port as they explore other areas which might flow gas or oil.

In addition, the British Geological Survey (BGS) are behind plans to build a research centre on Ince Marshes which would see them explore new ways of providing us with energy in the future – and this will include trying to learn more about fracking.

Anti-fracking groups have led a vocal campaign against the plans by both IGas and the BGS, while City of Chester MP Chris Matheson is worried that North Cheshire – which is a shale hotbed – could become a “frackers’ paradise”.

Should we be concerned by the likely arrival of fracking on our doorstep?

The Standard quizzed Kris Bone, well engineering director for IGas, about his company’s plans for the North Cheshire area and asked just how safe – or unsafe – fracking might be.

There is a lot of public concern over fracking. Should we be worried?

Kris Bone (KB): As an industry, we understand the concerns of the general public around these subjects. We’ve seen the issues that have occurred elsewhere in the world. There’s a lot of emotion around that.

The bottom line is, we work under a very different regulatory process in the UK. It’s very stringent. Regulation in the UK is an exemplar for the rest of the world.

But even a local MP has said he fears the area could become “frackers’ paradise”…

KB: I think “frackers’ paradise” is just a very emotive phraseology to spark fear.

We’re just trying to understand and evaluate the potential of the resource in the area. That’s largely not understood at this time.

We’re exploring for oil and gas resources. We’re exploring in Cheshire as well as elsewhere.

Why fracking? Should we not be focusing more on renewable energies instead?

KB: We’re an oil and gas company. That’s what we do and we think we do it well.

I think shale gas has an opportunity to add into the energy mix. We need to continue with renewables, build wind, build solar, but use the gas as well. We shouldn’t turn our back on anything as we move forward post-Brexit, and it’s an opportunity for the country.

IGas' coal bed methane pilot site in Warrington – the closest to what a shale gas site would look like in production.

What can you tell us about IGas’ plans for their well at Ellesmere Port?

KB: Our planning application has been submitted. We’re waiting now on the determination of that [expected early in the new year]. I think there is a lot of misinformation that we’re going to do some hydraulic fracturing there. We’re not. There’s no hydraulic fracturing planned at that site. It’s a normal well test.

We’ll run into an already drilled well, we’ll perforate a zone of interest and we’ll see whether it flows gas or oil.

IGas want to frack for shale gas on Ince Marshes. What will this entail?

KB: We intend to submit a planning application for the drilling of a new well on Ince Marshes. We will look to fracture and flow test that well.

We’ll test different geological horizons to see which one looks the best and then we will design and drill a horizontal well within one of those tested formations. We will then conduct a multi-stage hydraulic fracture on that horizontal well and test that well.

What this is about, more than anything, is appraising and exploring the area’s resources.

Where are you up to with these plans?

KB: We submitted a scoping request to Cheshire West and Chester Council and we’re now in possession of that.

We’re in the process of preparing a detailed planning application with an environmental impact statement. We’re also going through the process of submitting permit applications to the Environment Agency. We’ve gone through a process of community engagement.

Early in the new year we hope to submit the planning and permit application at roughly the same time.

Is there a danger of water contamination close to where fracking is taking place?

KB: There’s a little bit of a misconception that fracturing is going to result in water contamination. Actually it’s not really the fracking that’s the issue there, it is about the well construction. It’s about getting your well construction correct. We will adhere to the right regulations to make sure wells are constructed right.

We also take baseline monitoring. We put in place monitoring boreholes to monitor the condition of ground water in the area on a site and around it.

The Grimsome Road site near Elton where IGas has applied to drill a fracking test well

Might the fractures underground grow up and affect the ground water?

KB: It’s just not going to happen. We drill at depths of up to 2,000 metres. Fractures don’t go any more than 200m, 300m or 400m maximum, and they are engineered. It’s a very controlled and engineered process.

What about fears over air quality?

KB: In terms of our planning applications and permits, we do an air quality impact assessment.

Obviously, we are looking to minimise any impact on air quality.

Things like flaring, we don’t want to flare. That gas is a resource. That’s what we want to monetise so we want to reduce gas flaring to the minimum levels.

It is ‘highly probable’ two minor earth tremors were triggered in Blackpool when Cuadrilla Resources were drilling for shale gas in 2011. Could something similar happen again?

KB: I think it’s understood what happened there. They were very close to a fault, which they re-energised, and they hadn’t shot 3D seismic data. I think the whole industry has learnt very quickly that before you do these operations, you need 3D seismic data sets. We have that in this area.

What this data allows us to do is when we do any drilling, we can place our wells in the right place, away from faults and design all our fracturing and testing so that we don’t intersect any faults. It’s all controlled below ground.

Then we’re going to have safeguards at the surface. We are going to have a traffic light system. If we see an event level up to 0.5, we have to shut down. You would not feel that (0.5) at the surface. It’s a very, very low level seismic event.

But it’s a safeguard which has been put in to make sure we move forward in a step-by-step basis.

Won’t there be a huge build-up in HGV traffic around the IGas sites?

KB: Any project that involves construction of any type involves traffic. It involves some level of noise. That’s something we will look at as part of our environmental impact assessment.

If you look specifically in this area, our activities will probably pale into insignificance compared to some of the other industrial activities that are going on around here. It will be relatively small scale, and temporary.

Once we get into flow and production, the level of activity is very minimal in terms of traffic. You’re looking at no more than one or two, three HGV moves a week. And the drill is gone.

What chemicals will you pump into the ground?

KB: Every fracking job has a different recipe in terms of the frack fluid to get it out, but by and large it’s 90-95 per cent water, five per cent sand and a very small amount of chemicals.

We will not be able to use anything in our chemicals to frack fluids that is hazardous or not approved.

What is IGas’ relationship with Runcorn-based chemical firm Ineos?

KB: We’re joint venture partners with Ineos. We’re lucky, they’re a world class company in terms of chemical manufacturing.

They’re looking to get into shale in the UK. As a partnership, we’re moving forward together to explore and see if we can bring it on to production.

What are your thoughts on the BGS research centre planned for Ince Marshes?

KB: A research project like this takes a much closer look at what we do – and we’re very open to that process. Whether it goes ahead or not wouldn’t impact on our plans.