Do legal safeguards relating to fracking for Shale Gas apply to Coalbed Methane in Somerset?

Safeguard: A measure taken to protect someone or something or to prevent something undesirable

The Infrastructure Act 2015 contains a list of twelve onshore hydraulic fracturing safeguards.

The list of safeguards is quite long (see below) and includes a condition that “prohibits associated hydraulic fracturing from taking place in land at a depth of less than 1000 metres”, a condition prohibiting “associated hydraulic fracturing” from taking place in groundwater protection source areas and other protected areas such as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty  and a condition ensuring that methane in ground water will be monitored for 12 months prior to commencing “associated hydraulic fracturing”.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has confirmed to FFCV that the definition of “associated hydraulic fracturing” in the Petroleum Act 1998 and the Infrastructure Act 2015 DOES NOT APPLY to Coalbed Methane (CBM).  It follows therefore than none of the legal safeguards in the Act apply to CBM either.

The government’s definition of associated hydraulic fracturing “means hydraulic fracturing of shale or strata encased in shale” and does not include coal where coalbed methane is found.  On this issue DECC have said “To confirm, this definition does not apply to CBM“.  CBM is the primary unconventional gas of interest in the Bristol-Somerset coalfield.

MP for North East Somerset, Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, voted for the Infrastructure Act and has said in letters to concerned constituents:

J R-M: “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

This is an obtuse way of saying that fracking will not occur in the top 5000 feet depth from the surface (although this is not actually correct as the Act says 1000m which is 3280 feet).  According to DECC this does not apply to CBM in Somerset. The Government’s Planning Portal states that CBM extraction “is likely to be achievable between 200 and 1500 metres”. There would appear to be no legal safeguard prohibiting fracturing of coal for CBM at depths as shallow as 200m either outside or inside the Mendip Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

J R-M: “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

According to DECC this does not apply to CBM in Somerset. This is because the protection is contingent on the definition of associated hydraulic fracturing not the definition of protected areas such as AONBs.

J R-M: “The length of time during which companies must monitor the environment at a fracking site before work commences has also increased from a voluntary three-month period to a mandatory twelve month period

According to DECC the condition to monitor methane in groundwater for 12 months before fracturing does not apply to CBM in Somerset. This is because the protection is contingent on the definition of associated hydraulic fracturing which doesn’t apply to CBM.

J R-M: “There is a provision for compensation payments to affected communities”

According to DECC this won’t apply to CBM as the Act only applies to shale gas. Any payment would therefore be voluntary under the industry’s code.

J R-M: “I voted for the Bill as I am confident that the risks are tolerable

In relation to coalbed methane in Somerset Mr Rees-Mogg does not appear to know what law and safeguards apply or do not apply, so how can he assess the risks of coalbed methane production in his constituency?

According to the Somerset Guardian Mr Rees-Mogg has urged local residents to ignore ‘scare stories and scaremongering‘ around fracking and has ‘dismissed the concerns voiced by opponents‘. He has also said that “lack of information about the locations, size and scale of exploration works was in part to blame for the anxiety” whereas the location, size and scale of exploration work is well known because the American Coalbed Methane industry has described it in some detail – see the GeoMet report – and is the cause of much anxiety!

Resources

Feeling anxious?

Fracking safeguards that don’t apply to Coalbed Methane in the Bristol-Somerset coalfield?

The Infrastructure Act 2015 and changes to the Petroleum Act 1998 have a number of onshore hydraulic fracturing “safeguards” which only apply to Shale Gas, including:

(a) a condition which prohibits associated hydraulic fracturing from taking place in land at a depth of less than 1000 metres;

In addition to this are a set of conditions, including:

  1. The environmental impact of the development which includes the relevant well has been taken into account by the local planning authority
  2. Appropriate arrangements have been made for the independent inspection of the integrity of the relevant well
  3. The level of methane in groundwater has, or will have, been monitored in the period of 12 months before the associated hydraulic fracturing begins
  4. Appropriate arrangements have been made for the monitoring of emissions of methane into the air
  5. The associated hydraulic fracturing will not take place within protected groundwater source areas
  6. The associated hydraulic fracturing will not take place within other protected areas
  7. In considering an application for the relevant planning permission, the local planning authority has (where material) taken into account the cumulative effects of— (a) that application, and (b) other applications relating to exploitation of onshore petroleum obtainable by hydraulic fracturing
  8. The substances used, or expected to be used, in associated hydraulic fracturing— (a) are approved, or (b) are subject to approval, by the relevant environmental regulator
  9. In considering an application for the relevant planning permission, the local planning authority has considered whether to impose a restoration condition in relation to that development
  10. The relevant undertaker has been consulted before grant of the relevant planning permission
  11. The public was given notice of the application for the relevant planning permission

Plus two further conditions:

(a) that appropriate arrangements have been made for the publication of the results of the monitoring referred to in condition 4 in the table [above];

(b) that a scheme is in place to provide financial or other benefit for the local area.

What is “associated hydraulic fracturing”?

The Acts define “associated hydraulic fracturing as:

Associated hydraulic fracturing” means hydraulic fracturing of shale or strata encased in shale which —

(a) is carried out in connection with the use of the relevant well to search or bore for or get petroleum, and

(b) involves, or is expected to involve, the injection of—

(i) more than 1,000 cubic metres of fluid at each stage, or expected stage, of the hydraulic fracturing, or

(ii) more than 10,000 cubic metres of fluid in total.

NB DECC have confirmed that this definition DOES NOT APPLY to Coalbed Methane.

Advertisements

Trespass and the Infrastructure Bill

The law of trespass prevents others from crossing your property boundary without permission, including beneath the ground surface. Drilling across your boundary, even at depth, currently requires your permission. However, the government is drafting legislation in the Infrastructure Bill which would give licence holders the right to cross your boundary and use your land below 300m for petroleum exploration and extraction purposes, including drilling, fracturing, placing infrastructure and passing any substance into it and leaving it there.

According to the government this doesn’t apply to coalbed methane exploration because the permission to drill under your property can already be grated through the Coal Authority.  American coalbed methane experts have suggested extracting coalbed methane in Somerset between 152m and 1,524m (500-5,000ft).

In Somerset there is the possibility for both coalbed methane and shale gas exploration and development. If you don’t agree with the government changing the rights of access and use to your land then you might want to consider signing a petition to MPs to that effect: Petition to MPs: Stop Cameron’s new fracking law! The bill will have its third reading in Parliament on the 26th of January.

There is an existing exploration licence on the Mendips and the rest of the area, including most of the Chew Valley, is currently up for grabs by the gas companies but we won’t know until later in the year if any new licenses will be granted.

A rally is being organised in Westminster, 12.30 – 3pm on the 26th January, for people to demonstrate their opposition to fracking in the Infrastructure Bill.  As well as the issue of trespass, there will be consideration of a proposal for an outright ban on fracking.

Press Speculation on BGS Shale Gas Estimates

The British Geological Survey is expected to release its revised estimate of unconventional gas resources in the UK any time now. Elements of the press and some politicians continue to speculate what these figures might be, rather than wait for the figures to be published. Recent press estimates range from “Shale gas could heat all homes for 100 years” (The Telegraph 6th April, 2013 – by Louise Gray) to “Britain has shale gas for 1,500 years, but bills won’t be lower” (The Times, Feb 9th, 2013 – by Dominic Lawson).

The BGS figures should provide us with a better estimate than previously available. However, it is worth noting that:

  • Only a portion of the gas in the ground is technically recoverable, perhaps between 10% and 20%.
  • Only a portion of what is technically recoverable will be economically recoverable – no one currently knows how much.
  • In the South West 26% of households are not on the mains gas network, including entire villages in the Chew Valley. These households use other energy sources including bio-fuels such as wood, and fossil fuels such as oil, propane and liquid natural gas (methane). Some households use no fossil fuels for either heating or electricity.

Based on the existing British Geological Survey Estimate Professor David MacKay of Cambridge University, who is also the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, has said:

It is conceivable that the technical potential of shale gas in the UK could be very large:  shale gas tends to be found wherever there is coal, and the British Isles were blessed with a very large endowment of coal – a Saudi Arabia’s worth, roughly – so it is credible that the quantity of shale gas “in place” is comparably large. However, the quantity “in place” is not the same as the technically recoverable resource, which may be much smaller, since fracking typically releases only a minority of the gas that is in place.  Indeed it still remains perfectly possible that the technically recoverable resource (at an economic price) could be zero, because the yield from shale deposits varies by more than a factor of ten, depending on the precise chemical and mechanical properties of the host rock.  Those who say that the recoverable resource is enormous are cherry-picking the most optimistic projections of yield, based on the most productive shales in the USA.   But there is no reason to believe that the UK’s shales will have a productivity that is at the high end of the range.  The truth is that we don’t yet know.  This large uncertainty about the resource will be reduced if and when exploration and extraction take place in the UK; meanwhile, one central estimate of the UK’s technically recoverable shale gas resource is the British Geological Survey’s estimate of 5.3 trillion cubic feet (150 bn cubic metres). To put this quantity in context, UK natural gas consumption is roughly 100 bn cubic metres per year, so the BGS estimate corresponds to 1.5 years’ consumption.  When DECC receives any updated advice from the BGS, we will put this information on the DECC website.”

Commenting on another article by Dominic Lawson on climate change in the Independent newspaper, Professor MacKay has noted that “irresponsible journalism like Dominic Lawson’s deserves a good flushing”.