Fracking Under the Quantock Hills?

What is happening?

On the 16th December 2015 MPs voted to allow the exploitation of shale gas reserves using hydraulic fracturing (often referred to as “fracking”) under Britain’s National Parks and AONBs, which include the Quantock Hills. Ministers used a Statutory Instrument – a form of secondary legislation – to push through the new rules, which means legislation can pass into law without a debate in the House of Commons. MPs voted in favour by 298 to 261.

On 17 December 2015, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announced that Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences (PEDL)s for a total of 159 blocks were formally offered to successful applicants under the 14th Onshore Oil and Gas Licensing Round (Ref 2). This includes a number of blocks along the North Somerset coast from the East of Minehead, around Bridgewater Bay up to Clevedon, and includes an area that lies within the Quantock Hills AONB . The area also includes coastal areas of the Somerset Levels (Bridgwater Bay National Nature Reserve) and part of the Mendip Hills AONB. Click here for an interactive map.

The licences for these blocks were awarded to South Western Energy Limited; this appears to be a new company with offices in Bridgend. Before any drilling can be carried out in the licensed blocks, the operator would need landowner consent, Environment Agency (EA) assessments and planning permission. This would all take some time.

The rules for developing oil and gas reserves in National Parks and AONBs do not allow actual drill sites and operating facilities to be built within the AONBs. The plant would have to be located outside the AONB boundary, but gas can be extracted from under the AONB. This may sound like new technology, but it is a technique that has been tried and tested in oil and gas operations over many years, particularly in offshore operations where it is necessary to develop a field from a single location.

For a simple description of what fracking entails see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lHC74fCyeI

There is also further information on James Verdon’s “Frackland” blog: http://frackland.blogspot.co.uk/

Issues

1. Climate Change

In December, all 195 nations present at the UN Climate Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris signed up to an historic agreement to, inter alia, peak greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and achieve a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, and to keep global temperatures “well below” 2.0oC and “endeavour to limit” them even more, to 1.5oC. In order to meet the commitments made at COP21, the UK should be investing in ways to boost the development and use of renewable energy opportunities, not proposing to produce more.

In a recent online debate on the “Speakers Corner Trust” (Ref 3), Professor Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester, argued that: “We have all the resources and tools necessary to become a low-carbon and climate-resilient society. What we have thus far lacked is the innovative thinking and courage to conceive of such a future – one in which shale gas remains in the ground, not least as a symbol of our genuine commitment to future generations and the preservation of our unique planet.”

In response, Professor Paul Younger, Rankine Chair of Engineering and Professor of Energy Engineering at the University of Glasgow, agrees that “there is no emission space for new hydrocarbon industries”, but adds that gas has about half of the carbon emissions of coal, and whilst ceasing all atmospheric emissions from fossil fuels is the ultimate goal, we need to be clear that, in the meantime, it is far better to use gas than coal. He concludes: “Shale gas may not offer an ideal solution to our energy needs. But banning it makes neither economic nor environmental sense.”


 2. Energy Security

After spending most of the previous 25 years as a net exporter of energy the UK became a net importer in 2004. The gap between imports and exports has increased since 2004 and this looks set to continue to increase in the future. In 2012 the UK imported 43% of its energy supply, with gas representing 37% of the net import with coal and oil each contributing 30%. North Sea oil and gas reserves are diminishing and the last deep coal mine has been closed in 2015.

The Task Force on Shale Gas, chaired by Lord Chris Smith, reported on 15th December 2015 (Ref 4). Their report concludes “that gas is required as part of the UK’s energy mix for the short and medium term. It is simply not feasible to create a renewables industry that can meet all our energy needs in the short term. Gas represents an environmentally cleaner alternative to coal. The adverse climate impact of shale gas is similar to conventional gas and less than LNG. In addition, the Task Force is convinced that the development of a domestic shale gas industry provides a clear means of strengthening the UK’s energy security and mitigating against potential risks to energy supply.”

3. Environmental Impact

Most independent experts agree that shale gas can be developed in the UK without unacceptable environmental impacts provided they are adequately regulated and controlled. Professor Paul Younger (Ref 3) quoted above stated “Having served on two government-requested expert review panels on the topic (one UK, one Scottish) I am satisfied that shale gas could be developed onshore in the UK in a safe and non-polluting manner. The mature UK regulatory systems are more than capable of accommodating an activity which is far less challenging than many others we routinely manage already. To argue otherwise requires you to believe that practices which have long been outlawed in the UK will nonetheless somehow be implemented in the case of shale gas – despite the minute scrutiny the sector is under. I don’t believe that.”

Much of the negativity and fear of the impact of shale gas production comes from the experience in the US, where operators’ standards were lax, certainly in the early years. There were many undoubted horror stories and social media ensured that many of these crossed the Atlantic and have been used by an increasingly strident anti-fracking lobby to suggest that all fracking is dangerous and will inevitably result in severe environmental impact. This is unlikely to be allowed to happen in the UK.

One factor is that the geological conditions are very different in the UK, where the shale deposits and deep underground, typically 1000 to 3000 metres, whilst water aquifers are much closer to the surface (100 – 200 metres).

For experience of oil company operations in sensitive areas we do not have to look very far. The largest oil field in Western Europe is located in a pine forest within the Dorset AONB on the southern shore of Poole Harbour. The oilfield, which was operated by BP for many years but is now owned by French company Perenco, has been quietly producing thousands of barrels a day since the late 1970s, by means of a form of fracking called ‘water injection’, also known as ‘water flooding’. At one point the oilfield had the longest horizontal drill in the world and has regularly pumped water into wells to “fracture” the rock and force out oil and gas. Most visitors to the Dorset AONB have no idea it is there.

So what are the key environmental issues?

Vehicle traffic; arising during both the construction and operational stage could be significant and might even include that from protestors. This is likely to be controlled by planning conditions derived from traffic estimation surveys.

Noise disturbance; not just for local people but also for sensitive species.  This will arise mostly from traffic movement, pumping and drilling operations. Again noise impact assessments will be required to support any planning application.

Water abstraction; fracking will use locally significant volumes of water which will need to be obtained from somewhere if mains supplies are not available. Surface waters or groundwater can be used and the operators will need to obtain an abstraction licence from the EA which will only be granted if there are no adverse impacts.

Waste water discharges; up to 80% of fracking water will return to the surface contaminated by naturally occurring radiation from radon, drilling muds and chemicals, salts, anti-coagulants and sediment.  Technology is available to treat such contamination and any discharge to the environment will need a permit from the EA.  Waste water treatment and management is likely to add significantly to the costs of any operation.

Habitat loss; there will be a slight loss of habitat as fracking sites will be cleared to create a compound. Around 3-4 hectares are typically needed for a site so this impact is unlikely to be significant and the best site can be selected. However several sites may be required so there might be cumulative risks.

Seismic activity; minor earthquakes have been experienced at a UK site near Blackpool and the assessment of this risk will form part of any approval process.  Where risks are significant it is unlikely that approval will be given.

Amenity; fracking sites may create some visual impacts but these will be assessed at the planning stage and usually mitigation can be developed to reduce the impact.  However from the higher ground of the AONB this might prove more difficult.

Air pollution; emissions from pumping equipment and drilling machinery will occur as well as during the construction stage. Emissions from static plant can often create more significant impacts than from moving vehicles.

In summary most of the impacts listed above are considered to be manageable either through operational permit conditions or through the approval process and at the planning stage.

 

QE position

On balance QE considers that most of the environmental impacts can be managed and mitigated so an outright objection on principal is perhaps not entirely balanced.  The overall impact on climate change emissions may be positive if extracted gas is used to displace coal. There are also benefits for the UK economy and society that arise from greater fuel security and avoiding volatility in world gas prices. It is expected that the current reliance on gas as a bridging fuel is inevitable in the medium term anyway.

Operators, regulators and planning authorities should share information about their proposals in an impartial and open way to facilitate proper honest dialogue and discussion with local people. Operators should also comply with the UK Onshore Operations group engagement charter.

Prior to any operations commencing there should be adequate baseline surveys in place so that the impacts can be fully understood over time.  This should include environmental, geological, landscape and archaeological data and assessments and be obtained by independent and suitably qualified experts.

The fate of any business rates that flow to local authorities needs to be transparent and should not act to influence the authorisation of any operation in any way.

Regulators and planners need to be adequately resourced and skilled to consider the impacts and monitor operations.  Previous and future cutbacks in public sector funding may compromise their ability to do this.

References:

  1. Guardian 16-12-15: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/16/fracking-under-national-parks-approved-by-mps-amid-acrimony
  2. Oil and Gas Authority (17-12-15): https://www.gov.uk/guidance/oil-and-gas-licensing-rounds#th-landward-licensing-round
  3. Fracking: A Price Worth Paying? http://www.speakerscornertrust.org/10402/fracking-a-price-worth-paying/
  4. Task Force on Shale Gas; Final Conclusions and Recommendation. https://www.taskforceonshalegas.uk/reports
  5. Telegraph 10 Aug 2013: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/earthnews/10233955/The-town-where-a-form-of-fracking-is-already-happening.html
  6. Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wytch_Farm