Fracking & the Weights and Measures Act 1824

Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg MP has recently replied to constituents who expressed their concern about fracking in relation to the Infrastructure Bill. The Bill has now passed into law as the Infrastructure Act 2015 after MP’s were given just one hour to debate the Lords’ revised and watered down amendments.

Mr Rees-Mogg jumped the gun by replying before the Lords’ amendments were approved by Parliament and stated that “The Government made a number of alterations to the Bill such as declaring an outright ban on fracking in National Parks and, of particular relevance to North East Somerset, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty” – whereas the Lords have watered this down to allow horizontal drilling under national parks and AONBs so long as it starts outside the areas. World Heritage sites such as The City of Bath are protected.

In his letter Mr Rees-Mogg also states:

“The Government has proposed to allow developers to access the ground up to 5000 feet below private land without the risk of breaching trespassing laws”

The trouble is that 1000 metres does not equal 5000 feet, it is not even close.

If Mr Rees-Mogg insists on using the Weights and Measures Act 1824 as his standard for measurement then he should make more effort to get the conversion right. Any school pupil will tell you that 1000 metres is about 3000 feet, not 5000 feet. More precisely it is 3281 feet. So, Mr Rees-Mogg has exaggerated the depth at which trespass extends by a factor of 1/3. It is hard to imagine how he came up with the figure of 5000 feet unless he was thinking about the maximum (rather than the minimum) depth that coalbed methane (CBM) can be extracted from the Somerset coal seams.

What is equally worrying as Mr Rees-Mogg’s innumeracy is that the Infrastructure Act doesn’t seem to apply to CBM. The Coal Act already gives powers for drilling in coal seams without trespass. During the limited debate on the Bill Tessa Munt MP asked in relation to CBM whether “there should be a prohibition on all gas exploitation at depths of less than 1,000 metres?  but she received no reply.

On CBM extraction the Government’s Planning Guidance says:

“Extraction is likely to be achievable between 200 and 1500 metres, depending on the coal permeability and other issues. At shallower depths the gas pressure in the coal is likely to be insufficient, while at depths greater than 1500 metres the pressure of the overlying strata is likely to have reduced coal permeability restricting the flow of methane.”

The GeoMet Inc assessment of CBM in Somerset suggested extracting coalbed methane at depths between 152m (500 feet) and 1524m (5000 feet) and there would seem to be nothing in the Infrastructure Act to prevent that happening.

Despite a Freedom of Information Request and an appeal the Department of Energy and Climate Change has declined to say where in Somerset gas companies have applied for new licenses as part of the 14th onshore licensing round. Almost everywhere in the Bristol Somerset coalfield, apart from the City of Bath, is therefore still at risk of becoming a gas field. UK Methane are expected to apply for planning permission for test drilling in PEDL 227 at any time.

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