Oil bonanza or shale fail? Reaction to the British Geological Survey report on oil and gas in the Weald

26th May 2014

“So much for Britain’s fracking revolution” said the Daily Mail in response to last week’s report on oil and gas potential in southern England. Usually a supporter of the government’s push for fracking, the paper headed its story:

How the oil field found beneath The Weald in Sussex, Hampshire and Kent contains just 0.5% of the North Sea total

The headline summed up much of the coverage of this long-waited and heavily pre-hyped document.

The report by British Geological Survey was commissioned by the Department for Energy and Climate Change and had been delayed until after the local elections. To coincide with its publication on Friday, the government also announced plans to change the trespass laws and increase community compensation payments.

Key points

  • 4.4 billion barrels – most likely estimate of oil in the Weald
  • 1-5% or up to 200 million barrels – estimate of what is recoverable
  • No significant potential for shale gas
  • Best oil potential in the central Weald from Kimmeridge Clay and Oxford Clay
  • Government 12-week consultation on changing the trespass laws to make it easier for companies to drill under property without the owner’s permission
  • The shale industry proposes a one-off community payment of £20,000 for each lateral well

More details from the report

No bonanza

The Mail quoted Professor Stuart Haszeldine, of Edinburgh University: “From the estimated 4.4 billion barrels, I would expect maybe 400 million barrels could be extracted, which is the equivalent of one North Sea oil field. The UK uses 500 million barrels per year, so it’s a lot of bother for one year’s supply.”

The Telegraph took a similar line, quoting Robert Gatliffe, Director of Energy at the BGS, as saying “It is not a huge bonanza”. And the headline in the Financial Times read: “Home Counties shale oil survey finds ‘no bonanza’””

The Independent asked:

No gas found in the Weald basin: Does this spell the end of the Government’s dream of a fracking revolution?

It quoted Dr Robert Gross, director of the Centre for Energy Policy and Technology at Imperial College London: “This survey underlines the need to keep a sense of perspective about the prospects for land-based fossil fuel production in the UK. It is highly unlikely that the UK will replicate the US experience in the foreseeable future.” Bob Ward, director of policy at the London School of Economics Grantham Research Institute, told the paper the findings “do not substantiate the continuing hype surrounding the UK’s shale gas and oil resources”.

Colin Barras for New Scientist magazine wrote: “The UK’s new oil rush may have ended before it even began. There are several billion barrels of oil under south-east England, according to a new report, but it may not be worth drilling for it”. The magazine quoted petroleum geologist, Andrew Aplin, of Durham University, as saying only one per cent of the resource estimated by the BGS in the Weald could be extracted – between 22 and 86 million barrels. “That would be about two months’ consumption,” says Aplin. “It doesn’t seem like a very big prize to me.”

Fracking critic Alan Tootill wrote on his blog: “The Tory dream bubble of a shale gas revolution in the south has burst”. He also pointed to the report’s cool view of likely production from shale oil. “Fracking on its own may not be enough”, he said. “Further treatment, ie heating the rock in situ – a complicated and energy-wasting process – might be needed.” He said shale oil would not have any impact on energy imports or security. “Fracking the south for oil would be pointless and crazy.”

Talking up the findings

There were attempts to talk up the findings. CityAM headlined its story: “Oil rush in the Home Counties”. Above a map entitled Southern England Set for Shale Bonanza, the story said: “Today’s discovery could have implications for the UK’s long-term energy security and prompt more hydraulic fracturing in Britain”. But the timing on this story suggests it was released to the web eight hours before the survey was officially published.

Reuters reported “huge shale oil reserves” in the south and “huge shale gas finds in north have fuelled fracking boom”, while the Brighton Argus on Saturday morning said: “Sussex is sat on a massive oil field that could lead to fracking all over the county.” It added: “Experts say the discovery could produce enough energy to power the country for at least the next 40 years.”

Nick Grealy, of tweeted “Thus Weald may have only $29.7 billion to $39.6 billion of resource. Is that a shale fail?” And Dan Lewis, energy policy adviser at the Institute of Directors, told the Guardian said:

It’s clear that there are significant reserves of shale gas and oil in the UK, and these new estimates must prompt the government to act quickly to unleash the fracking industry. The only way we will know exactly how much gas and oil can be recovered is by allowing more exploration.

Fracking to go ahead – Fallon

Energy minister, Michael Fallon, refused to admit to disappointment that the BGS had failed to find gas in the Weald or larger volumes of oil. He told the FT: “It’s not for me to be disappointed or happy. The BGS has concluded there isn’t any shale gas potential [in the Weald] but there is for shale oil. It’s too early to state categorically how much of that resource is recoverable.”

Mr Fallon told the BBC: “Shale development will bring jobs and business opportunities. We are keen for shale and geothermal exploration to go ahead while protecting residents through the robust regulation that is in place.”

Fracking in the South Downs National Park

The Telegraph quoted Mr Fallon as saying fracking should take place in the Weald, even though the areas with highest potential identified by the BGS are in the South Downs National Park, as well as the Surrey Hills and High Weald Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

He said the potential shale oil in the region could still be a “significant addition to our home-grown energy supplies that we cannot afford to ignore”. He said “It is in the national interest that we do everything we can to find out how much of this potential can be brought into production.”

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (Sussex) told the West Sussex County Times it opposed any plans to extract oil or gas in the South Downs National Park. It said this would affect the appearance, traffic and pollution levels of the area. The organisation’s director, Georgia Wrighton, said “Local impacts such as the industrial appearance of rigs, HGV traffic levels and light pollution would cause unjustifiable damage to these special areas. It is in all our interests to be promoting other lower carbon sources of energy where we can.”

Change to trespass laws

Farmers’ Guardian carried criticism by the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) of government plans to change the trespass laws to make it easier for give oil and gas companies to drill. The CLA said the shale gas industry had provided no evidence to demonstrate the changes were necessary. It also said landowners must be protected against liability if fracking causes negative long-term effects on their land.

Greenpeace argued in the Guardian that the whole shale project was misguided. “Stripping away people’s property rights while trying to kick off a Klondike-styleshale oilrush in the home counties is a highly toxic policy mix,” said Lawrence Carter, the group’s UK energy campaigner.

Additional compensation plans

Lawrence Carter was also quoted in Energy Voice: “Dangling larger bribes in front of communities won’t quell their deep concerns about fracking”, he said. There were also calls from Sir Merrick Cockell, chairman of the Local Government Association, for community payments of between five and 10 per cent of revenues from production.

One unidentified Tory MP whose constituency is likely to experience fracking told the Telegraph: “Every man’s house is his castle. People feel it is their field or their house. If you are seen to strip their rights, you need to accompany that with proper money,” he said. Referring to an erroneous suggestion that communities would receive £800,000, he added:

There is an awful lot of not quite being straight with people.

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