Signs are reassuring so far, but we must be vigilant for any signs of change.  Please keep asking questions of your councillors.

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Briefing Note on Potential Shale Gas Exploration and Extraction in Devon – December 2012

Key Points
• it would be unlawful for the County Council to pursue a blanket resolution to oppose planning applications for shale gas exploration or extraction;

• no part of Devon is currently licensed for any form of oil or gas exploration, and the current round of licensing is still at an early stage;

• geological formations with potential for shale gas are limited to the Lias group in the eastern corner of Devon, which are on the fringe of the extensive Lias outcrop and not at sufficient depth to be viable;

• while the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), particularly in terms of water resources and land stability, can be serious, the letter from Frack Free Devon overstates the likelihood of proposals being put forward in Devon.

Background
The issue of shale gas production in the UK, and in particular the process of hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’), has been prominent in the media over the past year due to concerns over the environmental impacts including on groundwater and land stability.

A campaign group, Frack Free Devon, has written to County Councillors requesting that Devon County Council passes a motion “banning Hydraulic Fracturing within its boundary”.  Subsequently, Cllr Gordon Hook has submitted a motion for the County Council meeting on 26th July 2012 to the effect that

“This Council will oppose any application seeking to extract shale gas by means of the process known as ‘Fracking’”.

Notwithstanding the characteristics of shale gas extraction, it is unlawful for the Council to adopt a blanket resolution opposing any planning applications as this effectively prevents it considering an application in the manner it is required to, i.e. in accordance with the development plan and other material considerations.

Regulatory Process
The regulatory process governing oil and gas exploration and extraction is complex, involving the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the mineral planning authority (i.e. Devon County Council), the Environment Agency and Health & Safety Executive.  Briefly, the main steps are:

• DECC issues a licence in competitive offerings (Licence Rounds) which grants exclusivity to operators in the licence area, but the licences do not give consent for drilling or any other operations;

• planning permission is sought from the mineral planning authority, normally accompanied by an Environmental Statement;

• if necessary, an environmental permit is obtained from the Environment Agency;

• assuming planning permission has been granted, an application to drill is submitted to DECC, with notification of drilling to the Health & Safety Executive.

There are no areas within Devon that are currently licensed for any form of oil and gas exploration or extraction.  The nearest licensed areas are South Wales, north-east Somerset and central/east Dorset, with the closest operational sites being within the Wytch Farm oilfield in Dorset.

DECC are proposing a new (14th) round of licensing for onshore oil and gas, with the potential area including the eastern part of Devon (see attached map).  The derivation of this area is unclear, but may have been drawn to include the Wessex Basin (see below).

Before undertaking the 14th round, DECC has carried out Strategic Environmental Assessment, with an Environmental Report published for consultation in July 2010.  The current position is that DECC is:

“considering the [SEA consultation] responses and a government response will be issued as soon as possible.  DECC will then be in a position, subject to publication in the Official Journal of the European Union of an appropriate notice, to invite applications in the UK’s 14th Onshore Oil and Gas Licensing Round.”

Officers will continue to monitor the licensing process, and confirmation has been requested from DECC of the arrangements for consulting local authorities during this process.

Policy Context
The National Planning Policy Framework provides the following limited guidance:

“when planning for on-shore oil and gas development, including unconventional hydrocarbons [e.g. shale gas], clearly distinguish between the three phases of development (exploration, appraisal and production) and address constraints on production and processing in areas that are licensed for oil and gas exploration or production [emphasis added]”.

This wording implies that planning for oil and gas is only necessary in areas that are licensed.  As no part of Devon is licensed, this suggests that oil and gas are not issues that need to be addressed in the emerging Minerals Plan.

Shale Gas Extraction
Shale gas comprises methane recovered from mudrocks and shales that, unlike conventional gas, cannot be released by simply drilling boreholes.  Extraction of shale gas can only be achieved through hydraulic fracturing, involving the injection of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into horizontal boreholes.  The pressurised mixture causes the shale to crack, with the sand particles holding the fissures open and allowing the methane to flow out.  To ensure sufficient pressure for the gas to flow, and to achieve separation from water-bearing strata, a minimum depth of 1500 metres or more is necessary for gas extraction to be feasible.

Environmental impacts from hydraulic fracturing can include the large volume and contamination of the water used in the process; potential contamination of groundwater resources; generation of earthquake activity and impacts on land stability; and air pollution.

Shale Gas Development in the UK
Cuadrilla Resources were awarded a number of exploration licences by DECC in the 13th licensing round and have undertaken exploration in Lancashire.  Following two minor earthquakes in the Blackpool area, Cuadrilla has suspended its operations.

Permissions for exploratory boreholes have been granted in Kent, West Sussex, Surrey, South Wales and Lancashire (i.e. within areas currently licensed under the 13th or earlier rounds).

Geological Context
Areas within the UK with potential for shale gas are similar to those for onshore oil and gas generally, and include the Weald and Wessex Basins of southern England.  The Wessex Basin includes the eastern part of Devon (roughly east of a line passing through Paignton-Exeter-Tiverton), but not all of the geological formations within the basin are suitable for oil or gas.

An assessment by the British Geological Survey of potential shale gas resources identifies a range of geological formations that may have potential for shale gas.  One formation is the Lias that underlies large parts of eastern and southern England and hosts the Wytch Farm and Weald oil/petroleum resources.  This Lias formation extends a small distance into eastern Devon in the Axminster and Uplyme areas (see attached map), but is unlikely to occur at depths much in excess of 200 metres below surface.

Only one exploratory well for oil and gas has been sunk in Devon, at Musbury in 1986, with the results being negative.

Observations on the Letter from Frack Free Devon
“East Sussex have done this [ban fracking] recently”
East Sussex CC has not banned hydraulic fracturing.  Their resolution supported the temporary suspension of fracking in Lancashire, and requested that Members be briefed prior to any planning application being considered.

“…industry applications for…fracking are likely to be landing on your desk very soon.  Unbeknown to you…the Government…may already have issued licences for the development of hydraulic fracturing in Devon already”

DECC has not concluded the Strategic Environmental Assessment process for its 14th round of licensing, and has therefore not yet invited applications for licenses, let alone issued any.  DECC has advised that conclusion of the SEA process is “not imminent”.

“The eastern half of Devon has been identified as being a suitable area for exploration”
Although the Strategic Environmental Assessment report identifies the eastern part of Devon within its geographical scope, not all of this area will be suitable for oil and gas exploration due to the underlying geology, and it may be the case that the area to be offered in the 14th licensing round differs.  As mentioned above, only small parts of East Devon are underlain by the Lias formation that the BGS consider to offer potential for shale gas, with the parts of this formation already yielding oil or gas being located further east.