The challenge of fracking Article icon

The Andrew Cave meets Jacqui Reid, head of corporate communications at Cuadrilla, as she awaits the decision of two planning applications

The challenge of fracking

By the time Jacqui Reid’s husband Duncan scales the Himalayas this autumn, she is likely to know the size of the mountain her gas-exploring employer Cuadrilla Resources has to climb.

Cuadrilla is synonymous in the UK with fracking, the controversial hydraulic fracturing extraction method that caused two earthquakes near Blackpool in 2011. They measured 2.3 and 1.5 on the Richter Scale, with a Durham University academic comparing the joint impact to a ‘little shudder, like a lorry going down the road or someone jumping off a ladder’.

However, the connection resonated enough to make fracking highly controversial in the UK and Cuadrilla’s two planning applications to test-drill, frack and flow-test wells in Preston New Road and Roseacre Wood, Lancashire have become test cases.

Rejected at local authority level, the applications were taken to appeals at public inquiry earlier this year and a decision is due before 6 October.

Cuadrilla’s joint venture with British Gas owner Centrica and Australia’s AJ Lucas owns a licence over the Bowland Shale Basin in Lancashire containing an estimated 200 trillion cubic feet of gas. That compares with Britain’s current annual usage of three trillion cubic feet of gas, more than 50 per cent of which is imported.

‘This could be an absolute game-changer in terms of Britain’s energy of security of energy supply and the control that it has over that, if we can extract the gas out,’ says Reid, Cuadrilla’s head of corporate communications. ‘That’s almost equivalent to the North Sea oil find.’

Reid, 49, who has spent more than 30 years in corporate communications, joined Cuadilla in 2013 when it was in the news for environmental protests at an oil drilling site in Balcombe, West Sussex.

‘That was the first broad realisation of something called fracking, though I was aware of it myself,’ she says. ‘We had the Blackpool tremors but Balcombe really brought it into public consciousness because of the attention the protests got that summer, even though there was no fracking and no gas. ‘It was a conventional oil well we were drilling but it became a focus for anti-fracking and a poster child for groups wanting to raise awareness.’

Working in a team of three, Reid is based at Cuadrilla’s head office in Bamber Bridge, Lancashire, and a tiny shared services office in London as well as from home. ‘The first really big protests didn’t come until the summer of 2014 in a field next to one of the proposed sites,’ she says. 

‘A protest camp was set up and protesters stayed there for three weeks. It didn’t get violent and was a much smaller protest than the one at Balcombe, with around 100 protesters who illegally trespassed on a farmer’s field. At Balcombe, there were closer to 1,000.’

The West Sussex well was drilled but has since been shelved, with all Cuadrilla’s focus now on the Lancashire sites.

Reid doesn’t expect fracking to take place for at least a year, while going to full-scale production would require further planning consent and is not likely before 2020.

Cuadrilla, owned by Australian engineering and construction firm AJ Lucas and US investment firm Riverstone, is still small.

’People think we’re this huge company,’ says Reid. ‘It’s not true. We’re effectively a start-up in a very new industry in the UK. It makes us smile when we read headlines about the giant Cuadrilla. There are probably about 25 of us. 

‘What we do is about community work, educating people about what we want to do, debunking an awful lot of myths and scaremongering that’s out there. It’s about the difference between perception and reality. The main questions we get on a national basis are related to water contamination and health and seismicity concerns. People think that we pump lots of chemicals that will contaminate the ground water. We don’t do that.’

Reid’s strategy at Cuadrilla has included staging a voxpop on the planning appeal on BBC1’s prime-time The One Show and combining with other groups on Let’s Talk About Shale, a website where people can post questions and receive independent answers.

She stresses that the fracking fluid used is made up of water and sand and contains only 0.05 per cent of one chemical – a polyacrylamide friction reducer – that’s non-hazardous to ground water.

Cuadrilla also publicises details about the integrity of its wells and claims that the noise from testing the sites during night time will be below 42 decibels – the equivalent of a ‘quiet library’.

‘We’re talking here about fracking taking place nearly two miles underneath the earth,’ says Reid. ‘The planning applications weren’t turned down over anything to do with the fracking process. It was more to do with the usual issues associated with planning, such as traffic, noise and the effect on the visual landscape. We believe we meet the planning transparent as possible so that everyone has a vested interest in what happens on site. We’ll probably be one of the monitored sites in the world.’

The Blackpool earthquakes remain a public perception problem but Reid feels the focus on them is exaggerated. ‘We have earthquakes all the time in the UK,’ she says. ‘You can go onto the British Geological Survey website and view them live. Minor earthquakes happen regularly in the UK and there was a naturally-occurring one in Kent recently that was much bigger than what happened in Blackpool.’

Brought up in Kent to a father from Lancashire and mother from North London, Reid attended Tonbridge Grammar School and initially wanted to read American studies at university, having lived for five years with her family in Connecticut and New York State, where her father worked for Xerox. Instead, she joined a small PR agency in Soho and then spent six years in the press office of defence engineering group GEC as deputy press and publicity manager.

‘It was in the days of Lord Weinstock as chief executive and Lord Prior, the former Northern Ireland secretary, as chairman and, while it was a big sprawling company, I was based in the central head office communications team where there were only seven people so I had direct access to them,’ she says.

‘I had to learn about everything from Sting Ray torpedoes to washing machines and telecommunications. It was a great lesson in how to manage multiple and customers’ messages. It was also there that I developed my great love of engineering and technology.’

Reid has spent about half her working life in-house, with the other half in agencies, and says she finds it easy to switch seamlessly between the two.

Her career demonstrates this, with a spell in campaigns for the Cayman Islands and on healthcare postcode rationing at Profile Corporate Communications, an agency now owned by Grayling, following her time at GEC.

She also worked as group corporate relations manager for Microsoft where she was given the task of ‘humanising’ the company at a time when it faced anti-trust lawsuits in America and an European Commission investigation in Europe.

Then she worked in communications for Edelman, hand-held computers firm Palm, Low Carbon Group and as director of campaigns for Ogilvy PR where she acted for BP on a London 2012 Olympics partnership.

‘The thread that has run through all the jobs I’ve had is correcting perceptions to reality, trying to get the facts out there. Communications always comes down to that,’ she says. ‘I’m really passionate about this. I really enjoy it. I guess I enjoy the challenge of trying to communicate to people in a simple and effective way. There have been lots of exciting moments and we largely operate in a very reactive environment.

‘What I like to get involved in are multi-faceted projects that are about pulling everyone together, going in the same direction under a large brand umbrella. I’ve done this a lot in my career and what I like is the variety of different issues that can come up on any given day. It’s challenging but at the same time it’s also exciting to focus on and manage.’

In her spare time, she’s a passionate Arsenal season ticket-holder who likes having a ‘chip butty’ and cup of tea at a local café after a match. She also loves walking with Duncan, an IT specialist she met at Microsoft who has just left the company.

‘Duncan does an awful lot of walking and I do join him,’ she says. We’ve done quite a few Munros together and the West Highland Way, the Great Glen Way and the Cotswold Way but I have to work pretty hard to keep up with him nowadays.

‘He doesn’t leave for the Himalayas until just after the deadline for the appeals decisions to be announced so we’ll know one way or another. Hopefully if all goes well with the appeal, we can start to put our words into action and prove to people that we’re going to do this as safely, securely and responsibly as we’ve spent the last three years talking about.’