Recent local press reports (Bath Chronicle, Chew Valley Gazette) have trumpeted the news that Ben Howlett MP (Bath) and James Heappey MP (Wells) have been assured by Andrea Leadsom, Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change, that North East Somerset and the Mendips are not in the ‘shale prospective area’ and that there is “no frackable shale gas to be found” with Mr Howlett adding that “I am delighted to find that Bath and the Mendips do not have frackable shale gas under the surface and is therefore safe from the risk of fracking”.
However these statements miss the point that the primary hydrocarbon of interest to the gas companies in the area is Coalbed Methane (CBM) not Shale Gas. The previous licence holder for BANES/Mendip, UK Methane, said in its PEDL 227 relinquishment report (September 2015) that:
“The licence is still possibly prospective for:
- Coal Bed Methane in the Westphalian Coal Measure
- Namurian Shale Gas
- Avon Group (Lower Limestone Shale) – Shale Gas Potential
- Devonian – Potential Conventional Play in Variscan structures”
The latest maps of Andrea Leadsom’s own department (updated 21/12/2015) show that more than 1,000 square kilometres of the West Country have just been licensed for onshore oil and gas exploration including the Somerset-Wiltshire border, the Forest of Dean and the Somerset coast from Clevedon to Minehead – despite none of these licenses being in the shale prospective area. At the time of the 14th Onshore Licensing Round UK Methane were still sitting on the Mendip PEDL so it couldn’t be put forward for consideration.
Despite what Andrea Leadsom has said there is nothing stopping the Bristol-Somerset coalfield being licensed yet again in the next licensing round for exploration of CBM. It is worth noting that the safeguards to shale gas fracking in the Infrastructure Act 2015 do not apply to CBM including surface drilling in protected areas such as AONBs and World Heritage Sites and fracking at depths as shallow as 200m.
So this good news story rings rather hollow. Nothing has changed except a larger area of Somerset is now licensed for oil and gas exploration than ever before.