Just a dozen days ago the government said it would consider easing rules that force fracking companies to stop all activity when relatively weak tremors are found.
The hint of a U-turn was a considerable boost to an industry that had become exasperated by Theresa May’s somewhat-bizarre approach of officially supporting fracking while essentially preventing it from taking off.
A week or two earlier energy company Cuadrilla said it would apply to extend the licence on its fracking site in Lancashire.
Since then, however, the news has not been positive for Cuadrilla or the sector at large. Cuadrilla operates the country’s only active site at present, and tremors from the drilling have been escalating.
In the middle of last week a mini-quake of 1.55 magnitude was felt – admittedly quite small. Another measuring 2.1 was recorded at the start of the weekend and yesterday a 2.9 reading caused all operations at Preston New Road to be halted indefinitely.
The company insisted that the latest “event lasted for around a second and the average ground motion recorded was 5mm per second”, and continued to argue that the shake only amounted to “about a third of that permitted for construction projects”.
Yet while most tremors are undetectable by people on the ground, nearby residents have begun reporting experience of the shakes.
At the very least, the timing of this month’s fracking developments has been a PR disaster for the industry and made life much harder for anyone trying to convince the public of the benefits of extracting on-shore shale gas.
This newspaper has always taken a pragmatic view on fracking, which – if handled correctly – seems like a sensible way of bridging the gap between carbon-heavy fossil fuels and low-carbon, sustainable sources of energy. In other parts of the world, the sector has flourished.
Conditions in the UK are tough, however. Space is at a premium and infrastructure is weak compared to fracking’s boom areas, particularly in the US. Moreover public cynicism remains widespread and will only have been worsened by the weekend’s newest tremors.
While shale’s hardline critics are often guilty of hysteria, it is difficult to see the industry ever really lighting up the British energy supply in the way its proponents once hoped.
Main image credit: Getty