UK supports plans to classify fracking wells as "significant infrastructure"

By Kasia Patel
Published: Tuesday, 02 February 2016

The plans, which were leaked to environmental group Friends of the Earth, could list fracking wells in the UK as "nationally significant infrastructure", leading to local communities losing their say on oil and gas developments as the government attempts to speed up fracking developments in the country.

Communities in the UK could lose the right to regulate hydraulic fracturing (fracking) locally as part of Cabinet plans to grow the country’s shale oil and gas industry.

 Fracking it's happening_Matt Brown, via Flickr
Anti-fracking groups in the UK suffered a setback this week, after it emerged that the government is considering designating fracking wells as "nationally significant infrastructure" (source: Matt Brown, via Flickr). 

The paper reported that a 10-page plan, which was leaked to anti-fracking campaigners, revealed that as part of a move to expand the sector, three cabinet ministers expressed their support for fracking wells to be classified as "nationally significant infrastructure".

Should the plans go ahead, local councils would be prevented from blocking local drilling applications, with the decision lying in the hands of planning inspectors, speeding up the approval process in the UK.

According to environmental group Friends of the Earth, which obtained the documents, the proposed changes are "an attack on democracy".

UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG), the body which represents the interests of oil and gas exploration, extraction and storage companies, meanwhile, expressed its support for the government’s plans to strengthen energy security in the UK and to accelerate the move away from coal as a source of power generation.

According to the organisation, in the year 2000, the UK produced enough gas to cover its consumption needs. However, the country now relies on imports for nearly half of its natural gas requirements.

"This is a heavily regulated industry, with four separate regulators, all with their own suite of oversight," the organisation’s chief executive, Ken Cronin, said.

"Recent experience has shown that the planning process for exploration needs to be made quicker and within prescribed timescales. The time taken for planning decisions has soared from three months to over a year and this is prohibitively expensive for local councils and operators," Cronin added.

In June last year, the UK’s Lancashire County Council refused the application made by energy company Cuadrilla Resources to carry out fracking operations at the company’s Preston New Road site in the north of England on the grounds of noise and visual impact.

The decision was criticised at the time by the UKOOG, which Cronin described as "15 months of a long drawn out process", calling for a government review of the decision making procedure, noting the the recommended timeline for such planning decisions is 16 weeks.

Referring to the Telegraph’s article this week, Cronin said: "It is important that local people can put forward their point of view and they are assured that the highest standards of safety and environmental protection are met, but unless the industry can drill exploratory wells, we will not know whether gas can be produced safely and by 2030 80% of our gas will come from overseas."

If the development of its natural gas industry is accelerated as hoped, the UK could see an increase in demand for oilfield minerals such as barite (barytes), bentonite, calcium carbonate and gilsonite – used in drilling muds and casing – as well as for silica (frac) sand, kaolin and bauxite proppant materials needed in fracking.

Developments in the downturn

Last week, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced a series of measures to further support the UK’s oil and gas industry in the current downturn. Support will be delivered to the industry both by the government and Oil and Gas Authority (OGA), which will provide £700,000 ($1.09m*) of government funding towards a world class 3D visualisation facility at the Lyell Centre in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The centre, a JV between the British Geological Survey (BGS) and Heriot-Watt University, will use the funding on state-of-the-art equipment for the interpretation of complex geological and engineering data, supporting research to the industry and academia.

"The strong commitment from government to support this vital sector during this difficult economic downturn is very welcome," OGA CEO, Andy Samuel, said. "The endorsement of the City Region Deal and Oil and Gas Technology Centre will play an important role in anchoring the area’s future as an oil and gas hub, while the £20m government support to fund more seismic surveys is a welcome boost to increase exploration."

In December, The UK government awarded additional fracking licences to 14 companies as part of its drive to encourage energy security.

The new licences were part of the second release of the government’s 14th Onshore Oil and Gas Licencing Round and included 93 licences for the exploration of 159 blocks of land  – a 50% increase in the total number of licences granted. 

The Conservative government in the UK has expressed its support for the fracking industry on a number of occasions, and last year urged local councils to speed up permitting decisions.

In November, The UK’s Energy and Climate Secretary, Amber Rudd, outlined the government’s energy policy "reset", which will include the phase out of all unabated coal-fired power plants by 2025 and a focus on the development of gas and nuclear energy.

Coal-fired power will be restricted from 2023 and cut completely by 2025, making the UK one of the first developed countries to commit to taking coal off the system.

Over half of UK public supports shale development, says survey

An alliance of UK trade organisations – including the UK Onshore Oil and Gas Association and the Chemicals Industries Association – last week called for a national dialogue on the use and supply of gas in the country.

The call follows research completed at the end of last year by ComRes, which said that 55% of the UK population want to prioritise gas produced in Britain, including shale gas production via fracking, over energy imported from overseas.

"This at a time when the prestigious Institution of Mechanical Engineers reports that the UK will face an unprecedented electricity supply gap in a decade’s time with a decline of up to 55% as coal-fired power stations are shut and nuclear power stations are decommissioned," the alliance warned.

Other organisations part of the group include the OESG, The Manufacturers’ Organisation (EEF), Oil and Gas UK and Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce.

According to the alliance, the research highlights a substantial level of support among the UK public for using UK produced gas over imported energy, as well as finding that 65% agree that natural gas has a role to play in helping the UK become a low carbon economy.

ComRes figures additionally showed that 56% of British adults surveyed agree that reducing the cost of energy should be prioritised over environmental concerns, given worries about high energy prices.

"This research highlights that the UK population is incredibly dependent on gas and is increasingly conscious of environmental issues," the energy director at the Chemical Industries Association, Nick Sturgeon, said. "As an industry we need to do more to ensure we explain the value of gas to the economy and the environment. Gas heats 84% of our homes, produces 30% of our electricity and is an essential ingredient in everyday items such as mobile phones and toothbrushes."

"Majorities of Britons are concerned about energy security and would like to see moves to a lower carbon economy," ComRes’ managing director, Katharine Peacock, said. "So while important, the debate around Britain’s energy makeup will need to address issues beyond cost alone."

Environmental concerns

Meanwhile, findings from a public opinion study by Nottingham University towards the end of last year put support for shale gas extraction at its lowest level to date – 46.5% overall and when divided by gender, just 31.5% of women were in favour.

In mid-January, hundreds of people took place in a demonstration, protesting against fracking in Upton, near Chester, following the eviction of activists from the IGas Energy Plc drilling site in the area.

The area had been cleared of protesters by bailiffs, with a total of nine people arrested during the operation, after campaigners – who had set up camp at the site in April 2014 – were served with an order of position by High Court Enforcement Officers in November 2015.

"This will not deter our community from visibly showing that IGas have no social licence in our area. A survey conducted by Frack Free Upton found 85% were against fracking taking place," a spokesperson for Frack Free Dee, one of the protest organisers, told IM.

*Conversions made February 2016

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