Policy

Providing regulation and licensing of energy industries and infrastructure

Supporting detail:

Developing shale gas and oil in the UK

Overview

The government believes that shale gas has the potential to provide the UK with greater energy security, growth and jobs. We are encouraging safe and environmentally sound exploration to determine this potential.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a technique used in the extraction of gas from shale rock and has been extensively used over the last 60 years – it is estimated that more than 2.5 million wells have been fracked worldwide.

The UK has a strong regulatory regime for exploratory activities but we want to continuously improve it. The UK has over 50 years of experience of regulating the onshore oil and gas industry nationally.

Facts about fracking

More information is available in our “Facts about fracking” series of booklets covering:

  • Water – including how water is managed and we minimise the risk of water sources being contaminated

  • Understanding earthquake risk – including the traffic light system for monitoring seismicity

  • Regulation and monitoring

  • Climate change

  • Local air quality – including what flaring is allowed and how emissions are monitored

  • Planning permission and communities – including local issues (visual impact, traffic movements, natural environment etc) are taken into account

  • Safety from design to decommissioning – particularly on how wells are designed and inspected

What is shale gas and oil and fracking?

Hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, is a technique used in the extraction of gas and oil from ‘shale’ rock formations by injecting water at high pressure. Shale gas is the same natural gas as is obtained from conventional gas fields, such as the North Sea.

What is the potential?

Scientists from the British Geological Survey (BGS) have estimated that the total volume of gas in the Bowland-Hodder shale in northern England is some 1300 trillion cubic feet (central estimate).

More information on what these estimates mean is available in our definition note on resources and reserves.

The British Geological Society’s Bowland Shale Gas study is the first in the UK to provide investors, operators and regulators with an indication of where to target future exploratory drilling. But it is not possible to estimate how much shale gas and oil the UK can produce until there has been some exploration and testing.

Evidence on safety and the environment

The Government takes the safety of the public and protection of the environment very seriously. The Government believes that the regulation is robust for exploration, but wants to continue to improve it. In 2012, the Royal Society reviewed the scientific and engineering evidence on shale gas extraction conducted by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society.

This concluded that “the health, safety and environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing (often termed ‘fracking’) as a means to extract shale gas can be managed effectively in the UK as long as operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation.”

In September 2013 Professor David MacKay (the DECC’s Chief Scientist) and Dr Timothy Stone wrote a report on potential greenhouse gas emissions from UK produced shale gas. They concluded that the overall effect of UK shale gas production on national emissions is likely, with the right safeguards, to be relatively small. Indeed emissions from the production and transport of UK shale gas would likely be lower than from the imported Liquefied Natural Gas that it could replace.

Public Health England assessed the risk to human health of extracting shale gas in an October 2013 report. They evaluated available evidence on issues including air quality, radon gas, naturally occurring radioactive materials, water contamination and waste water. They concluded that “the risks to public health from exposure to emissions from shale gas extraction are low if operations are properly run and regulated.”

More information is available in our “Facts about fracking” booklets.

Effective regulation

DECC works closely with regulatory partners to make sure any exploration and development activity associated with the development of new energy resources is safe and sustainable, but we continue to improve it.

The process of obtaining consent to drill a well is the same whether the well targets conventional or unconventional gas. Operators bid for exclusive rights to an area in competitive license rounds. The operator then needs the landowner’s and planning permission, which may require an environmental impact assessment.

They also need environmental permits (from either the Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales, or the Scottish Environment Protection Agency). The Environment Agency ensures that any shale gas operations are conducted in a way that protects people and the environment. The Environment Agency’s environmental permitting regulations cover:

  • protecting water resources, including groundwater (aquifers) as well as assessing and approving the use of chemicals which form part of the hydraulic fracturing fluid
  • appropriate treatment and disposal of mining waste produced during the borehole drilling and hydraulic fracturing process
  • suitable treatment and management of any naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM)
  • disposal of waste gases through flaring

The Environment Agency is also a statutory consultee in the planning process and provides local mineral planning authorities (normally the county or unitary local authority) with advice on the potential risks to the environment from individual gas exploration and extraction sites.

The operator must notify the Health and Safety Executive of the well design and operation plans at least 21 days before drilling is due to start. The Health and Safety Executive inspects the well design to ensure that measures are in place to control major hazards to people from well-related activities and accidents. They then seek final consent from DECC.

DECC’s Regulatory Roadmap publication provides detailed information on the process operators must follow when seeking to drill for any form of onshore oil and gas in the UK.

Community and public engagement

The shale gas and oil industry has set out their commitment to community engagement in its Charter. This Charter sets out what communities can expect from companies developing shale in their areas. Operators will engage communities in advance of any application for planning permission and then again at each stage of development.

The industry has committed to a package for communities that host shale development. This includes:

  • At exploration stage, £100,000 in community benefits per well-site where fracking takes place

  • 1% of revenues at production will be paid out to communities.

  • Operators will publish evidence each year of how they have met these commitments.

This Charter and offer to communities will be regularly reviewed as the industry develops and operators consult with communities. For more information on the Community Engagement charter please visit the website of the UK Onshore Operators Group, the trade body for companies developing shale gas and oil.

For more information on the Community Engagement charter please visit the website of the UK Onshore Operators Group, the trade body for companies developing shale gas and oil.

Exploration in your area

Oil and gas sites have long been part of the landscape in many parts of Great Britain. Around 2,100 conventional wells have been drilled in the UK. The industry expects 20-40 new sites to be started in the next couple of years.

There are 176 Petroleum Exploration Development Licences (PEDL) for onshore oil and gas in the UK. We plan to conduct a new round of onshore licensing (the 14th) in 2014 and we are conducting the necessary Strategic Environmental Assessment.

Licences themselves do not give consent for drilling or any other operations (see effective regulation above). Questions about future activity should be addressed to the operator. The industry has committed to early engagement with local communities to identify and address local issues and concerns proactively among other things.

DECC publishes a map of the currently licenced area. Another useful site is the UK Onshore Geophysical Library.

What is the Government doing to develop shale?

The Government established the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil (OUGO) in December 2012 to develop the shale gas industry in the UK. The Office is working closely with regulators and the industry to ensure that the regulatory regime is as clear and simple as possible while safeguarding public safety and protecting the environment.

We have made important early steps, for example:

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