What's the future for fracking?

The number of applications from developers to frack for shale gas can be counted on the fingers of one hand. But can planning authorities expect many more in the years ahead, asks John Geoghegan.

Fracking: industry has got off to a slow start in UK
Fracking: industry has got off to a slow start in UK

The government's go-ahead this month for hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", for shale gas at a site in Lancashire has been hailed as a landmark moment for promoters. The appeal decision by communities secretary Sajid Javid was only the second permission for onshore shale gas fracking in the UK in six years. Are we finally set for the "shale gas revolution" declared by David Cameron back in 2012. 

In policy terms, England is the only UK nation to lay out the welcome mat to fracking, introducing a number of planning changes last year to support shale gas exploration. In sharp contrast, Scotland and Wales have both effectively declared moratoriums, while Northern Ireland has introduced tough planning policies for fracking. Even then, the rate of planning permissions for fracking has been slow.

The first permission where the procedure was actually carried out was for a well at Preese Hall, Lancashire, granted to shale gas company Cuadrilla Resources in 2009. However, when exploratory drilling infamously resulted in a minor earthquake in 2011, work was abandoned and the government announced a 13-month moratorium on fracking.

Though a number of shale gas applications were approved around 2009 and 2010, mostly for Cuadrilla to explore sites in Lancashire, these did not all necessarily involve fracking. Catherine Howard, planning partner at law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, says that applicants at the time tended not to specify extraction techniques because fracking was uncontroversial in the eyes of decision-makers.

Since the moratorium, with growing public concern about such techniques, the number of fracking applications submitted has been a trickle. Four applications by Cuadrilla to exploratory frack two sites in Lancashire, at Roseacre Wood and Preston New Road were refused by Lancashire County Council in June last year. Following an appeal, Javid allowed three of the applications and deferred a decision on the fourth.

This year saw the UK's first permission for onshore fracking since 2010, granted in May by North Yorkshire County Council. This allows Third Energy to frack an existing well at Kirby Misperton in North Yorkshire, for both exploration and production of shale gas. However, the decision is now subject to a judicial review challenged by environmental charity Friends of the Earth (FoE) and local group Frack Free Ryedale, with a hearing scheduled for 23 and 24 November.

These sites represent the only live applications for fracking. Other current applications, like one from iGas in Nottinghamshire that is yet to be determined, involve conventional drilling methods.

How many more applications can we expect? According to industry website ICIS, energy firm INEOS plan to submit 30 applications for shale gas exploration in the next year, including five by the end of 2016. These would reportedly be for drilling vertical wells, but, if testing results are positive, INEOS could apply for fracking of these sites.

Cuadrilla chief executive Francis Egan says the firm is unable to say how many fracking applications the company might submit until initial exploration reveals the level of reserves. He says: "Flow rates will determine whether the shale gas resources are economically viable. That early data, along with other geological and planning factors, will determine where further drilling sites will be. Our future planning applications will be guided by these results."

He says hydraulic fracturing and initial flow testing at the Preston New Road site should take place in the second half of next year and expects reliable data to emerge in 2018. But the company has no immediate plans for fracking applications beyond the current sites, he says.

A spokesman for Third Energy says until the firm knows if it can carry out testing at Kirby Misperton and determines the well's flow rates, "we cannot predict what our plans will be". He adds: "Any operations will be within Third Energy's licence areas in North Yorkshire."

Given the uncertainties involved, many experts are also reluctant to estimate application numbers. However, Stuart Andrews, head of planning at law firm Eversheds, says he would expect about 20 to 30 a year from the end of this year. The Cuadrilla appeal victories and, if it is positive for the applicant, the Third Energy High Court decision are both likely to boost the appetite of the shale gas sector for further applications, says Andrews.

He says: "I would expect the Cuadrilla decision to give some confidence to the industry and to prompt further applications. Having greater clarity on the planning process through court and secretary of state decisions undoubtedly assists in making sure future applications are effective and compliant with legal and policy requirements."

Matthew Sheppard, head of environmental impact assessment at consultancy Turley, says the appeal decisions "will bolster the industry a bit" but the commercial viability of the early shale wells would be a bigger factor. He says: "The first handful of appraisal wells need to work if we're going to see applications from other players start to take off over the next few years." Sheppard identifies INEOS, Cuadrilla, Third Energy and iGas as the leading potential future applicants, with INEOS likely to submit a high number of applications in the five years ahead. "Will we have 100 applications in the next five years?" he asks. "I wouldn't think we would get to that level, but it's anybody's guess."

Environmental campaigners fear the number could be much higher. A spokesman for anti-fracking pressure group Frack Off says the industry is generally "playing down the numbers" of sites and planning applications because of concerns over prompting further opposition from objectors.

FoE regional campaigner Simon Bowens says that, if the industry develops in the way that it intends, "we are likely to see hundreds of applications, though it's uncertain at the moment when these will come forward".

Bowens claims that a tendering advert from INEOS suggests that, once the shale gas production stage is reached, each petroleum exploration and development licence (PEDL) block could contain up to 30 well sites. With over 150 such licence blocks now issued, Bowens says this could result in up to 4,500 applications.

But he acknowledges the number could be "much lower" as some licences cover national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, where fracking wells are prohibited by licensing restrictions introduced under the Infrastructure Act 2015.

These estimates are dismissed by trade body UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG). Ken Cronin, its chief executive, says: "INEOS has already said that the 30 wells per licence estimate, which FoE continues to quote, was an error. The reality is that the number will be significantly less than the thousands used by anti-fracking groups". Nonetheless, he says that is is impossible to predict accurate numbers at present "because we need to test the geology."

Lonek Wojtulewicz, the Planning Officers Society's minerals and waste specialist and head of planning at Leicestershire County Council, highlights areas where the government issued PEDLs, allowing onshore oil and gas exploration, as a good indicator of where future applications are likely to be. Areas of interest, he says, include the East Midlands, Yorkshire, and Lancashire, the swathe of the country that covers the geological formation known as the Bowland Shale. He also mentions parts of Dorset, Sussex, Devon and Gloucestershire. FoE planning adviser Naomi Luhde-Thompson adds Cheshire and Merseyside to the list.

Despite the "clear challenges" in relation to planning, Howard says the appetite among promoters is strong. "The government's new round of petroleum licensing late last year was heavily subscribed, indicating a continued level of interest," she says. While it may be difficult to quantify the number, it looks likely that more fracking applications in England are on the way.

FRACKING TIMELINE

October 2009 First planning application for onshore fracking at Preese Hall approved by Lancashire County Council.

November 2011 Government declares 13-month fracking moratorium following minor earthquake due to Preese Hall fracking.

June 2015 Lancashire County Council refuses Cuadrilla permission for fracking at Roseacre Wood and Preston New Road.

May 2016 North Yorkshire County Council approves Third Energy's application for fracking at Kirby Misperton.

October 2016 Communities secretary Sajid Javid allows three appeals to overturn the Roseacre Wood and Preston New Road refusals, but defers a decision on the fourth application.

November 2016 High Court hearing on judicial review of Kirby Misperton approval.

Early 2018 Cuadrilla says it will be in a position to decide whether to pursue further fracking planning applications.

2020 Industry body UKOOG believes commercial production of shale could begin.


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