Mr. Baptie said that the British rules had been set at “very, very conservative” levels. As more data becomes available, he said, there could be “scope” for modifying the thresholds to perhaps a limit of 1.0. He warned, though, that increasing the amounts of liquids injected might also increase the probability of larger seismic events. In western Canada, for instance, fracking was blamed for a substantial 4.8-magnitude earthquake in 2016.
Still, the fact that any tremors were recorded may prove a setback for the industry. “It has demonstrated quite clearly that they cannot undertake the fracking process without causing earthquakes,” said Miranda Cox, a local councilor in Kirkham, which is about three miles from the site, and an opponent of fracking.
Studies have shown that Britain has substantial natural gas resources embedded in shale rock, but Cuadrilla’s recent experiment appears to leave both the government and the industry with few attractive options. For the government, fracking offers the potential to enhance Britain’s energy security by providing an alternative to imported fuel, but it will be reluctant to be seen easing regulations in a way that increases risks.
For the handful of active shale companies, progress has been slow, stymied by a lengthy regulatory process and opposition from environmentalists and local residents who worry about earthquakes and groundwater pollution. Those living near potential drilling sites also do not want their lives disrupted by the large volumes of truck traffic that drilling and fracking a well require.
In Lancashire, a small but determined band of protesters has monitored and occasionally obstructed drilling. According to the Lancashire police, about 100 officers were involved in patrolling the Cuadrilla site from January 2017 through September 2018 with cumulative costs exceeding 9 million pounds.
In an interview in October before drilling began, Mr. Egan, Cuadrilla’s chief executive, suggested that the protests and other obstacles might melt away once the industry gained traction.
That seems unlikely to happen soon given the recent experience.
Richard Taylor, an oil and gas analyst at Fitch Solutions, a market research firm, said the tremors had “done no favors” for the fledgling industry.
“It reaffirms our long-term view that production from shale gas in the U.K. at a commercial stage is very much a distant prospect,” he said.