What is Fracking?
Fracking, fracturing bedrock by injecting water and other substances under pressure to release oil or gas in commercially useable quantities has a long history. It has been used in the UK for decades, for instance at Wytch Farm in Dorset.
In conventional oil or gas fields, vertical fracking can be used to force more of the hydrocarbons from the reservoir up to the surface. More recently horizontal fracking involves drilling as much as 1km away from the well into the surrounding rock. This creates new fractures to release oil or gas or extends existing fractures in the rock. This allows extraction from unconventional fields that do not have reservoirs.
Fracking came into the news locally in 2016 when the Government announced the results of the 14th onshore oil and gas licensing round. This involved competitive bids being sought for a large number of 10km Ordnance Survey grid squares, or blocks, across the country.
Amongst those that were awarded were blocks that covered 400 square kilometres of southern Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire.
The northern boundary of this area runs approximately from the Hereford to Monmouth road (A466) near LLangrove in an easterly direction, crossing the A40 just north of Whitchurch and ends near Dursley Cross south of Newent. The western boundary just includes Monmouth, Trellech and Tintern.
While the southern limit for exploration runs east from the Tintern area, crossing the Chepstow to Gloucester road (A48) near Woolaston before ending on the English side of the River Severn near Berkeley station. From here a line due north completes the boundary of the area to be explored. These four blocks were awarded to South Western Energy Limited (SWE) from Bridgend to seek coal bed methane.
However, in 2017 they decided not to take the licenses preferring to focus on other, potentially more productive, areas in South Wales.
CPRE Herefordshire will continue to work with colleagues in Gloucestershire to monitor the situation. Nationally CPRE’s position hardened during 2017 to opposing fracking until it can be proven to be safe. One concern is that the government has already over-ruled local planning authorities’ rejection of planning applications.
The position in England
A company called Cuadrilla had been exploring for gas in Lancashire since the early 2000’s but ceased drilling in 2011 after a number of small earthquakes were recorded. They were drilling into a rock type known as the Bowland Shales that underlie large areas of northern England. In 2013 the British Geological Survey (BGS) reported on the earthquake risk and the potential of these rocks to produce hydrocarbons. Caudrilla obtained planning permission to drill at Preston New Road Lancashire in 2016 and early in 2018 reported signs of a sizeable quantity of natural gas in line with the BGS’s estimates. This was the first case of unconventional fracking – both horizontal and vertical - in mainland Britain. Drilling started in October 2018 but a further earthquake caused another suspension. In November gas was reported to be flowing from the well and the company expected to be able to say how much gas would be recoverable in the Spring of 2019.
Elsewhere in England, 3rd Energy ceased drilling at Kirby Misperton (Rydale, North Yorkshire) in 2016, while Igas started drilling at Spring Road near Misson (Nottinghamshire) in January 2019. At present over 17,000 square km in England is licensed for shale gas exploration – an area roughly equivalent to the size of Wales.
Changes to Planning Requirements?
On 17 May 2018 Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government) announced proposals to make changes to the planning system to make it easier to drill for shale gas in England. If the proposals are approved drilling in future will be classified as 'permitted development'. This was introduced originally so that home owners could make modest changes to their properties - like small extensions - without the need for a planning application. For the Government's written statement click here.
Secondly, it was proposed that fracking should be considered as Nationally Significant Infrastructure and that all projects should be decided by a national planning process. Both of these proposals would remove local councils planning powers over fracking as well as any input from local communities.
Extending the definition of permitted development means that drilling could proceed without the need for planning applications, environmental impact assessments or local democratic participation.
In addition, the Government announced the creation of a new Shale Environment Regulator. This came into place in October 2018.
The Shale Environment Regulator Group is a single interface for mineral planning and industry. It is a virtual entity bringing together the regulators of the onshore oil and gas sectors including shale gas operations. This streamlines access to information from the three regulators - Environment Agency, Health & Safety Executive and the Oil & Gas Authority. Three employees from the Environment Agency have been deployed to support the new entity at a cost of £75000 a year. The new entity is not a statutory body and has no new powers or regulatory responsibilities, these remain with the three regulators.
Nationally CPRE believes that there should be a moratorium on shale gas extraction – fracking – unless it can be demonstrated that it will
- Help secure radical reductions in carbon emissions
- Not lead to unacceptable cumulative harm
- Be carefully controlled by effective regulatory and planning systems
Currently, fracking must pause if an earthquake greater than 0.5 magnitudes on the Richter scale occurs. This has happened on a number of occasions in Lancashire. There are reports that the industry – who helped design the regulations in the first place - wants this limit raised, allowing bigger earthquakes so operations are not interrupted. The limit is 4.0 in the United States of America - where over one million wells have been drilled - and 2.5 in Europe. CPRE continues to oppose moves to weaken the regulations on fracking which were described as world-beating by the Government when they were introduced.
In January 2019 the Government announced that it had no intention of altering the regulations.
In March 2019 the High Court ruled that Government guidance on fracking in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was unlawful. Ministers had been advising councils that gas from fracking would help combat climate change. The NPPF said that local councils should ’recognise the benefits of on-shore oil and gas development…….for the security of energy supplies and supporting the transition to a low-carbon economy.’ It added that planning authorities should ‘put in place policies to facilitate exploration and extraction’. The Government has not yet amended the NPPF.
In May 2019 the Government’s fracking Commissioner – Natascha Engel – announced her resignation on the grounds that the current limits on mini earthquakes made fracking impossible. The Commissioners post had been created to provide confidence in the regulatory framework for local communities, the industry and the regulator.